ALEX Salmond has headed a surprise SNP-led delegation to Tehran aimed at “building a partnership” to further economic and cultural links between Iran and Scotland.

But the former First Minister has been accused of trying to “hollow out” the role of the UK Government in a strategy aimed at giving the impression Scotland is already an independent country.

Mr Salmond, who is now the party’s foreign affairs spokesman at Westminster, pointed out that as Iran began to rejoin the international community many countries were already opening up new trade links and Scotland could not afford to be left behind.

The ex-party leader noted how the SNP delegation would be followed by a business mission in the spring but this has led political opponents to suggest Mr Salmond is beginning the process of trying to create a distinctive Scottish foreign policy, separate from the UK Government’s.

The Gordon MP led a delegation of six colleagues, who included fellow MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the party’s trade and investment spokeswoman, who is also vice-chairwoman of the all-party group on Iran, and Bill Kidd MSP, the party’s chief whip at Holyrood, who co-chairs a parliamentary group for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

Also on the delegation, which has now returned, was Azzam Mohammad, director of the Ahl Al Bait Society in Scotland, whose knowledge of Iran and the Middle East was influential in staging the visit.

The SNP explained the delegation was invited by, and hosted by, the Iranian Parliament who paid for all expenses during the trip. The travel costs, however, were met by the SNP Westminster Group.

In July, after 20 months of negotiation, the so-called P5+1 – the UK, US, France, China, Russia and Germany - struck a deal to lift international sanctions against Iran in return for Tehran curbing sensitive nuclear activities, which it insists are for entirely peaceful purposes.

Under the agreement, EU members agreed to lift sanctions in finance, banking and insurance; oil and gas; shipping and transport; and other sectors, while also unfreezing the assets of Iranian banks, including the Central Bank of Iran, as well as individuals and other organisations. As part of the re-engagement, in September the UK Government reopened its embassy in the Iranian capital.

Mr Salmond said: “The international agreement with Iran and rapprochement with the West, which has accompanied it, is the single most positive development in international relations over the last year and the most important diplomatic achievement of the Obama administration.

“Now that Iran has taken these steps forward to return to international community, many countries have been pursuing the prospect of a new market place for their goods and a new trading partner.

“It is vital that Scotland is not left behind as our key strengths, particularly in education, agricultural technology and oil and gas and finance, are precisely what Iran will find useful after 25 years of sanctions.”

The former FM explained the mission, which lasted a number of days, involved talks not only with a number of Iranian ministers whose portfolios included foreign affairs, education, agriculture and energy but also with the Governor of the Iranian Central Bank.

This will pave the way for an education and business delegation in the spring, which will then be reciprocated by a similar group from Iran to Scotland.

“By establishing a dialogue based on the sound Scottish principle of enlightened self-interest, we are building a partnership that will serve both countries well for the future,” added Mr Salmond.

But the Liberal Democrats’ Alistair Carmichael, the former Scottish Secretary, suggested Mr Salmond’s delegation was all part of a Nationalist plan to create the impression that Scotland was already an independent country with its own foreign policy.

He said: “It has been the strategy of the SNP since 2007 to hollow out the role of the UK Government in Scottish public life and this is just the latest example of that.

“Scotland can take advantage of improved and improving relations with Iran and other countries and that is done through the Foreign Office.

“Building relations with a country, which has the recent history of Iran, is a delicate and finely nuanced business and many people will wonder whether Alex Salmond is best-placed to do a job like that,” added the MP for Orkney and Shetland.

Meantime, Mr Kidd said that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s announcement that there was no evidence of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme would “open many possibilities for trade and cultural exchange” but also lead to greater engagement between Iranian parliamentarians and western counterparts, who were working towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

“Scotland has a world-wide reputation, both civically and politically, for opposition to the continued existence of nuclear weapons both at home and internationally and the Scottish Government is both in favour of a nuclear weapons convention and of UN General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon’s Five-Point-Plan for a world free from nuclear weapons,” declared Mr Kidd.

“Iran’s re-emergence on the world stage as a full international partner in the debate on nuclear disarmament can only enhance the prospects of achieving that goal, which is the aim of the great majority of nations and peoples across the globe,” he added.

Ms Ahmed-Sheikh argued that the re-establishment of formal links with Iran would “go a great way to facilitating the process of restoring significant trade links between our countries”.

She stressed that it was also important to use the opportunity in every ministerial meeting to raise human rights issues both international and domestic to Iran including gender equality.

“In particular, we believe the opportunity for developing educational links with Iran is huge,” she declared.

The Ochil and South Perthshire MP explained that at present more than half of Iranians aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in some form of higher education in the country; of these, around 85 per cent paid privately for their education.

Every year, Iranian parents spent more than £1.5 billion, supporting their children through higher education and of the 900,000 or so students who applied in 2011 for a master’s degree in Iran, only 60,000 or more than six percent of applicants were accepted.

“This would indicate a key area of investment within Iran and an opportunity for educational institutions elsewhere to meet this demand. Educational partnerships will be good for us and good for Iran,” added Ms Ahmed-Sheikh.