After Hassan Rouhani won the presidential office in Iran and the UK’s role in the achievement of the JCPOA, the two countries sailed past the five-year tensions and in a recent step, sent ambassadors to their embassies to revert the diplomatic relations to the level they used to nestle at. Iran’s Hamid Baeidinejad, a senior nuclear negotiator and Britain’s Nicholas Hopton, UK’s former ambassador to Qatar and Yemen were appointed ambassadors respectively to the UK and Iran and initiated their service. In Iran, the new ambassador of the UK set his embassy’s priority at expanding economic ties and easing consular affairs which is good news to mark a brand new chapters in the two countries’ ties. This is all contradicted, however, by the anti-Iran statements of the British PM, Theresa May who visited Bahrain to participate in the GCC Summit. Her words caused a heavy row of criticism among Iranian officials toward the UK’s regional policies which, if continued, could lay foundation for another challenge in the bilateral ties between the two countries. To gain a closer look at the political and economic relations between Iran and the UK, we conducted an interview with the British Ambassador to Iran which is as follows.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
UK’s Ambassador to Iran, Nicholas Hopton
The UK has always adopted policies similar to those of the US regarding the Middle East. How would Donald Trump’s election affect the UK policies toward the Middle East?
Firstly, let me say that although the UK and the US are very close allies, and have been historically, we have separate policies based on our different interests and experiences in the region. The election of the new US president is always an important development. My Prime Minister is in contact already with President-elect Trump, and of course, one of the issues we will discuss with the new American administration is the JCPOA; how important it is, and we will explain to the new US President why we think that building a relationship with Iran at this point is important.
In this regard, has the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Johnson had any discussions with Mr. Trump’s team?
Well, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson has had conversations with the new Vice President elect, Mr. Pence. Prime Minister, Theresa May has had more than one conversation already with President-elect Trump.
Was there any talk about the JCPOA?
I think it’s still early days. But the British Embassy in Washington is in touch with the officials who will be forming his new administration, and obviously, we will talk to the American Embassy in London, and there are many other contacts between the United Kingdom and the United States. As part of all these contacts, I’m sure that the JCPOA will be one of the issues that is discussed.
The phone call Mr. Trump made to the President of Taiwan brought a challenge upon the officials of China. That was the first phone call in 34 years. He is quite capable of putting international developments through a lot of challenges. Is the UK trying to convince Mr. Trump not to send the JCPOA through any challenge in the future?
Well, I can only speak for the UK and Britain’s position and relationship with China have not changed. For the JCPOA, the UK is firmly committed to the JCPOA and implementation of the JCPOA, and my government has made that clear again recently.
Is the extension of the 10-year sanctions against Iran by the US equal to the violation of the JCPOA?
No, I don’t think so. The rollover of the sanctions for another 10 years is nothing new. It doesn’t add new sanctions. It just extends the existing sanctions the US already had.
They might have been extended before but were not practiced or exercised. We might even call them frozen. And the Conservative members in both the Congress and Senate look pretty potential in convincing Mr. Trump to put them in effect.
Well, it’s true that the situation in the American political scene, White House, Congress and Senate favors the Republicans, but we don’t know yet how the President-elect Trump will form his Iran policy. So we should wait and see how the new administration decides to go forward.
Doesn’t the recent extension of the US sanctions equal weakening Mr. Rouhani’s team while the JCPOA has not been violated by Iran?
As I said, I don’t think the extension of the existing sanctions is a violation of the JCPOA.
But wouldn’t that be weakening Mr. Rouhani or his team?
Well, I think the important thing is that Iran and the Iranian government continue to fully respect and implement the JCPOA as the UK fully intends to do likewise. This is how we will build up confidence, and we will help together to bring Iran’s economy back into the international framework, and this will be the best outcome for benefiting the Iranian people.
All that Mr. Rouhani promised to people is tied closely to the implementation of the JCPOA and what it can yield in the long run. Do you happen to be on the same page about the fact that the violation of the JCPOA can disrupt the interior equations in Iran? What is your take on that?
Well, I think my government, the British government very much appreciates the political leadership that President Rouhani has showed and clearly, negotiating the JCPOA and the nuclear deal has been a very important element of President Rouhani’s government. This has brought Iran back from isolation and has opened up important possibilities for the economy of Iran, and this potential has yet to be realized fully. It will take time, but the British government is fully committed to making a success of the JCPOA and showing the benefits of that to the Iranian people.
