Why Britain is moving closer to war with Iran

Adam Parris-Long

Tensions with Iran are still rising after an irreparably damaging fortnight in which the British embassy in Tehran was stormed and an American drone was captured by Iranian troops.

Barack Obama has been given short shrift after requesting the return of the downed US drone, with Tehran unrepentant over the affair. “The American espionage drone is now Iran's property, and our country will decide what steps to take regarding it,” said Iranian defence minister Ahmad Vahidi. “Instead of apologising to the Iranian nation, it [US] is brazenly asking for the drone back.”

[Article: US drone now "Iran's property"]

Diplomatic ties between London and Tehran are also in tatters after British representatives were pulled from the embassy in the aftermath of a violent protest by Iranian students. The attack came after the Treasury took the decision to cut all links with Iranian banks over concerns that they were involved with Tehran’s nuclear programme. Foreign secretary William Hague has promised “serious consequences” for the attack, with retaliatory actions as yet unseen.   

With a war of words on two fronts, is Iran on a collision course with the West?

Nuclear issues

At the heart of the dispute are ongoing concerns over Iran’s nuclear intentions. Ironically the origins of the Tehran nuclear programme lie in a scheme devised by the US in 1953, called ‘Atoms for Peace’. President Eisenhower announced the plan to proliferate atomic energy across the globe, intended to be a noble act after the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven years previously.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 caused outrage in Washington as American diplomats were taken hostage by students in Tehran – effectively killing off Western cooperation for the nuclear project. Since that stage Iran has developed the programme extensively, resulting in the nation’s first nuclear reactor, which was opened for business in September. The programme has been eyed with intense suspicion from Western states, despite assertions from president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran is not seeking to create atomic weapons.

Mistrust between Ahmadinejad and the West is also key to the issue. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that there was “increasing concern” over the nuclear program in Tehran, with Washington calling Ahmadinejad’s peaceful claims “hollow”. The UK government is unequivocal over the programme, openly denouncing its potentially harmful impact.

When severing links to Iranian banks in November, Chancellor George Osborne said: "We're doing this because of international evidence that Iran's banks are involved in the development of Iran's weaponised military nuclear weapon programme. We're doing this to improve the security not just of the whole world, but the national security of the United Kingdom.”

Sparking a rampage on the British embassy, the mistrust has worsened already fractured UK-Iranian relations.  In reality, although Hague has been urged to act on threats from Tehran, the potential for conflict lies with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

[In pictures: Attack on British embassy in Tehran]

While attempting to discover whether the Iranian nuclear programme is “weaponised”, Western states have criticised Ahmadinejad without using direct action. The Iranian leader is now being looked at to re-open discussions over the nuclear issue and to quell any further internal provocation to the West in a bid to stop conflict that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called a “very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences”.