Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 6th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 14: Embassy Substitutes

p. 234, bottom paragraph, ‘Interests sections are usually very small’: I’m pretty sure that, as a general rule, this remains true. I was, therefore, surprised to discover recently from The [British] Diplomatic Service List 1985 that at the beginning of that year the British Interests Section in Tehran, which enjoyed the protection of the Swedish Embassy in the Iranian capital, had a diplomatic staff of as many as 14, housed in the British Embassy’s own buildings on Ferdowsi Avenue. So this was a substantial mission, even if still only half the size of its staff in 1978 before the embassy was closed following the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the notorious occupation of the US Embassy. The Times of London reports (20 and 21 January 1981) that initially just one British diplomat had been left behind but that by early 1981 the number had risen to four, so it is clear that it continued to rise more or less steadily over the subsequent four years. Interviewed many years later, Edward Chaplin, who became head of chancery at the interests section in January 1985, said: ‘Oddly enough, it was a rather lopsided arrangement because the Iranians still had an Embassy in London, but we only had an Interests Section in Tehran, although it was actually all a bit of a fiction because we operated very much as an Embassy. We were much larger than the Swedish Embassy that we were supposed to be part of, which was in another part of town and a much more modest setup, while we were still in the spacious Ferdowsi compound in central Tehran with the magnificent Residence.’ In view of Iran’s well justified and deeply ingrained suspicion of British interference in its affairs, coupled with Britain’s tacit support for Iraq in its war with Saddam Hussein’s regime going on at the time, on the face of it is remarkable that this expansion in the size of the British Interests section should have been tolerated. It was probably a reward by Iran for the fact that Britain had not formally severed diplomatic relations with it, thus allowing it to maintain a regular embassy in London – as noted by Chaplin – when it was suffering from considerable diplomatic isolation and a very worrying situation in the war. The junior Foreign Office minister at the time (and former ambassador to Iran), Sir John Graham, later admitted it had been a mistake to put the mission under the protection of another state and thought he should simply have temporarily withdrawn the British staff and then returned them ‘when it all cooled down’. But when he tried to do this, he continued, ‘the Iranians, scenting a conspiracy on our part, refused to allow them back. So we were stuck with a British Interests section in the Swedish embassy …’

Further reading
Crowley, Michael, ‘One of the Most Influential Ambassadors in Washington Isn’t One’, New York Times, 21 January 2023

Gardiner, Dustin, ‘UK diplomats plant a flag in San Francisco’, Politico, 22 December 2023