British, Russian Envoys Summoned Over Photo

On August 12, Iran summoned the British and Russian ambassadors for posing in a photo commemorating the meeting of Allied leaders in Tehran during World War II. The photo, tweeted by the Russian embassy on August 11, recalled a picture of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1943 Tehran Conference. Russian Ambassador Levan Dzhagaryan and British Ambassador Simon Shercliff sat in approximately the same positions as Stalin and Churchill. The space that had been occupied by President Roosevelt was left vacant.

Iranians on social media demanded that the two diplomats be expelled from the country. “The ambassadors are insulting all Iranians,” tweeted Sayed Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, on August 11. “The Tehran Conference was a violation of Iranian sovereignty and symbolic of the historic crimes committed by the US, Russia and UK against Iranians.”

The photo offended Iranians because it evoked memories of the Allied invasion and occupation of Iran during the Second World War. In August 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union (USSR) invaded Iran, a neutral state, to protect Allied supply lines to the USSR and secure Iran’s oil fields. The two countries captured Tehran within a week and divided the country into a northern zone occupied by the USSR and a southern zone occupied by Britain. For the Allies, the capture of Iran and subsequent Tehran Conference were major milestones in the war. In 1943, the “Big Three” – Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt – met in person for the first time and agreed to open a second front in Western Europe by invading Nazi-occupied France by spring 1944.

The photo sparked outrage across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum. Outgoing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who served under centrist President Hassan Rouhani, condemned the picture as “extremely inappropriate.” Under the Islamic Republic, Iranians had shown “that their destiny can NEVER be subject to decisions in foreign embassies or by foreign powers,” Zarif tweeted on August 11. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, President Ebrahim Raisi's hardline nominee for foreign minister, said that the photo “showed disregard for diplomatic etiquette and the national pride of the Iranian people.”

Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative opponent of the Rouhani administration, demanded that the Russian and British diplomats “swiftly and officially apologize.” Failure to do so would lead to a “decisive diplomatic response,” he warned.

The Russian embassy clarified that the photo was meant to “pay tribute” to the Allied war effort during World War II but stopped short of issuing a public apology. “We would like to note that it does not have any anti-Iranian context,” the embassy tweeted on August 11. “We were not going to offend the feelings of the friendly Iranian people.” British Ambassador Shercliff retweeted the Russian explanation but did not post one of his own publicly.

The diplomatic message failed to assuage Iranian concerns. On August 12, the foreign ministry summoned both ambassadors. Ambassador Dzhagaryan reiterated that the photo’s intention was to pay homage to “Russian-British unity against the Nazi army,” according to Tehran’s readout of the meeting. Alireza Haghighian, Director General of Eurasia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Dzhagaryan that “posting of such a picture, even if with the same intention that the Russian ambassador had explained, was unacceptable.” Ambassador Shercliff expressed regret over the misunderstanding and said that there was no ill intention behind the photo, Iran’s foreign ministry reported. “The great people of Iran have proven throughout history that they strongly reject any move emanating from arrogant thoughts and will resist against it,” Peyman Saadat, Director-General for Western Europe, told Shercliff.

The diplomatic incident occurred shortly after the new British ambassador had arrived in Tehran on August 10. Shercliff previously lived in Iran from 2000 to 2003 while serving as a political officer in the British Embassy in Tehran, his first post abroad. “As Ambassador, I see that there are many opportunities, as well as challenges, that lie ahead in the U.K.-Iran relationship with all its long and complex history,” he said in Persian in a video announcing his arrival.