By Ray Fleming

THE newly-elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, will be inaugurated in Tehran on 4 August. Britain has been invited to attend the ceremony but, according to reports yesterday, has declined. (Perhaps understandably the United States and Israel were not on the invitation list.) Rouhani won the election with proposals for a very different kind of presidency from that of his predecessor Ahmadinejad who always seemed to be looking for a fight. By contrast Rouhani, who is well known to Western diplomats from his previous roles, is liberally inclined by Iranian standards and apparently anxious to reset relationships pushed to extremity by Ahmadinejad. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that as Britain has had no representation in Tehran since attacks on its embassy there in 2011 it could not attend Rouhani's inauguration -- but added, rather snootily I thought, “We are open to improvements on a step-by-step basis”.

Did no one think that a useful first step might have been to show Britain's interest in “improvements” by showing up at the inauguration? The point that seems to be going by default in Britain and by the Obama administration is that Rouhani's election was not just a bit better than last time but may well have been the start of a new deal in Iran's relations with the West. That possibility should be tested by cautious engagement, not stand-offishness.