The British embassy in Iran reopened on 23rd August, nearly four years after it closed following a demonstration against the tightening of sanctions. Mr Hammond is the first UK foreign secretary to visit Iran since 2003. He acknowledged that Britain and Iran had a “difficult history”, but noted that relations had been steadily getting better and reopening diplomacy was a “sensible way forward”.
The Foreign Secretary went on: “Yes, we should tread carefully. There is a deep legacy of distrust on both sides, and we have major areas where we have very substantial policy differences, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking.
“We do see eye-to-eye on the need to interdict the opium traffic between Afghanistan and Europe, we do see eye-to-eye on the need to challenge Isil [also known as Islamic State],” he said.
Hammond noted that while he was “not blind” to areas of contention, including Iran’s human rights record, he does not believe the UK will be able to influence such issues unless it opens a dialogue with the leaders of the Islamic Republic.
Following his meeting with President Rouhani, Mr Hammond told the BBC: “In all of the meetings we’ve been to we’ve heard a consistent message that Iran wants to do business with Britain, that it wants to see a new chapter in our relationship, that Iran will very much be open to British and other foreign businesses in this next phase.”
Mr Hammond’s visit and the reopening of the embassy comes weeks after Iran reached agreement with six world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear programme.
Initially, the Iranian embassy in London will be headed by a charge d’affaires, Ajay Sharma, but Mr Hammond said an agreement on upgrading to full ambassador status is expected to be reached in the coming months.
The foreign secretary acknowledged that there were no guarantees the Iranian regime would not pursue a nuclear weapons programme in the future, but he noted: “My judgement is that whatever Iran has or hasn’t been doing in the past, the regime, the Iranian people, have come to the conclusion that pursuing, or being believed to pursue, an illegal military nuclear programme just imposes too great a cost on Iran,” he said.
An Iran that was no longer isolated was “the best bet for the future”, he said.
In November 2011 Iran announced it was expelling the UK’s ambassador in retaliation for British support for tougher sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear programme.
Hundreds of protesters stormed embassy compounds two days later, smashing windows, torching cars and burning union jacks. The UK responded by closing the Iranian embassy in London later that month. But following the election of Mr Rouhani and an agreement on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme, the then Foreign Secretary William Hague proposed the reopening of the embassy in June last year.