British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt's recent visit to Iran is not likely to result in much unless the UK can help the Iranians soften the blow from US sanctions.

The British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, went to Iran on Monday with a long list of regional and international issues to discuss including Iran’s role in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the US sanctions on Iran, and the ongoing cases of detained British-Iranian dual nationals. 

Yet, he is unlikely to have heard anything new.

The only interest Iran presently has in meeting European officials is in finding out what they can do to ease the burden of US sanctions which are devastating the economy and the everyday living conditions in Iran. 

Iran is disappointed with European Union efforts to set up what is referred to as the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), a device that could enable companies to continue to trade with Iran but avoid US sanctions. Most European countries have refused to host SVP, and Britain had all but announced it dead on arrival under the pressures of Brexit.

“Some countries have been proposed to host the SPV, but they declined,” said Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif while hosting Jeremy Hunt in Tehran. 

Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, last week expressed confidence that almost no European firms were willing to risk US sanctions.

Seven hundred Iranian officials and entities are on the US sanctions list; Iran is unable to sell the lifeline of its economy, oil, in the international markets or attract foreign investment for its stagnating economy. 

Iran is frustrated because it has been abiding by the terms of its nuclear deal as the latest report from the UN atomic watchdog indicated last week, days after fresh US sanctions hit the country.

Iranian officials are therefore in no mood to discuss any other issue until solutions can be found for Iranian trade on the world market. Even if they were, Britain would perhaps be the least likely partner for such talks. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has never trusted Britain nor hidden Iran’s historical enmity with the country.

History is unkind

The dilemma of Iran-UK relations is not dissimilar to that of Iran-US relations. Iran puts the two countries in the same basket when it comes to pouring insults and accusations.

And this is not limited to the Islamic Republic or the present day Iran. The collective memory of relations with Britain dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century when the first king of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, was both allegedly brought to power and then toppled by the British in the mid-1940’s.

In the next decade Iran’s oil industry was brought to the point of collapse in 1951 when the Iranian parliament decided to nationalise its oil and deny the UK its 50 percent share of the profits — a decision that eventually led to the most bitter memory of all: the toppling of Iran’s popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh in a joint UK-US coup in 1953. 

The first impression is the last impression

To this day the Iranian establishment regards Britain as having designs on Iran. The BBC’s Persian TV, which began its programs to Iran in 2009, is viewed as Britain's soft war against Iran. BBC was denied permission to set up in Iran and experts and officials banned from giving interviews to the channel. Any cooperation is regarded as “spying” for Britain.

Iran has since continued to detain, intimidate, and threaten BBC staff, their families and their contacts in Iran. 

Nazanine Zaghari-Ratcliffe whose fate was one of the subjects discussed by Jeremy Hunt, is in jail, accused of working for the BBC.

“The British  minister has only come to release the [British] spy not to talk about JCPOA,” says the hardline Keyhan newspaper referring to the Iran nuclear deal. 

Keyhan condemns the “red carpet treatment” for the  “arrogant British minister”.

Despite the hostility, since 2015 and the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, relations have improved, and Britain has remained supportive of the 'Iran deal' despite putting in jeopardy its relations with the United States. 

Britain has reopened its embassy in Tehran and encouraged trade with Iran. A year ago many British firms were eyeing investment in Iran but not any longer given the new US sanctions.

So if the British Foreign Secretary was received cordially on Monday and allowed to walk the streets of Tehran and drink pomegranate juice in the Grand Bazaar, it does not mean that Iran is willing to comply with its wish-list.

Instead, Iran is hoping the UK would host the SPV or in the very least mediate over the sanctions or even possible talks with President Donald Trump.  

Iran is likely to believe that Britain would be best placed to influence change vis a vis the relentless US pressure on Iran.

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