TEHRAN, Iran — In her appearance before the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Dec. 7, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called for deeper military cooperation with members of the Arab bloc and said the United Kingdom and its allies must work together to counter “Iran’s aggressive regional actions.” In this vein, she told leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, “As part of the renewed relationship that I want to forge with you, the United Kingdom will make a more permanent and more enduring commitment to the long-term security of the Gulf.”
Her posturing immediately raised eyebrows in Tehran, leading Iran to issue a warning against London about the consequences of a possible greater future role in the region.
The day after May’s comments at the GCC summit, the chairman of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, told Iranian state TV, “If Britain seeks to persist with such a policy vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran, the parliament will once again move to downgrade relations.”
The furor comes as bilateral ties have just fully resumed after years of tension. In late November 2011, the UK severed relations following an attack on its diplomatic facilities in Tehran. After an almost two-year freeze, the two countries agreed in October 2013 to appoint nonresident charges d’affaires as a first step toward re-establishing diplomatic ties. Iran and the United Kingdom upgraded their mutual diplomatic representation back to the ambassador level in September, in another sign of warming relations between the two countries.
On Dec. 10, Iran's Foreign Ministry announced that it had summoned the UK ambassador. “Following British Prime Minister Theresa May’s meddlesome remarks, … Nicholas Hopton, the country’s ambassador to Tehran, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry today,” said spokesman Bahram Qassemi.
On Dec. 11, parliament member Jabbar Kouchaki-Nejad announced that a bill had been introduced in parliament to downgrade ties with the United Kingdom. However, two days later, the Iranian government showed reluctance to do so. In response to a question about whether ties will be downgraded, government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht refrained from offering a clear response, saying only, “Certainly, her remarks are meddlesome and will cause insecurity in the region. It is not right for a person who comes from Europe to talk about the Persian Gulf region.”
However, Nobakht’s diplomatic statement does not mean that Iranian officials are ready to forget what transpired at the GCC summit. Iran’s moderate Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif adopted a harsh stance at the Tehran Security Conference on Dec. 11, saying, “Some in the region brought a lady to the region to tell them that we will keep you safe. Since when have this lady and her country been able to secure the safety of those countries?"
How do Iranians view May’s presence among Arab leaders?
In rare agreement, the usually divided Reformists and conservatives of Iran are aligned in the row over the UK prime minister’s remarks. They have both condemned May’s statements and have expressed suspicion about the United Kingdom's new stated position, which is different from European Union policies.
On Dec. 8, the Reformist Shargh newspaper slammed the UK prime minister, opining, “The remarks of Theresa May at the closing of the summit of leaders of the GCC showed that the conservative administration of the United Kingdom wants to separate its way from the European Union and seeks to pursue a policy of confronting Iran.”
The Shargh editorial stated that now that US President-elect Donald Trump says he prefers to concentrate on domestic issues and spend less money on America’s partners in the region, the United Kingdom wants to fill the void.
In keeping with this analysis, Gen. Rahim Safavi, the military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Dec. 14, “Britain left the region in 1971, but wants to return right now, and this is their new strategy.”
Echoing references to Britain’s past withdrawal from “east of the Suez,” parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said, “The view Britain has adopted about the Persian Gulf goes back to before 1971, when they announced their withdrawal from the region. They have not updated their information in accordance with the developments in the region since then.”
An article on moderate news website Asr-e-Iran claimed that May’s statements are the first sign of a more independent UK foreign policy after the country’s vote to exit the EU: “The vote for Brexit could mean abandoning the principles of European policy that London pursued and considered itself committed to in the past decades. Following its exit, it won’t have to be committed to observing these principles anymore.”
Another opinion that has been asserted in Tehran in the aftermath of Brexit is that the United Kingdom will face more economic problems than in the past and is thus considering various plans to solve its fiscal troubles. In this vein, Hesam al-din Ashna, President Hassan Rouhani’s cultural adviser opined Dec. 11, “The remarks of that lady were made with the aim of marketing weapons.”
In a Dec. 10 post to Facebook, Former senior Iranian official Seyed Hossein Mousavian quoted a Scandinavian diplomat as having told him, “Britain couldn’t stay in the region during the era in which it was an empire, let alone right now, when it is a second-rate European power. … The West has realized that [Iran] will survive while [the GCC states] will be gone sooner or later. … [The GCC states] have hundreds of billions in foreign exchange reserves and are not in the right minds. The fastest way to get their foreign exchange is to sell them weapons. Britain and Europe have economic problems and want to get [the GCC states’] petrodollars to firstly get them to export less Wahhabist and Salafist ideology, and secondly, so they won’t be able to launch new wars, like that in Yemen.”