Ali Ansari: Why Iran is obsessed with the British





[Professor Ali Ansari is director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.]

In a briefing to heads of foreign missions in Tehran this week, Manochehr Mottaki, the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, lambasted the West for its criticism of the Iranian elections. Taking his lead from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr Mottaki reserved his severest criticism for Britain.

In what must rank as one of the most idiotic statements made by a serving Foreign Minister of an Iranian Government, Mr Mottaki charged that “they [the British Government] sent planes full of passengers to Iran with special intelligence and security ambitions”, providing as evidence of this apparent deluge of spies, the observation that “they had to turn the small flights to Tehran from the UK into Boeing 747 airliners”.

One wonders what the European ambassadors made of such a revelation, not least the British Ambassador, although one thought that may have crossed their minds was the inefficacy of the Iranian immigration and border police in stopping such a flood of intelligence officials into the country.

It is not unusual for Iranian officials to weave narratives of extraordinary complexity, and indeed, Iranians are often criticised for their conspiratorial turn of mind. But in this case, as with much else over the past two weeks, the presentation has been blunt and clumsy.

The madness does, of course, have some method attached to it. It has succeeded, for instance, in shifting the news stories from the suppression of dissent inside Iran to the international dimensions of the crisis. And, of course, this kind of rhetoric plays to a particular constituency in Iran, which still sees Britain as the root of all evil.

Perceptions of Britain as the “wily fox” run deep in the Iranian political class - some are even convinced that American foreign policy is dictated by Whitehall - and, if this is tinged with admiration, it nonetheless betrays a profound anxiety about the role of Britain in modern Iranian history.

Britain, or more accurately England, has enjoyed relations with Iran stretching back to the beginning of the 17th century, longer than those it has with many European states. But formal diplomatic relations were not established until the beginning of the 19th century when Britain sought to secure Iranian friendship against the ambitions of Napoleonic France and, later, Tsarist Russia, in defence of British India.

These relations crystallised at a time when Iranian power was in decline and the British Empire was in the ascendant, so it was never a relationship of equals. The Iranians felt this loss of power acutely.

Iranian politicians often struggled to balance the demands of Russia and Britain as the two imperial powers struggled for dominance in the region. Russia was always the more brutal of the two, but Britain left deeper political scars. Quite why this should be so is a matter of some debate - but the meddling of the British Imperial Bank of Persia, and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company played a part. It was the nationalisation of the oil company in 1951 that led ultimately to the Anglo-American coup against the nationalist Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. This last event, in particular, has left a deep impression among Iranians, although its exploitation by the Government in recent years has been opportunistic.

That is not to say that those who push this anti-British agenda do not believe in it. President Ahmadinejad's world-view, largely supported by the Supreme Leader, is deeply antithetical and suspicious of the West. But Britain, not America - whoever is in the White House - has been the target of their wrath...



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