| The Pathology of Iran-Britain Relations
|15 May 2006
Foreign Policy Department / Europe and America Studies Group
Great Britain is characterized in the international system as an active, important player, especially in the Middle East. If the European Union's Middle East policy has gained success in certain circumstances, Great Britain has played a decisive role in those successes. Nevertheless, despite its partnership in EU regional and international policies, Britain has maintained its special and close historic ties with the United States. During US military action against Iraq in 2003, Britain – unlike great European powers such as France and Germany -- stood firmly beside the United States. This harmony has been so great that if Washington would declare a change in its stance towards Iraq, Britain would support the new U.S. position.
This article seeks to examine various aspects of British foreign policy and to answer two important questions:
1. What factors and variables affect British foreign policy?
2. What kind of interactions and relations should the Islamic Republic have with Britain?
Determinants of British Foreign Policy
Generally speaking, foreign policy is a dependent variable affected by independent variables in world politics. British foreign policy is affected by various factors, including the following:
1- Political System
2- Cultural and Historical Background
3- Economic Factors
4- Geographical Setting
5- Political Elites and the International System
1- Political System
The United Kingdom is regarded as the world's leading parliamentary democracy. The country’s consultative and parliamentary system dates back to 800 years ago. Although at that time, monarchs tried to reduce the power of consultative institutions and to strengthen their own influence, the country witnessed the systemic stability and centrality of parliament after 1648, following the murder of the king. Parliamentary liberal democratic systems are characterized by moderation and tolerance in the domestic sphere, as well as by flexibility and mobility in foreign policy. Generally speaking, as we move from the north to the south on the European continent, the essence of orthodoxy and rule of law becomes diluted.
Most political experts believe that in British liberal democracy, if the governing party wins an election with a large margin – as was the case with the Labour Party, which established its lead with more 350 seats in the previous term – democracy will be weakened. This is because under such conditions, the prime minister can monopolize decision-making. Of course, no matter what the case, the prime minister possesses supreme power in the decision-making area.
2- Cultural-Historical Background
The British outlook toward the world, the East and the international system is traditional and based on the country's historical experience. In the area of public culture, people's attitudes and mentalities tend to be commercial- and business-oriented. Many Britons are motivated by material monetary interests. They are also able to transform unimportant and simple affairs into luxurious items. For instance, Britons are able to masterfully sell a product several times more expensive than its actual price. There is a famous saying that while most nations create vertical and horizontal lines, Britons create a zigzag and a tilted line. This cultural and dispositional character has brought them world-wide fame as producers of science, politics, trade, and finance. Britain's software and brain ware capability in policy-making derives from the country's efforts to gain more precise and broader information about regions and nations in comparison to other countries. These software capabilities are the product of several parameters:
I) Britain's colonial background
II) The country's research- and elite-oriented educational system
III) British tolerance spirit.
In other words, Britain has been flexible in accepting a variety of cultures and
subcultures. Applying these cultural factors to their attitudes in international politics has helped Britons reach conclusions about international developments more rapidly than do other countries. By adopting rapid and timely stances, Britons have determined the foreign policies of other European countries and occasionally that of the Untied States in most issues related to the Middle East. For instance, after Hamas’s decisive victory in the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections surprised European nations, it was Britain that determined the EU position, declaring that if Hamas would recognize Israel, the European Union would support the new government.
Because of their ability to play a central role in the international scene, Britons tend to act in line with the matrix of forces of the international system, thus having a lot of influence in the United Nations. For instance, for years the new UN political under-secretary general has been a Briton. In addition, 70 to 80 percent of the wording of the General Assembly's resolutions has taken shape according to British lawyers' opinions.
Nevertheless, an issue that has created a problem for British foreign policy in the past decades is the conspiracy theory. In other words, public distrust, particularly among the Britain's former colonies and the countries that were under its sphere of influence, has prevented those countries from deepening their relations with the United Kingdom. This trend was so apparent that it caused Tony Blair to highlight the existence of this conspiracy theory. British political elites hold a mixed view about the conspiracy theory: While they are concerned about the obstacles in their way, they are also delighted with the fact that such a perception might help revive the country's historical dreams of imperial power. Indeed, Britons consider as positive the fact that the outside world has a mysterious, complex and vague perception of them.
3- Economic Factors
Britain has the fourth strongest economy in the world and is the oldest trader and financier country in the international economy and financial arena. Today around 65 percent of international agreements are made according to British common law. The country’s main pillar of economic policies is built on providing financial and monetary services. For this reason, the London branches of most European banks are their largest, and British banks in other European countries and elsewhere in the world enjoy the largest network in the world.
