Recent secret talks at ambassadorial level between Britain and Iran failed to dispel the hostility clouding their relations.
London accuses Tehran of fomenting trouble against the British forces controlling southern Iraq; Britain is charged with stirring up revolt among ethnic Arabs in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan opposite the southern Iraq oil town of Basra.
Revealing the failed round of diplomacy, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in London and Tehran predict a further deterioration in UK-Iranian relations in the weeks to come.
Tehran is certain that the bombs which struck the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz this month were smuggled in from Basra as a British reprisal for the souped up explosives Iran passed through the Hizballah to the insurgents who killed four British soldiers in al Amara in late September.
More than one cardinal issue figures in the row.
The Islamic Republic is considering an embargo on British imports as punishment for its “hostile attitude” on its nuclear program
The fiasco of the talks, which broke down without a new date, also placed British prime minister Tony Blair at odds with his foreign secretary Jack Straw. While Straw is all in favor of diplomacy for settling the row, Blair wants harsh treatment meted out to the Iranians. The result was conflicting statements issuing from London: The foreign secretary went on record as saying: “My own belief is that military action in respect of the nuclear dossier is inconceivable. One of the reasons it is inconceivable is that it is not on anybody’s agenda.”
Blair speaking on Sky News World Report this week refused to endorse his foreign secretary’s view that military confrontation with Iran is inconceivable.
The British embarked on these secret talks with Iran after their secret service MI6 caught wind of a secret decision taken in the office of Iran’s supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to revive Tehran’s clandestine links with extremist Muslim organizations in the United Kingdom.
The acrimony contrasts with long amity
The upshot of this consultation was an order to the Institution for the Dissemination of Islam (Iranian intelligence’s terrorist arm for operations in the United States) to revive its old ties with British Muslim radicals. This step would take the relationship back to the bad old 1980s, when the founder of the Islamic republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa decreeing the death of the British author Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses.
The British spent years chasing down the Iranian cells and putting them behind bars. They eventually managed to sever the links between the Muslim groups and Tehran.
Their restoration is a nightmarish prospect for the Britain of today, where Muslim communities are already up in arms. All they need is Tehran’s hand to stir the seething communal pot, especially one deeply penetrated by al Qaeda.
The dispute breaks into several years of amicable relations between Britain and Iran. Iranian clerics had got into the habit of visiting London for recreation, medical treatment and shopping. Tehran maintained an arms procurement office in London from the time of the Iran-Iraq war and maintained the main overseas offices of its national oil company in the British capital. In late 2004 and early 2005, Iran purchased some of its weapons from the UK.
Even after the US-led coalition invasion of Iraq brought the British to Iran’s doorstep in Iraq’s Shiite regions, London and Tehran got together quietly on a mutual deal: Iran would refrain from inciting the Shiites to rise up against the occupying British forces, while Iran would be allowed to send tens of thousands of Iraq Shiites back to their homeland. Their return was tagged officially as the repatriation of Iraqi dissidents granted asylum during the war with Iraq. Among them was Mohammed Baqer Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, and other leading Iraqi Shiites who have since gained positions in the new administration in Baghdad.
But Tehran did not scruple to use the mass transit into Iraq as a cover for planting in Iraq thousands of agents trained in guerrilla warfare.
Tehran-sponsored cells, both as a deterrent and punishment
These friendly relations of give-and-take turned sour in the summer of 2005 for two reasons:
1. The UK permitted the ethnic Arab separatists of Khuzestan to establish their overseas office in London and use it as a platform for their fight for autonomy or annexation to Iraq.
This office served as a covert liaison hub between British intelligence and military services and the various Arab opposition groups operating in Khuzestan. The anti-Tehran Arab intifada was allowed to send recruits over to British-ruled southern Iraq for training in sabotage with Iraqi military instructors. Iran claimed the British sponsored the training courses, or at least knew about them, and retaliated by using Hizballah agents to supply Shiite cells in Basra with shape, armor-piercing missiles and explosive devices.
The failed round of talks was intended to bring about a cessation of these tit-for-tat hostile acts.
2. Iran’s larger dispute with Britain is fought over London’s hard line on Iran’s nuclear activities. London is seen as adversely influencing Iran’s other two negotiating partners, France and Germany, and spearheading the European battle against Tehran’s nuclear program at the International Atomic Energy Agency board in Vienna. Tehran regards London as Washington’s agent in this regard. Iran’s clerical leaders hope to deter Britain by means of a new terrorist infrastructure among Britain’s radical Muslims. The cells will be activated as punishment should the British manage to get the Iranian nuclear issue referred to the UN Security Council for sanctions.
Khameinei has also tasked the radical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with looking into the reduction or cessation of imports from Britain and all the other nations which voted for a Security Council referral at the last board meeting in Vienna of the UN nuclear watchdog.