Alex Salmond, the shrewd and battle-hardened politician responsible for the rise of Scottish political separatism, was in Tehran just before Christmas. He was leading a delegation from his Scottish National Party (SNP), which has ruled Scotland’s autonomous political institutions since 2007 and today is the third-largest party in the British House of Commons. Supposedly the talks with Iranian officials were about trade, but Scotland does nearly all of its trade with the rest of the UK and produces little liable to excite the Iranians (other than any with a taste for illicit Western alcohol).
In reality, Salmond, a pugnacious insurgent politician who enjoys playing the role of a serial rule-breaker, had arranged the visit in order to raise Scotland’s profile on the world stage. Foreign policy (along with defense) is the prerogative of Westminster, but as the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman Salmond often tries to flout that convention.
The trouble for him, however, is that his noisy and assertive brand of nationalism currently repels far more global players than it attracts. Anti-British nationalism received little high-level backing during the acrimonious referendum campaign on Scottish independence in 2013–14. Instead, world leaders greeted with dismay the eruption of territorial nationalism in an island long regarded as a model of continuity and stability. Even China’s rulers firmly distanced themselves from a British territorial split, no doubt aware of the tremendous boost it might give to the forces of political separatism worldwide.
Iran has been one of the few influential countries to play along with Salmond’s untiring drive for both national and personal aggrandizement. The SNP, for its part, is prepared to overlook the Islamic Republic’s unattractive political features. After the trip, the party’s trade spokesperson, Tasmina Sheikh-Ahmed (who is one of 191 female MPs in the British House of Commons) even asserted that the allegedly unsatisfactory record of the British government on women’s rights merited comparison to the Iranian government’s.
The systematic oppression of women isn’t one of them, but Iran and Scotland do have a number of things in common. They are both oil producers, though Iran’s deposits of oil eclipse Scotland’s, whose industry is in decline. According to the BBC, Scotland’s oil industry lost about 65,000 jobs in 2014–15 and, for the first time in decades, “more was spent on UK offshore oil and gas operations than was earned in production.” It is doubtful that Salmond will attract any leading oil entrepreneurs on the SNP’s full-blown trade mission to Tehran, scheduled for this spring.
In addition, nuclear energy and its military offshoots are central to the politics of both countries, though in different ways. Not only is the SNP hostile to nuclear energy, but it wishes to cripple NATO’s nuclear deterrent by closing the British submarine base that has been located in Scottish waters for half a century. Yet Salmond has no qualms about Iran becoming a major player in the nuclear energy field. He courted Tehran even during the hardline presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when Iran showed every sign of pursuing nuclear weapons.
Both Iran and the vocal Scots separatists also openly endorse a multi-polar world order in which the United States plays a much-reduced role. It is likely that the credibility of the SNP in Tehran’s eyes was enhanced when, early in Obama’s presidency, the Edinburgh government decided to release the man convicted in a Scottish court of blowing up a Pan Am jet in 1988 and killing 259 people, 180 of them U.S. citizens. Hillary Clinton twice telephoned a minister in Salmond’s government to plead with him to think again, but to no avail. According to the Tehran-based Tasnim news agency, on his trip Salmond told Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, that Scotland’s “ruling party has always been against the decisions Westerners make against Iran and believes these decisions, which have caused many problems for Iran as well as other countries, are fundamentally wrong.”
Many members at all levels of the SNP see challenging the United States as proving their own progressivism. Such a posture would likely define a separatist Scotland’s global relations. Furthermore, in the event of Scottish independence, the decline of the West’s second-strongest military power would be unavoidable. NATO would have to rely on nuclear defenses situated not in Europe but in the United States. Without Britain’s restraining role, a number of EU states would be tempted to cut a deal with Iran irrespective of the nature of the regime in charge.
There is rarely any dissent in the regimented Scottish party as it takes ever-bolder steps to tighten its hold over state and society. But the regime in Tehran may contain a much broader array of interests, a testimony to the different power centers within the Islamic Republic. Some of the more pragmatic forces may be genuinely worried by the Islamic State’s ability to project its influence in Afghanistan and therefore become a threat to Iran on its eastern border. Regime players who fear the capacity of ISIS to damage Iran may therefore have looked unfavorably on the SNP’s inaction when the British Parliament agreed in December to launch targeted air strikes on ISIS positions in Syria.
The SNP now hardly bothers to conceal its desire to portray Scotland as frustrated and alienated, an understanding observer of global players who are challenging international norms, sometimes forcefully. It has forged a pathway to power by building a coalition of alienated class, religious, and ethnic interests within the country and is likely to win the next elections, expected in May, with considerable ease. But it is increasingly out on a limb in its own northwest European neighborhood, where the consensus from Ireland to Scandinavia is that there is still a pressing need for a strong an undivided Britain.
The Obama Administration shows few overt signs of concern about Scotland becoming a wild card in the geopolitics of northwest Europe and pivoting toward Iran. Not for many years has an administration stood quite so aloof from some of its traditional allies. It might do well to recall that the Anglo-Scottish Union was a pioneering exercise in power-sharing and reconciliation in a Europe beset by recurring conflicts. Even if Obama has gambled on a diplomatic reset with Iran, it ought to be more obvious in Washington that a separatist movement keen to eclipse Britain’s role in the world and make dubious friendships abroad would not replace the current British order with anything better.