So as in the words of Sir Richard Dalton, you are saying that the fate of Mr. Rouhani’s government is contingent upon the realization or the effectiveness of the JCPOA.
No, that’s not what I said. I know that Sir Richard Dalton said that and many others have said similar things. What I’m saying is that it is vital that we make a success of the JCPOA and this will benefit the Iranian people and also the international community. It will make the region a safer place, and it’s in everybody’s interest, I believe. But to achieve this, we need continued strong efforts by all the international community and the Iranian government to implement the JCPOA.
Were the US intend to cancel the JCPOA, would other members who helped reach the nuclear deal stand against it?
Well, my government has made it clear that it is fully committed to the JCPOA and to its implementation. We will work with the US, its new administration and other international partners who negotiated the JCPOA to make it a success.
I’m looking for a clear answer. Were the US to violate the JCPOA, would other players stand against it?
As I’ve said, the UK has an independent foreign policy as do the other countries who negotiated the JCPOA. We are fully committed to making a success of the JCPOA. We will continue to work with our American colleagues and the new administration to achieve that.
What developments could one bear witness to in the economic ties between Iran and the UK after the implementation of the JCPOA?
I think there have already been important developments. In January, first of all, following the agreement of the JCPOA, we reopened our embassy, and the Iranian embassy opened in London. That was in August, 2015, after four years of being closed. And then with the raising of sanctions in January, we were able to move forward and we reopened the visa section. So we issue visas in Tehran through our visa application center and your embassy in London issues visas as well. And then as a result of these confidence-building measures, we have been closer working together diplomatically. We have seen greater contact in the commercial sector. There have been a number of trade missions in both directions. There have been ministerial visits. And we have started to see some important business deals being negotiated. British Airways started flying directly to Tehran in September, and for example, British companies are now opening offices or businesses in Tehran such as Lotus Cars, and this intensifying of business contacts is going forward. There are further missions. For example, about 20 British companies represented at a mining conference and an oil and gas conference in Tehran. All of this will bring benefits to the Iranian people.
On the sidelines of inking an agreement between Shell and NPC on October 9, 2016, your Embassy reminded that this MOU can take the relations between Iranian and English companies to a new phase. Is there any plan of cooperation in the areas of oil and gas between the two countries?
Yes. There are a number of very big British oil and gas companies interested in working with Iran, and there are also quite a lot of smaller and medium-sized British companies which work to support the oil and gas sector that are now engaging again in Iran. I am confident that we will see more and more activity together; partnership between Iran and the UK in this sector.
Have there been any consultations between BP and Iranian companies in this sector?
As I said, big British companies including BP are very engaged and looking with the Iranian authorities at the possibilities for cooperation in the oil and gas section.
When will these agreements be finalized? Is it limited only to the extent of consultation?
I wouldn’t want to comment on the detail of detailed business negotiations. That is the matter for the companies.
Because sometimes we see that consultations are carried out simply for the sake of consultation and there won’t be any agreement at the end of the day whatsoever.
I’m hopeful that the contacts that are happening between British and Iranian companies and authorities will be productive. This is because it is in the interest of the Iranian economy and the people, and it is also important for British companies.
What should be the circumstances in order for us to see support from English banks in the agreements between the two countries?
Banking is an area where progress has been slow this year. The British government has taken a particular interest in this, partly because the most important financial center in the world is London. So the British Foreign Secretary and Finance Minister have been working to build confidence among banks and financial institutions to engage with Iran, and progress has been made, although it is slower than we would like.
Can I ask what kind of progress are we talking about?
I think confidence has increased in the financial institutions that dealing with Iran is now possible. The British government has facilitated contacts between the American administration and European financial institutions, and this has provided some reassurance to European banks. Some European banks are already starting to provide services to deals with Iran. But there is still a long way to go.
Can you name any English bank that is involved with backing out or reaching a deal with Iran?
British banks are not yet providing banking services to Iran, but other European banks, some of which have headquarters in London, are starting to engage.
What steps have been taken in the consular section to ease the visits of the two countries’ citizens?
As I said earlier, we have reopened our visa operation in Tehran. That was in February. And reciprocally, the Iranian embassy opened operation in London. This means that Iranian citizens can fill an application and make an appointment to get their visa in Tehran. At the same time, I recognize that the services are very limited. For the moment, we are not able to offer full visa services, and I understand it is difficult for some people to get appointments. It is still possible for people who are in need of travelling quickly to get their visas in Istanbul, Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But we continue to discuss how to improve the services with the Iranian government, and I’m hopeful in the coming year, we will be able to gradually expand the service.
