British foreign secretary tells MPs talks are under way and diplomatic atmosphere is more positive under President Hassan Rouhani

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, revealed to MPs on Tuesday that talks with the Iranian government had taken place last week in a much more positive atmosphere following intensifying diplomatic contacts in the wake of the election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani in June.

Progress would have to take place on a “step-by-step reciprocal basis”, Mr. Hague said, but he made it clear the moves would pave the way to reopen the British embassy. “We are open to more direct contact,” he said, adding that the coming months “may be unusually significant” in British-Iranian relations.

A non-resident diplomat is to be appointed by both countries and talks have already been held about the key issues of numbers and conditions for local staff — often harassed in the past by the Iranian authorities. Inspection of premises was another issue being addressed.

“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,” Mr. Hague said. “There is no doubt that the tone of the meetings with them is different. We must test the Iranian government’s sincerity to the full, and it is important that our channels of communication are open for that.”

Britain shut Iran’s embassy in London in November 2011 and expelled all its staff after its counterpart in Tehran was stormed in a way the UK insisted could not have taken place without the consent of the Iranian authorities. A crowd ransacked offices and burned British flags in a protest over sanctions imposed by Britain. The mission was closed and all UK staff were evacuated following the attack, the most violent of a series of incidents that marked a deterioration in relations due to Iran’s wider dispute with the west over its nuclear programme.

Mr. Hague said the “much more positive” tone from Iran would need to be matched by “concrete action and a viable approach” when the long-stalled nuclear talks resume in Geneva next week. He described a “step by step reciprocal approach” that he hinted would also help Iranian moderates win arguments with hardliners in the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Hague also surveyed hopes for progress on holding a new Geneva peace conference on Syria, but said it was not clear whether Iran, a key supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, would be invited to take part. “Iran will need to change its actual policies on the ground, which include supporting a regime which is murdering its people in huge numbers,” Mr. Hague said.

© Guardian News & Media 2013

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