Is Iran seeking closer ties with Boris Johnson?

Senior Iranian officials have been sending positive signals to Boris Johnson since he replaced Theresa May as British prime minister last week.

This comes as both countries are locked in a dispute over the seizure of the Iranian-flagged super tanker Grace-1 off Gibraltar by British Royal Marines; and the subsequent seizure of UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) earlier this month.

Iranian messaging

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  was quick off the block in congratulating Johnson. Zarif’s reaction came on 23 July, almost immediately after Johnson won the race to become the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and even before he formally took office as prime minister on the next day.

“The May government’s seizure of Iranian oil at behest of US is piracy, pure and simple. I congratulate my former counterpart, @BorisJohnson on becoming UK Prime Minister. Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters and we will protect them,” Zarif tweeted in English.

Later on the same day, the Iranian ambassador to London joined his boss in congratulating Johnson, expressing hope that his experience will ease tensions between Iran and the UK.

Hamid Baeidinejad also noted that Johnson was the only UK prime minister who had visited Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (although not in his capacity as PM).

“Congratulations to Mr. Johnson becoming Prime Minister. Apparently he is the sole PM in past 40Ys who has visited Iran and had a direct dialogue with its senior officials. Hope that his knowledge and experience lead us to immediately defuse tension and promote better relations,” the ambassador tweeted in English.

On the next day, a top official called on Iranians not to judge Boris Johnson “hastily”, according to the official IRNA news agency.

The Head of President Hassan Rouhani’s Office, Mahmoud Vaezi, noted that Britain is preoccupied with Brexit; therefore, “we have to wait and see what policies Johnson adopts”.

“When a prime minister changes in a country, one cannot say that things will change overnight; but he was the foreign secretary once. Judgments now about his ministry are too hasty and one must wait [and see]. On the other hand, the biggest issue and problem he is facing is Brexit; an issue that is impacting all other domestic and foreign matters in parliamentary deliberations, and matters related to how to exit the EU. To this end, we have to wait and see what policies Johnson adopts,” said Vaezi.

Seeking better ties and amicable relations

Next came the president himself. Rouhani extended his congratulations to Johnson on 28 July, hoping for better Tehran-London relations.

According to his official website, Rouhani expressed the hope that Johnson’s “familiarity with Iran and UK relations” and his one-time visit to Tehran could help remove the “existing obstacles”.

Rouhani added that he wanted to see “improved and expanded relations in every area” during Johnson’s premiership.

Boris “loves Iran”

But the media in Iran, especially newspapers, have not been impressed by the UK’s new prime minister.

His ascendency made front-page headlines in all newspapers on 24 July, with almost every outlet comparing the new Conservative Party leader to US President Donald Trump.

The phrase “Trump multiplying” appeared in the headlines of numerous papers, including economic daily Donyay-e Eqtesad, hardline outlet Javan, and Tehran Municipality-run Hamshahri.

Economic daily Sanat described Johnson as “Trump’s English double”, while reformist paper Etemad said the new prime minister was “the choice of extremists”.

Even so, Iran’s English-language Press TV July broadcast an exclusive interview with Stanley Johnson, Boris’s father, on 24 July.

The interview was recorded the previous day outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London after Boris Johnson was declared the winner of the Conservative Party leadership race. Johnson senior said his son “loves” Iran and said he hoped that Boris would resolve the tanker dispute between Tehran and London.

Boris has “a great sense of history”, his father said, adding: “Iran to him means Darius, Xerxes… Iran means so much to him.” Stanley Johnson was referring to ancient Persian Achaemenid kings.

On the ongoing tanker crisis, Stanley Johnson said: “The best thing to say is, look, we let your ship go, you let our ship go, easy peasy.”

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