With protests flaring on the streets of Iran, Tehran has singled out one foreign power for particular criticism — and it’s not the one you might expect.
There has been criticism of the United States, known in Iran as “the Great Satan” since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago, but it’s the United Kingdom that Iran’s supreme leader has accused of treachery. Iran expelled two British diplomats this week and recalled its ambassador from London after the United Kingdom kicked out two Iranian diplomats in response to the expulsions of their own envoys. That’s a move Iran can’t make against the United States, of course, since the two countries have had no diplomatic relations since 1979 and no ambassadors in each other’s countries. But Iran has been suspicious, even hostile, towards England for centuries, experts point out. England and Russia were the dominant powers in the region in the 19th century, fighting the “Great Game” for influence across Asia. In the 20th century, England played an outsized role in Iran’s oil trade and helped overthrow a popular government, experts say.
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Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is trying to “revive anti-British feeling which he imagines is still in the Iranian psyche,” said Shaul Bakhash, a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University outside of Washington. “He is very, very adept at playing on these kinds of unconscious feelings in Iran. He raised the British bugbear to play on these,” Bakhash added. “There is a very strong memory of Britain’s domination, through British Petroleum, of Iran’s oil industry. One of the great political struggles of Iran’s modern history was the struggle to nationalize the oil industry in 1951-53,” he told CNN. Iran won that round, but sees itself as being on the losing side of an event that followed it, and that still burns in the national psyche. “The U.K. and the U.S. played a role in the overthrow of a very popular prime minister,” Mohammed Mossadeq, in 1953, Bakhash said. “The British were the principle instigators of a coup,” even though the CIA is normally blamed for it, he said. “England managed very cleverly to remain in the background,” Bakhash said, adding that London had been advocating support for a coup unsuccessfully with the Truman administration in Washington before the more amenable Eisenhower government came to power in early 1953. In a country where much of the population is younger than 30, few Iranians personally remember the events of 1953, he conceded, but national memories still persist. “Mossadeq unexpectedly has become more of a hero for the younger generation as well,” Bakhash said, with memories carried on in families and lessons taught in universities. More recent events show relations between Iran and the U.K. remain rocky. Full diplomatic ties were re-established only a decade ago, following a break after the 1979 revolution. Then, in 2002, Iran rejected London’s choice of David Reddaway — a Farsi speaker with an Iranian wife — to be ambassador to Tehran, riling London. “That is bound to affect the nature of the relationship” between the United Kingdom and Iran, then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the time, using a diplomatic formulation for expressing irritation. The current foreign secretary, David Miliband, went further in February of this year, criticizing Iran for “unacceptable pressure” on British Council staff in the country. Two staffers at the British government-funded cultural and educational organization in Iran had passports taken away, and many others were told to quit, the British Council said. Iran seemed to suggest at the time that British Council staff had been spying, accusing them of activities “contrary to international laws and conventions,” Iran’s state news agency said. The flap came only weeks after the BBC launched its Persian TV service, which seems to be a particular irritation to Iran. Iranian state media have condemned the BBC’s Persian-language broadcasting as “an instigator of these riots,” Bakhash said. “People have been brought on TV who ‘confessed’ to acting under the influence of radio and TV broadcasts.” Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran, said the idea that London is interfering in Iran’s internal affairs is “quite mistaken.” “We are not in the West seeking to take sides in this internal dispute,” he told CNN. He said Britain understood what was going on in Iran’s top circles. “When the supreme leader says so clearly that Britain is evil, and that Britain is conspiring, the Iranian system has to do something about that,” such as expel British diplomats — knowing London would have to respond. “If two of our diplomats are sent packing unjustifiably, the Iranians shouldn’t expect that their embassy in London should remain unscathed, and hence the retaliation,” he explained. He said he expected relations to improve after the current crisis passes. “I don’t think it’s in the interests of either country to see relations deteriorate to where they have been at times in the past,” he said. Iran and the West have mutual interests in the stability of Iran’s neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, he argued, and Iran would like the foreign investment that would come with full Western acceptance, which might depend on a resolution to Iran’s controversial nuclear program. That may be part of the reason Tehran’s criticism of the United States has been somewhat muted, Bakhash theorized. President Obama has been openly reaching out to Iran.
“There have been some very advanced feelers between Iran and the United States,” Bakhash said. “It could be that they were hoping to preserve that line.” For many reasons, then, it seems likely that London, not Washington, will remain Tehran’s whipping boy of choice in the current crisis.