After Sir Kim Darroch resigned as the British ambassador to Washington last week, everyone from leader writers in the Times to George Galloway on Russia Today was quoting Sir Henry Wotton’s line about an ambassador being ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’. Wotton wrote it in Latin in 1604 in the album amicorum (a sort of early modern autograph book) of a German acquaintance, en route to the Republic of Venice for his first embassy: ‘legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum reipublicae causa.’ It isn’t a pun in Latin, unfortunately: the verb mentior means ‘lie’ as in ‘deceive’ but not as in ‘lie down’.
The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.
Several years ago in Vienna, a senior Iranian diplomat made clear to me the mixture of pride and fear that drives Iran’s nuclear programme. Angry at the ‘insults’ of Western powers, he said that the programme’s success proved Iran was an ‘intelligent’ nation that would never ‘bow’ to pressure. ‘But that’s not to say a deal can’t be done,’ he added. 'Though it won’t be easy.’ He wasn't wrong. A deal has, after more than ten years of negotiations, been agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany) in Geneva. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it has been coming at least since Hassan Rouhani became president in June.
According to the UN watchdog, Paulo Pinheiro, speaking in the General Assembly on 29 July, Syria is in free fall: 100,000 dead; refugees and displaced persons in the millions; atrocities of every kind; no end to the fighting in sight. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron have been under pressure to ‘do something’, and most media attention has focused on arming the rebels – as if they were short of arms. Both leaders were initially tempted but seem to have come off the boil.
Julian Assange has been given diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. How did this peculiar situation arise and how will it end? I’m not concerned here with the rights and wrongs of the Assange story. In accordance with a court decision, the UK has a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden, and is determined to fulfil that obligation, as the FCO has stated. There are many myths about diplomatic immunity: that ambassadors are allowed to break the law, or that the Ecuadorian Embassy in London is legally Ecuadorian territory. I am not an international lawyer or a protocol expert, but, like all diplomats, I have some practical experience of the way diplomatic immunity and privileges work.
The decisions about Libya that William Hague announced this week brought back memories. I was involved in the expulsion of the Libyan ambassador Musa Kusa and half his staff from London in 1980, and I was myself expelled from Libya in 1984 with my family, my staff and their families following our decision to break off diplomatic relations because of the murder of Yvonne Fletcher. I was a little shocked to hear that the diplomats remaining in the Libyan Embassy have been told to leave within three days. Diplomats are people too, and sorting out your children's schools, selling your car, packing or disposing of your other property and so on takes longer than that.