Is there any plan in the pipelines for easing the visa issuance process for Iranians who want to go to the UK?
As I say, we are working on this with our Iranian colleagues, also to make it easier for British people to travel here. This is in the interest of both countries in the long term, because it facilitates business contacts, more tourism and more contacts in both directions between people which builds confidence and understanding between the two countries.
How many touristic visas are issued each month?
At the moment, we are offering 150 appointments a week at the Visa Application Centre in Tehran, and of course, not everybody gets a visa. But at the moment, I recognize this is a small number. It is also possible to apply for an appointment elsewhere, for example, Abu Dhabi.
Mathematically, what percentage of these 150 appointments lead to the issuance of visa?
It varies. I think probably roughly about half. But it varies, obviously, depending on applicants. The rules that govern visas are very clear on who is eligible and what people need to do to get a visa, and it’s all on the website if you look on UKvisas https://www.visa4uk.fco.gov.uk/home/welcome All the details are there.
Does the number you offered include all forms of visas including, for example, touristic, business, etc.?
Do you issue touristic visas at all?
Yes that’s part of what we offer. If people want to go for tourism, it’s possible. A visit visa can be applied for at any of our visa issuing posts as well as here in Tehran.
As you know, there is a negative viewpoint in Iran toward the British officials for the approaches they adopted in the past. You have, of course, stated in this regard that your eyes are set on the future. It is a sure fact that in order for your perspective to be realized, the existing mentality toward the UK policies about today’s Iran should be mended. What plan have you considered to change this image among the Iranian people?
I’m aware of the history between our countries which contains some very positive as well as less positive elements, and it is excellent that our two countries know each other very well. There are hundreds of thousands of Iranians living in the UK, and British people have a strong affection for Iran and a great interest in it. So, as in all relationships, I’m sure that mistakes have been made in the past. But I’m sure there are also lots of positive things we should remember. As you’ve said, my focus and the focus of the British government at the moment is on the future, and I hope that the Iranian government, authorities and people form a positive impression when they see how the British embassy and the British government are supporting Iran now.
During Friday prayers held in each city in Iran, they chant slogans and the second after “Death to the US” is “Death to the UK”; don’t you think that the British government can have some plans for these slogans to stop or for a positive impression to be formed among the conservative walks and members of the country?
One of the founding principles or values that underpins the British system is freedom of speech. So if some people wish to publicly criticize the UK, they are within their rights. People are entitled to their own political opinions. That doesn’t mean I like it or I agree with it, but the important thing for Iran and the UK now is not slogans or looking backwards; it is seizing the opportunity we have through the JCPOA to forge a new constructive relationship to the benefit of the people of both countries. That is the Policy of the British government. We very much hope to continue cooperating with the Iranian authorities to move in that direction. That will bring a better future.
I’m speaking to you now at the Embassy of the UK where some very outraged people climbed up the wall and came to the embassy a few years ago. Do you think those very outraged people are still outside the embassy? Have they been relieved when facing the UK?
Well, I think what happened in November, 2011 was a very dark moment. It was a low point in our bilateral relationship. A lot has changed in the last 5 years. The political context is very different, and I think that the potential to improve the relationship between Iran and the UK is very considerable. So as I’ve said before, it’s about moving on, looking forward and trying to bring the benefits of this renewed relationship to the Iranian people and for the wider benefits of the international community.
In a note to the six leaders of the GCC, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom stated, “So I want to assure you that I am clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and the wider Middle East; and the UK is fully committed to our strategic partnership with the Gulf and working with you to counter that threat.” Does this mean the UK is adopting a new policy toward Iran and trying to change the geopolitical circumstances of the Middle East?
The Prime Minster did not say anything new at the GCC and the UK’s position on these issues is clear. We remain committed to a political solution in Syria. We should be clear that the Prime Minister did not speak only about Iran’s regional activity she also made clear the UK’s support for the JCPOA. The Foreign Secretary has also recently made clear his support for the JCPOA. At a time when we are trying to strengthen our relationship with Iran it is important that we can discuss these issues. There are issues we discuss that we will agree on and some others on which we might not.
Are these statements by Mrs. May meant to encourage the Gulf Countries to sign security and military contracts as well as arms deals with the UK?
The Prime Minister outlined UK policy to partners in the region. As I said, there is nothing new in what she said. I hope that as part of the strengthening of the relationship between the UK and Iran we will see in 2017 a number of high-level visits between our two countries and that we can use those occasions to discuss issues important to us both.