Within recent years, Britain has experienced favorable economic growth. It also has the lowest inflation rate among European nations. A sample of statistics on Britain's Gross Domestic Product and Foreign Trade can be found in the following table.
In the energy (oil and gas) sector, Britain enjoys a privileged position in the European continent. Most of Britain’s hydrocarbon resources lay in the country’s continental shelf in the North Sea. Britain is the largest producer and exporter of oil and gas in Europe. It produces 2.38 million barrels of oil per day. 1.5 million barrels of this is exported; the rest is consumed domestically.
British oil and gas industry is fully privatized, and most of the world’s oil giants participate in the production of North Sea oil. The headquarters of Royal Dutch Shell, the second biggest multinational oil company in the world, and British Petroleum, the third largest, are both located in Britain.
4- Geographical Setting
Great Britain enjoys a special geopolitical location between the European and American continents. This situation made the country the most important international power and a naval superpower during the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century. The country’s geopolitical location has caused British foreign policy to have a dual nature, which is consistent with the nation’s characteristics.
In other words, according to geopolitical logic, Britain’s position as an island off the European continent has made Eurocentrism one of the main pillars of British foreign policy. On the other hand, according to geocultural logic, Britain’s territorial separation from continental Europe by the North Sea as well as its cultural and linguistic commonalties with its former colony the United States have created in Britain a sense of America-centrism. Therefore, Britain has been able to play the role of a balancer or a major player in international power equations while preserving its national interests and promoting its status in every possible situation.
5- Political Elites and the International System
British politicians have a traditional outlook toward international politics. They therefore believe in the British school of international relations. According to this school of thought, which is mainly represented by Hedley Bull, the foreign conducts of states are the result of interactions between two factors, namely the agency and structure, or the actor and arena of game. In theory, this interaction is based upon shared principles and values, such as independence, national sovereignty, non-intervention in internal affairs of other countries, international law, the balance of power, international order, and non-discrimination.
Many British scholars believe that diplomacy is a comparative advantage for the United Kingdom. The difference is that Britain used to take advantage of this tool for maintaining the balance of power in Europe and the international system. But nowadays it attempts to use this comparative advantage in order to sell its goods and products. In other words, while British diplomacy previously served as a competitive model for the balance of power, it must now be a catalyst for participatory models at the international level. That is to say, this tool can transform the international system from an international community into an international society. Hence, Britons as the founders of modern diplomacy assume a mission for themselves. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has founded his doctrine called ‘International Society’ upon this theoretical insight and therefore went along with the United States in attacking Iraq.
Process of Decision-Making in British Foreign Policy
The process of foreign policy decision-making in Britain is a product of the
interactions among three main institutions:
1- Foreign Office
The Foreign Office is the main decision-making body in this area, particularly
because the British Foreign Intelligence Service (MI6) acts under its auspices. Many experts believe that promotion of relations with Britain would be very easy if strong and firm ties would be established with the Foreign Office. However in certain periods, the Prime Minister’s office has been seen to possess more power than the Foreign Office in determining foreign policy. For instance, Blair’s office has acted much more decisively and definitively in shaping British foreign policy by taking advantage of advisors such as Peter Mandelson, Bigel and others. In this respect, some observers believe that Blair is actually more interested in a presidential democracy than in a parliamentary one. Blair even proceeded with issues related to war on Iraq outside the Cabinet and sidelined the Foreign Office.
2- Research Institutions
The influence of think tanks on British foreign policy is greatly evident. In principle, the British educational system is research-oriented and elitist, and the country’s academic system works to train its researchers in specific and specialized areas. The Foreign Office also pays special attention to the opinions of the researchers. For example, the Foreign Office continually sends Iran-related issues to Nick Brown, an Iranologist and diplomat based in Canada, for his opinions.
The media are in constant and regular interaction with the Foreign Office. In Britain, if one becomes able to establish ties with important publications and newspapers such as The Times, one can expect to influence the decision-making centers in the country’s foreign policy.
Britons have established a network among the Foreign Office, media and resident diplomats and the research institutions. This network contributes to a rapid circulation of information, gives Britons an upper hand in controlling the conditions, and at the same time consumes part of the energy and capacity of foreign resident diplomats. In brief, the following diagram depicts the circulation of information and analysis in London:
British Foreign Policy Orientation
The important question now is whether Great Britain is essentially inclined to which orientation toward the players in light of its historical, cultural, economic and geographical interests? In general, British foreign policy is exogenous, leaning to leadership and direction. It has become almost a habit for British authorities and diplomats to speak on behalf of the international community. Indeed, the public perception that the Britons always take the middle path is incorrect. As mentioned earlier about Britain and the Middle East, Britons shape the diplomacy of other European states toward the Middle East.
