The historical parallels are dismal. Iran’s display of a captured United States Sentinel drone sparked painful memories, both of the shooting down of Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960 and of two American helicopters abandoned in an Iranian desert in 1980 while trying to free US hostages held in the Tehran embassy. Both examples speak of the failure — or abandonment — of diplomacy. At their best, diplomats are better than soldiers at defusing potentially dangerous situations. Hence the freezing of relations between Tehran and London should be seen as a new escalation in tension between Iran and the West.
When students stormed the British embassy in November in protest at new sanctions, their actions were vindictive. “They even slashed the paintings,” a British foreign office employee, formerly based in Iran, told me. “What’s the point of that?” There is one painting I remember from my own visits to the embassy. A British ambassador during the 19th-century refused to take off his boots in the Shah’s presence. “I take off my boots only for the Queen of England,” he insisted. Fortunately, a compromise was drawn up in which the ambassador wore outsize socks over his boots — a story told to me by a more recent ambassador who clearly enjoyed the diplomatic ingenuity.
In our own time, politicians seem set on denying diplomats the space for such initiative. The US Congress is even considering legislation to outlaw any contact with Iranian officials without specific presidential approval, while several leading deputies in Iran applauded the students’ actions in trashing the British embassy.
Back in November, as leaks abounded about the negative content of a looming report on Iran from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, used an old Farsi expression, ‘Marg yek bar, shivan yek bar’, meaning: ‘You die once, you are mourned once’. With a background in nuclear physics, the US-educated Salehi is more of a technocrat than a politician. Evidently frustrated, he may have meant that if the IAEA had incriminating evidence of Iran working on nuclear weapons, then it should publish it. I don’t think he meant that if the US and Israel planned to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, then they should go ahead.
In practice, while the IAEA report led to new sanctions from the US, Britain, the European Union and Canada, it was not sufficient for Russia and China to abandon their calls for renewed diplomacy and instead support increased United Nations sanctions. And in Tehran it was seized on — especially after the pre-launch leaks and hype — as proof of the credibility gap between US claims over the nuclear program and the reality of Iran’s peaceful, civil intentions.
As for the new sanctions, the EU added 180 Iranian officials and entities to a list of those whose assets may be seized, but it remains in doubt whether Europe will ban Iranian oil imports. Canada’s new measures, prohibiting exports to Iran’s energy sector and blocking monetary transactions, are largely symbolic. The UK has banned its financial sector from involvement in Iran, significantly raising the costs for British companies trading there.
As ever, the real damage could come from Washington. New energy measures prohibiting any person, US or foreign, from providing support — defined as annual investment of $20 million or more — to Iran’s petrochemical industry, will have limited effect, as existing measures already prohibit American companies from dealing with the Iranian energy sector and give the administration power to bar from the US market any foreign companies that do. But the US Treasury finding that Iran, including its central bank, is a “jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern”, may encourage greater international wariness over dealings with the country.
Washington’s new sanctions, like many existing ones, are extra-territorial, and hence enforcement by the administration against third parties will involve calculation. The Obama administration is being driven by pressures from congressmen and lobbyists vexed over China’s role in Iran.
But how far to go? While the State Department may now identify more Chinese or other foreign companies as engaged in sanctionable conduct in Iran, it remains to be seen whether Washington will completely dump diplomacy in the dust and bar them from the US market.
GARETH SMYTH has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran