Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Robert Gleave, British Institute of Persian Studies


  I write as the Honorary Secretary of the British Institute of Persian Studies. I was also Acting Director of the Institute in Tehran between January and July 1999, during which time I worked closely with Tehran Embassy Staff.

  The British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS) is a charity, established 40 years ago to promote Persian Studies, in the widest possible interpretation of the term, within British universities and other institutes of higher education and research. It receives much of its budget via the British Academy, but also has a large membership and a number of private bequests. It organises conferences on matters relating to Iran and the Persian-speaking world, publishes the respected journal IRAN, allocates grants to British and Iranian academics working on research projects related to the Persian-speaking world, and, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, organised archaeological field work in Iran. To this end, since the early seventies, the Institute has rented a plot of land in the Golhak British Embassy compound from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, upon which the Institute building was constructed (through public subscription), a building which acts as our base in Tehran. It has study-bedrooms, kitchens, a lecture hall and a library (which is open to Iranian academics and other interested parties). Until 1989, we had a full-time, permanent, resident, academic director in Tehran. Since 1989, we have intermittent periods, when members of the Council of the Institute have been resident in Tehran, either as acting Director, or in other capacities. I fulfilled this role from January until July 1999, whilst on sabbatical from my employer, the University of Bristol. We have a total of three local staff (two salaried), maintaining the activities of the Institute until such a time as we can appoint a resident director once again.


  Apart from the formal agreement of the land lease, BIPS maintains relations with the FCO and local Embassy staff, through regular meetings. His Excellency Mr Nicholas Browne has been a great supporter of BIPS, and its gradual expansion of activities in the last three years. At times, the Embassy has facilitated the acquisition of visas for British academics visiting Iran (for conferences or research), and for Iranian academics visiting the UK (for the same reasons). Previously, there was a misconception, popular in Iran (at both official and unofficial levels), that BIPS was part of the Embassy (like the Institut Francais is part of the French Embassy), and this has caused BIPS some difficulty in the past (particularly when governmental relationships have broken down). However, this misconception is gradually dissipating, and both the Embassy and BIPS are working to impress upon the Iranian authorities the fact that geographical proximity does not entail any formal linkage between the two bodies.


  It should be recognised that the Embassy and BIPS face many similar issues when working in Iran. Bureaucratic complexity and, at times, hostility, are experienced by both organisations, and are the day-to-day experiences of most foreign bodies working in Iran (companies, diplomatic staff, NGOs and academic institutions). Progress towards better understanding and improved cooperation is hampered, not only by an arcane bureaucracy, but also by inter-departmental competition within the Iranian political establishment. Governmental ministries and ministers, the parliament and other official legislative bodies have been fighting each other for political influence, certainly since the death of Ayatallah Khomeini and more intensely since the election of President Khatimi. BIPS members and researchers are at times the victims of this infighting (visas are not extended or permits for research not granted; or they are granted by one ministry and withdrawn by another). The Embassy, by all accounts, faces similar problems.

  Over the years, BIPS has developed a number of strategies, with varying success, to overcome these difficulties. The principal strategy is the development of personal contacts, not just with the higher echelons of, for example, ministerial power, but with secretaries and assistants. The latter are less likely to change that the former in the purges which occur periodically. Building up these relationships is time-consuming, often frustrating and rarely shows immediate results. The FCO has a similar tactic I am sure, though they are disadvantaged by the suspicion of British designs in Iran. A second strategy has been to progress by activating small-scale projects, and waiting to see the response. For various reasons, if the leaders of a project ask for permission, they are regularly turned down. If they establish a project and afterwards ask for validation, they are successful. Historical precedent and tradition ("We have always done this in the past . . .") seems to be more effective than official requests. This, of course depends upon the proposed project, but through these means, our activities have developed extensively since the early 1990s, when BIPS was totally inactive in Iran. The FCO policy has, by necessity to be more formal and structured. Those of us that work with Iran, however, recognise that official niceties regularly get in the way of progress, even when desired by both parties. If at times FCO policies seem indirect and discursive, it is usually for the good reason that an objective can only be achieved by sacrificing the manner in which the objective is presented. This is not duplicitous, but rather a sensible recognition of the possibilities available at any particular point in time.

  For such a strategies to work, the personal relationship with one's negotiator is essential before a sufficient level of trust can be reached. This takes times, and may also explain the apparent lack of progress made on certain issues by the FCO (eg human rights), despite the "new atmosphere" which has emerged in the recent past. One hindrance to development has been the high turn-over of staff (both on the Iranian side, and to a lesser extent on the British side). The FCO needs (and here I speak in a personal capacity) to train and develop a cadre of staff who have worked with Iran over a long period of time, both in London and Tehran. This continuity of contact is, in some senses, more important from the Iranian perspective than official titles and changes in diplomatic structure. The current Ambassador has been a success and is highly respected by the official authorities in Tehran because of his perceived commitment to the Middle East generally, and Iran in particular. Many Iranians (both in official positions, and outside of the circles of power) recognise that some working on (and in) Iran view their task as an intermediate step, and this has engendered a suspicion that a commitment to the cause of improving Irano-British relations is lacking. Whether this is an accurate assessment or not is unimportant. A high-turnover of staff encourages such an impression.


  From the perspective of BIPS, the general approach of the FCO towards relations with Iran is appropriate and carried out with much skill by the staff both in London and Tehran. Iran is still a very difficult place to work, and Iranian officialdom can be an infuriating body with which to negotiate. The patience and diligence shown by the current staff over, for example, raising the level of diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level displayed the sorts of skills necessary when working in this field. Results should be measured by years (or perhaps decades) not months, and immediate success, when it comes is rarely long lasting. Like the FCO, the BIPS has been gradually expanding its activities over a number of years, and this is by far the most cautious and sensible approach.

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