July 21, 2019
Iran Confrontation With U.K. Reflects History of Bad BloodBreaking News
tags: Iran, United Kingdom
The reopening of the British embassy in Tehran was meant to usher in a new era in relations. As the Union Jack flag was raised above the lush, landscaped gardens of the complex in August 2015, then-Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the event marked “an important milestone.”
That was just six weeks after an international accord was reached to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief from penalties that had strangled its economy. But since the accord started to unravel last year, tensions between Britain and Iran have been growing.
Then came Friday’s dramatic seizure of a British-linked tanker in the Gulf, a tit-for-tat response to the U.K.’s detention of a vessel carrying Iranian oil through the Mediterranean Sea. The U.K. has threatened Iran with “serious consequences,” which could include a package of sanctions.
How did things get so bad? The U.K. is after all part of a European trio trying to rescue the nuclear deal U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of, triggering its demise. But it is also breaking away from the European Union and desperate for a free-trade agreement with the U.S., still the world’s dominant economy.
In short, its geopolitical priorities are complex.
Britain’s relations with Iran stretch back to the 1600s and are marked by periods of conflict, some were resolved fairly swiftly, others endure to this day. For example, Iranians still blame Britain for a famine 100 years ago. Underlying it all is a sense the U.K. is playing a double game.
“Iranians are obsessed with the idea that the British are the arch-manipulators in the background, manipulating the U.S.,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of modern history in the Middle East at the U.K.’s University of St. Andrews. “It dominates the narrative in a way you’d never imagine.”
Brexit-ravaged Britain is trapped in a political crisis, transitioning from one prime minister to another. The two Conservative candidates slugging it out to become leader also happen to be both the current and former foreign secretary: Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, favored to win and whom Trump calls a friend.
Iran was never a colony of the Empire on paper, but nevertheless the U.K. has wielded outsized influence in the country over centuries. During the Great Game of the 19th century, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, battled for dominance in Central Asia, Persia was caught in the middle.
It struggled to balance the demands of the two imperial powers and though Russia was always the more brutal of the two, Britain left deeper political scars. That’s partly because events of the early 20th century “altered the historical perspective,” Ansari said.
Then, as now, those events revolved around oil.
In 1901 British entrepreneur William Knox D’Arcy began searching for oil in Persia and under the terms of a deal struck with the monarchy, he became the sole owner of whatever oil he’d find, while Persia would get just 16% of profits annually and no say over how the company was run. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was born seven years later when D’Arcy’s surveyors discovered crude beneath the southern desert.
“Fortune brought us a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams,” said Winston Churchill, who was in charge of the Navy at the time and oversaw its switch from coal to oil.
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