FT /David Cameron and Hassan Rouhani meet in UN amid signs of thaw

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SHAFAQNA – British prime minister David Cameron on Wednesday met Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, the first such encounter between leaders of the two countries since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

The meeting, which was first revealed on Mr Rouhani’s Twitter account, was the latest sign of a thaw in the relationship between the two countries after the UK closed its embassy in Tehran three years ago following an attack by a mob.

The two leaders are in New York for the UN general assembly, a forum which Mr Rouhani has used to try to loosen the international isolation of his country. He met French president François Hollande on Tuesday, although no encounter is yet planned with US President Barack Obama.

As Mr Cameron left the meeting, he was overheard calling it “a little bit of history”.

The meeting comes after months of tentative diplomacy between the two countries, culminating in the announcement by the UK that it intended to reopen its embassy in Tehranthis year.

While the UN meetings are taking place in New York this week, Iran is also involved in the latest round of talks about its nuclear programme with world powers – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China.

After their meeting on Tuesday, Mr Hollande’s office issued a statement saying that “the president hopes the negotiations can end quickly” but that “Iran must put in place concrete measures that show . . . it will not acquire a military nuclear capability”.

In June, William Hague, then foreign secretary, said the embassy in Iran would reopen. Over the past year, Mr Hague and his successor Philip Hammond have met a number of times with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.

For many Iranians, Britain remains a sinister player in its contemporary history. Conspiracy theories involving Britain go back to the early 20th century when the UK dominated Iran’s oilfields before they were nationalised.

Britain is also blamed for encouraging the US-engineered 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister – an event that pushed the country into a dark period of dictatorship that eventually led to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Such is the legacy of distrust and the power of conspiracy theories in Tehran that many ordinary Iranians believe the ruling clergy in Iran were brought to power by British politicians to retard the country’s development.

Some Iranian politicians are also convinced Britain is the most powerful country in the world and behind many US policies – at least in the Middle East. “It is the UK that is the superpower not the US, and Queen [Elizabeth] is more powerful than any heads of states,” one regime insider in Tehran said recently.

Iran’s hardliners stormed the UK embassy in 2011, prompting Britain to cut off diplomatic ties. Tehran leaders, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, subsequently lashed out at vigilantes for interfering in foreign policies.

But such remarks did not convince Britain that the attack was not authorised at the highest echelons of the regime, and Britain refused to reopen its embassy, citing security concerns. Since Mr Rouhani was swept to power last year, the two countries have been working on reopening of embassies and normalisation of ties.

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