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BIPR | Diplomatic Engagement with Iran
Diplomatic Engagement with Iran

February 29, 2024 - 15:30

Nicholas Hopton, Former British Ambassador to Libya, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen

Event Recap

While Western nations may view Iran one dimensionally, Nicholas Hopton, former British Ambassador to Libya, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen, understands the country's complexity, regional and global importance, and goals for the future. Serving in Iran from 2016-2018, Hopton arrived when many crucial changes were occurring. In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani was elected, and his more moderate agenda included reducing tensions with the west and making deals to grow the country's economy. In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed which lifted UN and EU sanctions in exchange for Iran not moving forward with developing nuclear weapons. Additionally, the British embassy, which closed in 2011 following an attack by protestors due to Britain's own economic sanctions, reopened. What challenges did Hopton face in engaging with the regime? Where is Iran now, and what does the path forward look like?

When Hopton arrived in Iran, he was given two main priorities: support the implementation of JCPOA and normalize bilateral relations. The JCPOA was agreed upon by Iran and the E3/EU+3, including France, Germany, the UK, the US, China, and Russia, but eventually failed. A combination of internal and external factors led to the outcome. During the sanctions, global banks were very cautious about engaging with companies that wanted to do business in Iran. There was also the threat of a "snapback" due to former President Barack Obama championing the JCPOA by executive order, meaning the next administration could reverse the decision with its own executive order. In 2018, former President Donald Trump did just that. Hopton noted that when discussions about Iran came up, there was a sense of the work already being done. In his eyes, it had just been getting started. Regarding bilateral relations, the countries have a complex history dating back hundreds of years. At times, Hopton was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain certain British actions, but there were also many successes including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson visiting Iran and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visiting London. He expressed respect for the Iranian people and diplomats he worked with, describing them as a sophisticated and educated elite with differing world views.

Hopton believes it is important to understand who is in charge, who is making the decisions, and what their mindset and motivations are. Iran is motivated primarily by its own survival as well as security and stability, and its mindset is in a state of paranoia after being isolated by sanctions for so long, leading to a belief that the world is out to get them. For the future, Hopton believes the west should focus on four actions. First, the west, and the world, needs to be more unified in dealing with Iran. Second, when the time is right, economic incentives like visas are needed, though that time is not now. Third, the west must retain the possibility of a grand bargain, in contrast to the narrowness of the JCPOA. Finally, the world must be ready for when internal and external pressures align again. Nothing lasts forever, including the current regime.

Diplomatic Engagement with Iran

hosted by Professor Sanam Vakil

Nicholas Hopton
Former British Ambassador to Libya, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen

Nicholas Hopton is a senior British diplomat who was UK Ambassador to Libya until September 2021. Since then, he has worked on Afghanistan and Ukraine issues at the British Foreign Commonwealth Office in London, and been involved in the Funeral of HM The Queen and Coronation of HM King Charles III. Previously, he was FCO Director for EU External and Security, leading the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the future security partnership with the EU after BREXIT.

Ambassador Hopton joined the FCO in 1989 and has also served as Ambassador to Iran, Qatar and Yemen and served at the British Embassies in Paris, Rome and Rabat. He has worked on national security issues in the Cabinet Office, led the International Organisations Department in the FCO and was Private Secretary to four Ministers for Europe during the first years of the Blair administration.

He studied at St Peter's School at Cambridge University, La Sapienza University in Rome, and ENA in Paris.

In his spare time, Hopton enjoys public speaking (mainly on diplomacy and the Middle East) and writes fiction. His novel In Pieces, about London in the nineties, is available as an e-book published by Bloomsbury.
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