UK-Iran Relations: Still Held Hostage?

With the recent release of two British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori who have been imprisoned in Iranian jails since 2016, the predominant question being asked by the mainstream media is: why did Iran take so long to release them? However, the alternative question is: why did the British government choose the current moment to pay its almost 400 million pound debt to Iran in return for the release of these two citizens?

The UK Foreign Office has continually tried to split the imprisonment of these Britons and payment of this debt as two different entities, with one not impacting the other. This construction has led to praise for Foreign Secretary Liz Truss for her role in the complicated diplomatic talks between the two countries. However, this problem does not seem to be complex at all, but is framed as being so as part of a narrative that has been created by the British government. Once the history is examined it is clear that the demands by Iran for the payment of this long standing debt are legitimate, this was even admitted by the Foreign Secretary. The debt stems from Britain’s refusal to return the 400 million pounds the Iranian government paid for 1,500 Chieftan tanks in 1971. But after the revolution in 1979 the new Iranian government received neither the vehicles or a refund.

In order to repay this debt, the British government had to find ways around Western sanctions placed on Iran from 2018 when the Trump administration single-handedly collapsed the Iranian nuclear deal. The British government’s solution was to make sure that the 400 million pounds was used only for humanitarian purposes (potentially helping to repair some of the damages caused by Western sanctions on innocent Iranian civilians). It seems ironic that the country that took the money to provide Iran with weapons now enforces that this same money is not used for weaponry.

The question arises: why now did the British government choose to cut the Gordian knot it tied for itself? The answer lies in the fact that when the incentive is high enough, problems tend to find very simple solutions.

In light of the Ukraine conflict and sanctions on Russian energy, Boris Johnson has said that he wants the “the widest possible coalition” of energy providers to fill the new energy void. This has involved the Prime Minister visiting Middle Eastern allies (and customers of British weaponry) such as Saudi Arabia (which executed 81 people days before his visit) and the United Arab Emirates. Whilst Saudi Arabia is OPEC’s largest oil exporter, Iran is the second. However, considering that Saudi Arabia is benefiting from the soaring oil prices caused by the invasion of Ukraine it is therefore unlikely to water down this jump in revenue by increasing crude oil production. One possible explanation for the timing of this prisoner release and debt repayment is that it is a way of signaling a potential defrosting of relations between Britain and Iran, this a way of trying to receive a better deal with Saudi Arabia by threatening to turn to Tehran for its energy needs. It has been forecasted Iran could produce 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day by April or May and 1.3 million barrels a day by the end of 2022. Before America walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran was producing 2.5 million barrels of crude oil a day, which could have reached 3.5 – 4 million. This doesn’t even include the oil that has already been pumped and is now in storage, with an estimated 85 million barrels currently being stored at sea which could have an almost instantaneous impact on world markets.

However, the main barrier preventing the UK from gaining access to Iranian oil is Western sanctions. This has given a fresh impetus to restarting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and concluding the nuclear talks with Iran that have dragged on for 11 months. In the hopes of the British government this would bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiation table and remove Russia’s powerful bargaining chip of energy hegemony. In reality though, Russia has already paused nuclear negotiations in Vienna and potentially ended talks by demanding that Western sanctions on Russia don’t affect its dealings with Iran. France, Germany and the United Kingdom have all said that this demand could collapse the deal.

Whilst for many observers the prospect of improved relations between the UK and Iran seems bizarre considering their shared past and Tehran’s classification as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’. For others looking at the history of Western nations’ support and removal of ‘dictators’ and ‘evil’ regimes, it is clear to see that often these designations of morality or immorality depend upon issues that are purely monetary.