The case of Iraq is a clear example of the existence of the British hybrid policy (American-centrism and Arab-centrism). In other words, while cooperating with the United States in its attack on Iraq, Britain tried to independently influence Iraqi developments in certain areas and topics because Britons regard themselves as possessing information, experience and interests that the United States lacks or thinks differently about. Here, a covert rivalry is found between the two allies. The Britons did not agree with every US strategy in Iraq and therefore made efforts to independently influence the process of state-building in the country. Britain mobilized all its historical strength in the past in order to prevent the dissolution of the Ba'ath Party because from the British perspective, the power of the Ba'ath Party and any Sunni and secular organizations can help manage Iraq and revive the traditional power structure in which the real Shii weight and role will be overshadowed. This policy still continues to preclude the formation of a government with a strong Shii tendency in Iraq.
Iran-British Relations: A Pathological Approach
Iran's foreign policy toward Western states in the past 16 years has lacked consistency. In other words, the level of Iran's ties with regional states has been affected by temporary, imbalanced and changing factors. In a nutshell, the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran toward Western countries can be classified as follow:
1- The severance of diplomatic relations with the United States
2- The containment and regulation of the level of bilateral relations with the United Kingdom
3- The enhancement of relations with the other Western states.
A new discourse has been unfolding in Iran's foreign policy after the country’s 9th presidential election in June 2005. The specifics of this new discourse, called 'Look to the East' in diplomatic literature, have yet to be clarified. But what can be generally said is that this discourse involves establishing vast trade relations with such Eastern states as India, China and Russia and/or building political and strategic ties and coalitions with them.
Both in the past and under the current Iranian president, the Islamic Republic of Iran has lacked a specific codified approach toward the United Kingdom, despite Britain's unique place among European states and its strategic engagement with the United States. This lack of a codified approach has become more apparent after the emergence of the Look to the East discourse in Iran's foreign policy. In any case, Iran's relations with Britain will likely be neither completely normal nor entirely hostile in the foreseeable future.
At this time, British political elites have yet to reach a consensus on a single coherent position and policy toward Iran. The failure to reach consensus within both political systems on how to deal with these bilateral relations creates a major barrier, diluting the essence of Iran-Britain relations. In order to better understand this predicament, the outlooks of the two governments toward each other will be studied in the following section.
A. The Outlook of British Elites toward Iran
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of images that Britain holds of Iran:
1- Discourse of Change from Within
The advocates of this discourse in Britain are political realists who continue to believe in the function of power in international relations and the observation of accepted norms, such as the right to sovereignty and non-intervention. They see Britain as obligated to preserve its military capacity rather than to use it.
The advocates of this discourse present five arguments:
a) Iran is one of the rare countries in the Middle East that has a high potential for nationalism. Britain has not forgotten the consequences of Iranian nationalism. Fred Halliday recently suggested that one of the big challenges facing the region is the provocation of Iranian nationalism as a result of the country’s 9th presidential election. This clearly shows the attitude of this group toward Iran.
b) The Britons have witnessed Iranians' deep belief in conspiracy theories and their free hands in Iran. Metaphorically, these people refer to Iran the only remaining British colony in the world. Due to this negative attitude, the British are one of the victims of Iranian nationalism. A British writer has observed: "The British politicians should meticulously learn that what unites Iranians is Britain itself."
c) Their methodology for understanding Iran is historical. Their profound knowledge of Iran implies to them that Iranian history is replete with mythologies. Therefore, to highlight one of the mythologies will lead to the surfacing of other mythologies. For instance, long-neglected historical mythologies played a major part in the advent of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.
d) Advocates of this discourse believe the expansion of democracy has replaced nationalism throughout the world. They assert that the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of groups such as al-Qaeda have revived the theory of democratic peace. Therefore, contemporary political mythologies should be selected and altered in a way to meet this need. Mentioning the democratic tolerance found in ancient Iran fosters the assumption that Iranians do not inherently oppose democracy.
e) The main supporters of this discourse in Britain include the Foreign Office and experienced diplomats. Their bonds with Iranian culture due to their presence in Iran have contributed to their outlooks.
