Iran and the UK: Bridging the Gulf

March 2016

Recent weeks have seen important elections in Iran and the lifting of some international sanctions. The history of the UK:Iranian relationship is one of mutual mistrust but strong cultural respect. This suggests that cultural and educational engagement has a vital role to play as the UK seeks to improve relations with a country of growing strategic and economic importance.

Dismantling barriers

The recent lifting of some international sanctions following the agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme, and the announcement that the UK and Iranian Embassies will again begin to issue visas, have started to dismantle many barriers to resuming wider bilateral relations. These developments could have major implications given Iran’s importance as a key regional power and high-potential economy. 

Cultural and educational connections are arguably among the strongest means the UK and Iran have for rebuilding their bilateral relationship

As a sophisticated, highly educated state of with a youthful population of 80 million people opens up to the world, the UK has started to take an interest in the emerging opportunities of a market predicted to grow at 8% year-on-year, and Iranian investors have begun to take advantage of new economic freedoms to look overseas. And as cooperation and trade slowly develops, cultural and educational connections are arguably among the strongest means the UK and Iran have for rebuilding their bilateral relationship. 

For much of the last 150 years the relationship between the UK and Iran has been characterized by deep mistrust, with grievances on both sides. Suspicions of each other’s actions and intentions are widely held. Culture itself can be a deeply contested area, with some more conservative elements in Iran seeing cultural relations as potentially subversive and threatening to the principles of the Islamic Republic. Organisations that wish to re-engage in this field must be sensitive to these concerns, transparent in their operations, and cognizant of the greater scrutiny this will place upon their work.

But this mistrust is also mixed with a great mutual respect for each other’s rich cultural heritages and leading contemporary creative sectors. 

Mistrust is also mixed with a great mutual respect for each other’s rich cultural heritages and leading contemporary creative sectors

This was recently demonstrated by the spectacular success of the 2010 British Museum tour of the Cyrus cylinder to Iran, where that ancient Persian artifact, with its historic declaration of what might now be called human rights, was viewed by 500,000 Iranians. As one recent investigation of the history of UK:Iranian cultural relations concluded: “The legacy of a long and deep (cultural) interaction is a mutual respect and admiration that persists in educated circles and is able to survive the secular changes in political affairs. Enduring cultural relationships have an important role to play in maintaining and improving diplomatic discourses.” (‘Persian Studies in Britain: A Brief Review’, Dr’s Charles and Firuza Melville, p.46 in ‘Didgah: New perspectives on UK-Iran Cultural Relations’, (British Council, 2015)) 

In the arts there is significant demand for engagement from both sides. British audiences are slowly getting more opportunities to explore Iranian arts, with annual film, theatre, and other arts festivals growing in popularity. There are signs the Iranian government is keen to promote these links, too: there have been two delegations to the UK from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the last six months. In Iran, the annual Fajr international festivals of film, music, theatre, and visual arts are aiming to recapture some of the country’s former glory. UK artists and companies should look forward to a breakthrough year. Tehran International Book Fair, one of the biggest in the world, continues to grow, despite lingering concerns over freedom of expression. But UK publishers are notable by their absence. With increased trade opportunities, 2016 may change that, with more interest from UK publishers in addressing this highly literate market. 

A sophisticated, highly educated state

Beyond arts and culture, Higher Education and scientific research are perhaps the areas with the largest potential for collaboration. Iran is a regional leader in science and research, with many top quality institutions which UK institutions are keen to work with. Despite years of sanctions, Iran has the world’s fastest growing research output in peer-reviewed journals, and has committed to spending 4% of GDP on research and development by 2030. World-class research facilities in fields as varied as stem cells and fertility and x-rays, and Iran’s expertise in areas such as medical science and water resource management, have already stimulated interest and partnership proposals from UK universities. More cooperation has great scope to promote mutual benefit in research, and – equally important – to create a shared area of trust which can act as a model for closer relations in other areas.

There may be a rapid growth in Iranian students looking for university places overseas. The demand for higher education in Iran is huge – almost 60% of 18-24 year olds are in higher education (compared to approximately 30% in the UK). Iran is the world’s 7th largest HE market, and this year will enter the top ten countries in the world as a source of international students. But the numbers of Iranian students in the UK have dropped by 33% to less than 1,800 since the UK Embassy in Tehran closed in 2011. With the announcement of the resumption of visa services, UK universities can now hopefully pick up where they left off five years ago. 

This needn’t – and shouldn’t – just be one-way traffic. There are negligible numbers of UK students currently studying in Iran. Yet some universities, including the University of Tehran, offer courses taught in English up to MA level. As institutional level links between universities deepen, we should expect more interest from UK students, and greater support from UK universities for their students to access these opportunities and to engage in genuinely bilateral exchange.

It is yet to be seen whether the re-establishment of diplomatic relations will provide new openings. Such partnerships could go some way to addressing the problem of demand in Iran – last year over 1 million people applied for 300,000 Master Degree equivalent courses, and 300,000 applied for 60,000 PhD courses - as well as the significant problems Iran has with brain-drain, caused by losing its talented students and researchers to overseas institutions (estimated by the IMF to be the highest rate of brain-drain in the world). There is also a large potential market for UK qualifications and examinations, which has suffered greatly in Iran in comparison with the market in other countries in the region.

Rebuilding trust

In summary, there is great potential for cultural engagement between the UK and Iran to build better understanding, and for both countries to benefit from the emerging opportunities. However, the deep-seated lack of trust means opportunities will develop slowly. Though some sanctions have been lifted, others remain in force. This will be challenging for multinational companies with US citizens as leaders, or US headquarters, and for all private sector companies it must be recognized that it is still very difficult to do business in Iran. 

The greatest potential for success will come from cooperation and collaboration by organisations and individuals on both sides working together on programmes which build trust and confidence in each other and lead to better understanding on both sides. 

Therefore, while cultural connections are among the strongest tools the UK and Iran have to underpin higher-level political and diplomatic rapprochement, they must be undertaken with caution, and with an eye on the long term goal – that of rebuilding trust.

Danny Whitehead, Country Director, Iran, British Council