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The picture shows Britain’s new ambassador Simon Shercliff meeting his Russian counterpart Levan Dzhagaryan on steps leading to the current Russian embassy. The photo, tweeted on Wednesday by the Russian embassy, shows the pair seated in a setting reminiscent of the 1943 Tehran conference meeting between then British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Churchill and Stalin, allies against Nazi Germany during World War II, were holding strategy talks with US president Franklin Roosevelt two years after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. Image Credit: Twitter

Tehran: An online photo of the Russian and British ambassadors to Tehran commemorating a historic meeting of allied leaders during World War II sparked a diplomatic row on Thursday in Iran, which had been invaded by the two powers during the period.

State media reported that Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned Levan Dzhagaryan and Simon Shercliff over the photo, even after the Russian embassy tweeted an explanation saying that it had posted the image only as a commemoration of the Allies’ fight against the Nazis.

The photo shows the two men sitting where Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill did for a photo atop the steps of the then-Soviet embassy, during the so-called Tehran Conference of the “Big Three’’ leading powers fighting Hitler’s Germany in 1943. The place occupied by US President Franklin Roosevelt was empty.

Iran’s outgoing foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called the photo “inappropriate,’’ given that Russia and Britain had invaded Iran in 1941. August marks the 80th anniversary of the campaign, when Soviet and British armored divisions swept in largely unopposed to secure oil fields and Russian supply lines through Iran, officially neutral but considered pro-Germany at the time.

Did you know?
* In 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran to secure oil fields and use its railroads for the Soviets fighting the Nazi-led Axis forces in Europe. Tehran had already announced its neutrality in the war.
Iranians suffered during the occupation with food, fuel and other essentials becoming scarce amid mounting inflation especially when the needs of invading powers were given priority.
* Tensions between Iran and Britain have risen over an attack last month on a tanker in which a Briton died. Britain blamed Tehran, which denied involvement.

Zarif drew a connection between the photo and the stalled negotiations with world powers over Iran’s nuclear programme, aimed at capping Iran’s uranium enrichment activities in return for a lifting of sanctions that have worsened the nation’s already ailing economy.

“The Iranian people have shown_including during the JCPOA talks — that their destiny can NEVER be subject to decisions in foreign embassies or by foreign powers,’’ Zarif wrote on Twitter.

Iran’s parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf called the photo “immoral’’ and urged for a “strong’’ diplomatic reaction if the two ambassadors do not apologise officially. Backlash also reverberated on social media.

Foreign minister-designate Hossein Amirabdollahian said it "showed disregard for diplomatic etiquette and the national pride of the Iranian people".

"During the meeting, the Russian ambassador stated that his intention to publish this photo was merely a reminder of Russia's alliance with Britain against the Nazi army during World War Two," Iran's foreign ministry said in a statement.

"There was no anti-Iranian motive behind the photo," the statement added, according to state TV.

While emphasising friendly relations between Iran and Russia, an Iranian foreign ministry official made clear that publication of the photograph "was not acceptable", the statement said.

The Russian embassy said it had no wish to cause offence.

"Taking into account the ambiguous reaction to our photo, we would like to note that it does not have any anti-Iranian context. We were not going to offend the feelings of the friendly Iranian people," it tweeted.

"The only meaning that this photo has to pay tribute to the joint efforts of the allied states against Nazism during the Second World War. Iran is our friend and neighbor, and we will continue to strengthen relations based on mutual respect" the Russian embassy added.

Shercliff retweeted the comments.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency said the British envoy "regretted the misunderstanding" over the picture and said that "there was no bad intention behind it".

Iranian authorities say they see Moscow as a "strategic partner" in talks between Tehran and six powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal that Washington abandoned three years ago.

Russia, alongside Britain, France, China, Germany and the US, have not met for months at the Vienna negotiation site.

Tehran and Moscow have improved their relations in recent decades after Russia built Iran’s sole nuclear power plant in southern Iranian port of Bushehr. They have also increased military cooperation, and Russia delivered hundreds of thousand vaccines to Iran to fight COVID-19.