2- Discourse of Change from Without
This outlook is generally espoused by those in Britain who deem themselves responsible for the dissemination of Western values to all corners of the world. This discourse advocates post-modern colonialism. The theoretical elements of the “Discourse of Change from Without” include the following:
a) This discourse holds that the international system based on balance of power and empires has ended after thee centuries. David Cooper essentially believes in the end of the state-based system. As a result, the advocates of this system think that the time is right for the establishment of a 'Global Society' based upon European values.
b) In this new space, the wall between internal and external environments should be removed, and the sovereignty of states has Taken a new meaning. Security in a new sense should be based upon transparency, openness, interdependence and mutual vulnerability.
c) Under these new circumstances, world powers have come closer together and should align in a common bloc. Their mutual vulnerability arising from globalization has prevented their further rivalry, and consequently the powers have left the idea of hegemony and seek increased security.
d) Britain’s Prime Minister has developed his doctrine, i.e. globalization and attaching importance to the world community. To him, the new power of community is the key to the resolution of all problems facing the West. Therefore, to found the international community will ultimately serve mutual interests. That is because values such as freedom, human rights, the rule of law and a pluralist society are universal. On this basis, part of the exacerbation of Iran-Britain relations can be explained by reference to the nature of Blair's doctrine. Blair's views concerning Iran contradict those of the former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the current?? Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. While the British foreign secretary Straw has voiced his disagreement with the United States over Iran, Blair has been vigorously influenced by US policies toward Iran and has ignored the reform process underway in the country.
B- The Outlook of Iranian Elites towards Britain
Apart from the traditional way in which the Islamic Republic of Iran regulates its relations with Britain, there are generally three distinct viewpoints about how to formulate Tehran's foreign policy toward London:
1- The Establishment of Relations with Britain in a Bilateral Framework
The advocates of this outlook believe that Britain is a suitable candidate for bilateral relations because it holds influence on both sides of the Atlantic. The Britons are able to both provoke the United States against Iran and to calm it down. Thus it depends on the attitude of Iran’s diplomatic corps and the country's strategic designs how to define and regulate Iran's relations with Britain in the absence of ties with the United States.
2- The Establishment of Relations with Britain in a Multilateral Framework
According to this outlook, the prospects for bilateral relations with European states, especially Britain, is not very promising because of the rapid speed at which Europe is moving toward integration. Therefore multilateralism in the European Union under the current circumstances seems irreversible.
Critics of this outlook contend that it is simplistic to try to replace bilateral relations with Britain with multilateral ones. They argue that strategy is formulated for long-term periods under relatively stable conditions and that Britain looks at the region and Iran from the perspective of its international agenda.
3- Political Relations with Britain as a Precondition to All-out Bilateral Relations
The third outlook, which is a middle-ground, accepts the first approach under certain conditions. It accepts that if a degree of confidence is built between Iran and Britain, London can play an active role in Iran in many issues. This, however, depends on London -- which has conditioned its trade relations with Iran upon Iran's nuclear case -- giving Tehran a political green light? Otherwise, bilateral relations in economic and security aspects cannot be expected, while at the same time getting a green light from other states such as Germany or France may not be relevant.
According to the advocates of the third approach, current conditions do not allow active bilateral relations with Britain, though the nuclear crisis may pose opportunities for Iran as well (and not only challenges). If Iran's new nuclear policy can depart from the existing impasse and disturb the table in order to reshape it as Iran desires, Tehran can initiate new relations with Britain
British foreign policy, like other countries, is influenced by a variety of factors. The structure of its political system, cultural-historical background, economic factors, political geography setting and tradition of theorization in international relations have all helped the country occupy a special flexible position in the international system. Since the Cold War, Britain has consistently tried to reconstruct and redefine its place and role in the network-generating balance of the emerging order. Despite the decline in its national power in comparison to the 19th and 20th centuries, Britain continues to be among the major diplomatic actors in the world scene. From this point of view, Britain has to be considered as a software-brainware power and it should not be made subject to illusion or exaggeration. "Establishment of special relations with the United States," "Europeanism" (non-Union tendency), and "special attention to the Arab states" (in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region) are among the main British foreign policy orientations.
The existence of various discourses within both British and Iranian governments with regard to the formulation of foreign policy and relations toward each other has seriously impaired bilateral relations. At the same time, Iran's relations with Britain, because of London’s actions and preventive role vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran, continue to be in a low, vulnerable and volatile situation. The general foreign-policy orientation of post-revolutionary Iran toward Britain and London’s outlook of preventive interaction after Iran’s recent presidential elections appear to have contributed to a further deterioration of relations between the two countries. However, there are covert and overt signs and evidence that London is inclined to strengthen its interactions and level of political relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a rising regional power and is ready to pay the price of accepting Iran's new position under specific circumstances. Overall, in the case of the continued rupture of Iran-US ties, Britain will become able to further influence Iran's foreign policy. The way Iran handles its nuclear case to pass this juncture will open a different and potentially brilliant path for designing new relations.
This article is a summary of a roundtable held at the Department of the
Foreign Policy Research, Center for Strategic Research, as well as the comments made by the audience. Opinions expressed in this report belong to the panelists and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Center for Strategic Research.