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British envoy: Iran is getting weaker

The West needs to convince ordinary Iranians that it cares as much about peace in the Middle East and political freedom inside Iran as it does about the threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear program, Britain’s envoy to the United States said in a speech today before Jewish leaders in Miami, Florida. The address by British ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The West needs to convince ordinary Iranians that it cares as much about peace in the Middle East and political freedom inside Iran as it does about the threat posed by Tehran's nuclear program, Britain's envoy to the United States said in a speech today before Jewish leaders in Miami, Florida.

The address by British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald appeared calculated to reinforce the Obama administration's attempts to prod Israel into pursuing a new round of political talks with the Palestinians. He also called for greater patience to allow U.S. and European governments time to show they can rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions without resorting to the use of force.

"We need to work with our allies in the region to contain Iran's unhelpful influence and increase the price to Iran of its dangerous behavior. Properly handled, this can help us on the nuclear file," Sheinwald told a gathering of the American Jewish Committee of Miami/Broward County. "Most importantly, progress on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will ... help squeeze Iranian political space."

The West needs to convince ordinary Iranians that it cares as much about peace in the Middle East and political freedom inside Iran as it does about the threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear program, Britain’s envoy to the United States said in a speech today before Jewish leaders in Miami, Florida.

The address by British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald appeared calculated to reinforce the Obama administration’s attempts to prod Israel into pursuing a new round of political talks with the Palestinians. He also called for greater patience to allow U.S. and European governments time to show they can rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions without resorting to the use of force.

“We need to work with our allies in the region to contain Iran’s unhelpful influence and increase the price to Iran of its dangerous behavior. Properly handled, this can help us on the nuclear file,” Sheinwald told a gathering of the American Jewish Committee of Miami/Broward County. “Most importantly, progress on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will … help squeeze Iranian political space.”

The call for patience comes as the U.N. Security Council appears stalled by China from moving ahead on a new round of sanctions. France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said it may take until June before the council can approve new sanctions.

Sheinwald said that Tehran’s motivation for pursuing an alleged nuclear weapons program has roots in Iraq’s use of chemical and ballistic missiles against Iranian targets during the Iran-Iraq war. The experience, he said, “left many Iranians feeling that they needed their own deterrent. The nuclear issue is a nationalist issue inside Iran.”
Tehran has repeatedly denied that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and insists it needs to enrich uranium to ensure a stable supply of fuel for nuclear power reactors.

But Sheinwald said that a skillful and patient diplomatic approach, including deft regional diplomacy and surgically targeted sanctions, can ultimately check Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “At the heart of our diplomatic strategy is a calculation that if we are determined and artful, we can, through our policies, change the cost-benefit calculation and persuade enough people within the regime that the price of the course they are pursuing is too high,” he said.

Sheinwald acknowledged that Iran continues to defy the international community by accelerating its uranium enrichment activities in violation of successive Security Council resolutions threatening to sanction Tehran. And he said Iran’s security establishment, principally the Revolutionary Guards, have gained increasing influence over Tehran’s leadership.

But he said that Iran is “still some way from being able to produce a weapon” and that there “is still time for diplomacy and political pressure to work.” He also said Tehran craves international respectability and that sanctions have been working. “The current strategy is having some impact,” he argued. “Not everything is going Iran’s way and in some respects Iran’s strategic hand is weaker than a year ago.”

Sheinwald said that financial and economic sanctions have hit Iran where it hurts — in the financial sector and oil sectors. The oil industry –which accounts for 80 percent of Iran’s exports and 50 percent of government revenues — saw a 10 percent decline in levels of production and exports. And Iranian banks have seen a steep decline in international business. For instance, Bank Sepah has seen an 80 percent drop in foreign exchange transactions and a 100 percent drop in lines of credit.

“I am acutely conscious that we are up against an Iranian nuclear clock and that the Iranians remain defiant,” he said. “But in international relations there are rarely overnight solutions to complex problems, and patience is usually a virtue.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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