Iran celebrated the long-awaited reopening of their London embassy on Sunday with Qur’anic verses, soft drinks, expressions of florid goodwill and relentless hopes for a better future for the often stormy relationship between the Islamic Republic and the UK.
Taking its cue from the parallel ceremony in Tehran, the event at the Iranian ambassador’s residence in Kensington was long on formal expressions of mutual respect and short on matters of substance or contention.
Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, one of Iran’s deputy foreign ministers, set the tone with a call for relations based on mutual respect and good faith. He also called for a new era of cooperation following last month’s landmark nuclear deal and the steadily improving atmosphere between the two governments since a 2011 attack on the British embassy.
Guests were offered bottled water and French macaroons in the grand first-floor drawing room of the residence, a few doors down the white stucco terrace from the embassy itself, scene of the SAS’s famous hostage rescue in 1980.
Portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, looked out over the crystal chandeliers and Persian carpets. All stood when the national anthems of both countries were played over painfully crackling loudspeakers. Several VIPs wore the black turbans of senior Shia Muslim clerics. Iranian cameramen filmed throughout.
The Iranians described the event as marking the “reopening and full reactivation” of the embassy, perhaps a way of hinting that outstanding issues about exactly what can be done on the premises in both capitals are still to be agreed.
Hassan Habibollahzadeh, the Iranian charge d’affaires, thanked Oman for acting as “protecting power” in the period when the London embassy was not functioning at all – and looked firmly to the future.
“Our countries have always tried to maintain interaction by emphasising commonalities,” he said. “The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to develop its relations with all countries based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs. Relations based on these principles will serve the interests of all nations.”
The British government was represented by a senior Foreign Office official, Deborah Bronnert, conspicuously not a minister. The guest of honour, however, was Jack Straw. The former Labour foreign secretary pioneered EU talks over Iran’s nuclear programme in 2003 and since leaving office has become the UK’s leading advocate of rapprochement with Tehran despite what he delicately described as “the events of 2011” – when the embassy was stormed and ransacked.
“We are two very proud nations with great histories,” Straw said. “There are lots of commonalities that we have to search for. What is frustrating is that not enough is known in this country about all the positive things about Iran. I hope and believe that one of the consequences of this historic day is that there will be far greater understanding of both countries in the other country.”
Straw led a path-breaking UK parliamentary delegation to Tehran in 2014, along with Lord Lamont, the former conservative chancellor, and Jeremy Corbyn, the leading contender for the Labour party leadership. Straw said at the time that the west had to recognise it had often had a malign influence on Iran.
Lamont, the chairman of the British-Iranian chamber of commerce, said promoting commercial ties was important in a highly competitive market: “But this is not about business and economics,” he added.
“Our countries have had such an up-and-down relationship, and this is about putting it on a normal basis. It is the function of diplomacy to try to find common ground and common language. The absence of an embassy has been an enormous disadvantage.”
Following the speeches, the guests mingled and chatted while tucking into a buffet lunch of chelo kebabs, rice and other Iranian delicacies. It was not quite a party atmosphere, but it was relaxed and friendly enough.
“The mere re-establishment of full diplomatic relations isn’t going to make a difference in itself,” Straw said. “But over time, being able to talk to people has a greater chance of making a difference than if we are not talking.”