LONDON (AP) — British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday that his country is taking steps toward reopening its embassy in Tehran, agreeing to an exchange of diplomats to discuss improving relations.
Hague said the coming months "may be unusually significant" in British-Iranian relations, which have been beset by arguments over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and Tehran's support for embattled leader Bashar Assad in Syria. Hague told lawmakers there are signs of a change — albeit qualified ones.
The British embassy in Tehran was closed in late 2011 after a mob overran the building as tensions over a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities ran high. Iran also closed its embassy in London. Relations have remained tense since then, but the recent election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has raised hopes of a thaw between Iran and the West — and of a possible nuclear deal.
"It is clear that the new president and ministers in Iran are presenting themselves and their country in a much more positive way than in the recent past. There is no doubt that the tone of the meetings with them is different," Hague told the House of Commons.
He said he and his Iranian counterpart had agreed to appoint non-resident charge d'affaires offices which would discuss the eventual reopening of the British embassy in Iran and the Iranian one in Britain. Hague still expressed caution, saying it is critical for Iran's warmer tone "to be accompanied by concrete actions and viable approach to negotiations."
Iran and Western powers have been arguing for years about Iran's atomic energy program. Iran insists its nuclear facilities are being used for peaceful purposes, but the United States, Europe and Israel believe they're a cover for clandestine development of atomic weapons. The U.S. and its allies have slapped tough sanctions on Iran for its refusal to open up about the program.
"We must not forget for one moment that as things stand today Iran remains in defiance of six U.N. Security Council resolutions ... and is installing more centrifuges in its nuclear facilities," Hague said. "In the absence of change to these policies we will continue to maintain strong sanctions."
Hague said it is appropriate to "test the Iranian government's sincerity to the full" and that "channels of communication remain open."
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