Britain revives ties with Iran two years after embassy attack

The appointment of Ajay Sharma as charge d'affaires seen as first step toward Britain reopening its embassy in Tehran

In this file photo, the Iranian flag flies outside the Iranian embassy in London. Since 2011, tensions between Iran and Britain, which closed its embassy in Tehran after a rally against British sanctions turned violent, have remained high.
Alastair Grant/AP

Britain's Foreign Office appointed a veteran diplomat Monday as its charge d'affaires for Iran nearly two years after a mob ransacked the British embassy in Tehran.

The appointment of Ajay Sharma -- a previous deputy head of mission to Tehran -- to the non-resident posting is the first step toward Britain reopening its embassy in Tehran amid improving relations between the two nations.

Britain closed its embassy in Tehran in 2011 after a rally against British sanctions escalated into violence and protesters scaled the walls, ransacked offices and burned buildings. Tensions over a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities also ran high at the time. Iran's embassy in London was also closed, and relations have remained tense since.

The embassy closings are seen as the worst crisis between Britain and Iran since full diplomatic relations were restored in 1999, a decade after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's edict that British author Salman Rushdie should be killed for writing "The Satanic Verses," which was considered blasphemous by Iranian leaders.

Sharma, who will be based in Britain but travel regularly to Iran, will take up the post immediately and hopes to visit Tehran this month. 

"I am very much looking forward to renewing direct UK contact with the Iranian government and society," Sharma said in a statement. "This is very much in the interests of both our countries." 

In a separate development, Iran's Mehr news agency said Tehran had appointed Mohammad Hassan Habibollah as charge d'affaires to Britain. 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last month that Iran's approach to international affairs had become far more positive since Hassan Rouhani was elected president in June, replacing his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

Meanwhile, Hague on Monday said world powers presented a united front to Iran during weekend talks that failed to reach an accord on curbing Tehran's nuclear activities, echoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in rejecting reports that France scuttled a deal.

Hague said it would be wrong to suggest that any one Western country had vetoed an agreement, telling U.K. lawmakers there was a strong foundation for the next round of talks and stressing the need to "build momentum."

He acknowledged "some gaps" remained between parties but said "most of those gaps are now narrow," and others were bridged altogether.

"We are not losing time in pursuing these negotiations," Hague added. The aim is to produce an interim, first-step agreement that will create the chance of a "comprehensive settlement" with the possibility of limited sanctions relief for Iran, he said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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