Saturday, June 27, 2009

Perfidious Albion

A curious feature of the late insurgency in Iran has been the tendency of Iranian officials to blame the popular uprising not on the United States or Israel, but Great Britain. Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki, for instance, claimed that the British government instigated the demonstrations in Teheran and other cities by sending 747s full of security agents to Iran. It appears that Iranian cultural and religious leaders have long viewed Perfidious Albion as the great puppet-master responsible for their nation's political and economic ills. In 1951 the nationalist Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, told Averall Harriman to beware of the British: "You don't know how crafty they are. You don't know how evil they are." Almost thirty years later, the Shah and his followers charged Britain - in particular, the BBC, which had given airtime to the Ayatollah Khomenei - with starting the 1979 revolution in order to drive up the price of oil, which would increase the profitability of North Sea Oil. (William Shawcross, The Shah's Last Ride [New York, 1988], 64 [quote], 227, 343.) Since the revolution, Christopher Hitchens recently noted, the theocracy's staged demonstrations against foreign powers have inevitably included denunciations of Britain. A member of the state's Guardian Council even claimed a few years ago that the British government had organized the London terror bombings of 7/7/05.

Some of the historical causes of Iranian Anglophobia are obvious: Britain spent a good part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meddling in Iran's domestic affairs. British firms secured substantial economic concessions in Persia under the Qajar dynasty, including control of the kingdom's banking and oil industries. Britain also joined Russia in invading and occupying Iran during World War Two, to prevent the nation from becoming a German ally, and in 1953 MI6 joined the CIA in a covert operation that toppled Mossadegh and made the Shah an absolute monarch. The intensity of the Iranian government's anti-British sentiment, however, is hard to fathom given that the regime has two more dangerous and well-armed foreign adversaries, namely America and Israel. Perhaps the sentiment is a byproduct of a historical dynamic mentioned by Ali Ansari: Iran first entered formal diplomatic relations with Britain at a time when Persian power was declining and British power was increasing. Iranian political and cultural leaders might well have drawn the conclusion that this shift in power was due to British conspiracies - and their historical experience of British exploitation and intervention could only have confirmed the hypothesis.

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