The Guardian: They didn’t want to do it, but after everything
that had happened, officials in the British embassy in Tehran had to bite the diplomatic bullet. The Guardian
Ahmadinejad’s victory spells trouble for nuclear talks, western engagement, and women’s rights, say diplomats
Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor
They didn’t want to do it, but after everything that had happened, officials in the British embassy in Tehran had to bite the diplomatic bullet.
A week ago they sent a cable, as the Foreign Office still quaintly refers to communications with its overseas staff, admitting it had misread recent events. It is the kind of cable staff hate having to write: confessing to having misread events on their patch.
But the embassy, in its prediction of the first round of the presidential elections on June 17, had completely failed to spot the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The first round was a surprise to them,” a Foreign Office source confirmed yesterday.
The Foreign Office is sanguine about the mistake, noting that there has been a long history of failure to assess correctly events in Iran, going back to the revolution in 1979 which the west failed to see coming. “Trying to predict events in Iran is a mug’s game,” a Foreign Office spokesman said, blaming the closed nature of much of Iranian politics.
Part of the reason the embassy had trouble foreseeing the emergence of Mr Ahmadinejad, says the Foreign Office, is that “he refuses to see us”. In his two years as mayor of Tehran, he has consistently turned down requests for meetings from the ambassador, Richard Dalton.
Having been caught out by the first round, the embassy last week hedged its bets in calling the second round on Friday, between Mr Ahmadinejad and the relatively moderate cleric, Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The Foreign Office did not have much enthusiasm for either, characterising the latter as the lesser of two evils.
But there was dismay in the Foreign Office yesterday at the election of Mr Ahmadinejad and a fear that the British policy of engagement with Iran, in contrast with the US which has opted for continued isolation, could be jeopardised.
Responses within the Foreign Office ranged from a depiction of Mr Ahmadinejad’s victory as retrograde step to an uncharacteristically blunt and undiplomatic description of him as “a headcase”. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was non-committal, urging Mr Ahmadinejad to address concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Foreign Office spokesman elaborated, saying the official policy for the time being was to “wait and see” but that “our analysis is this guy appears to be a throwback to the early 80s and that cannot be a good thing”.
The Foreign Office worry is he will seek to reverse the modest gains made by women, will be less prepared to engage with the west than the outgoing president, Mohammed Khatami, and less willing to compromise on Iran’s nuclear programme.
A Foreign Office source said: “It does not bode well for a nice, cuddly relationship.”
British ties with Iran over three decades have been fraught. In 1980, the embassy was closed, though links were maintained through a British interests section, attached to the Swedish embassy. In 1986, the head of the interests section, Edward Chaplin, was briefly kidnapped and for three years the section was closed when Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
The Labour victory in 1997 saw the then foreign secretary Robin Cook begin engagement with Iran that saw Ayatollah Khatami, a moderniser, lift the fatwa. The embassy was re-opened in 1998.
The policy of “critical engagement” has been strained over the past two years by suspicion in Washington, shared by the Foreign Office, that Iran is intent on buying the technology to build a nuclear bomb.
With the US and Iran far apart on the nuclear issue, Britain, with Germany and France, has been trying to negotiate a compromise and is trying to come up with some fresh ideas to put to the Iranians next month. “It was not looking good before this,” the Foreign Office source said. “We have a limited amount of time to come up with proposals.”
Political power rests not with the president but with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom the Foreign Office regularly refers to as “the Dark Side”. Ayatollah Khatami was seen as a moderating influence on Ayatollah Khamenei. The fear now is that Mr Ahmadinejad’s election removes that counterweight and instead he will happily reinforce the views and policy of the Dark Side.