Why Iranians Are Burning The Union Jack

The storming of the British embassy in Tehran may have been triggered by the recent sanctions, but the roots of distrust and hostility towards the UK in Iran lie well beyond present day matters.
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The storming of the British embassy in Tehran may have been triggered by the recent sanctions, but the roots of distrust and hostility towards the UK in Iran lie well beyond present day matters.

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On Tuesday, the capital of Iran witnessed the quintessential event of a deteriorating international relationship: the storming of the foe’s national embassy - as the British compound in Tehran came under attack. The scenes showing Union Jacks set alight, portraits of The Queen ripped from the walls and seething crowds chanting ‘death to England’ made for uncomfortable viewing as the foreign office fretted over the safety of its diplomats.

Perhaps we can partly attribute the episode to a classic piece of anti-western theatre on behalf of the Islamic Regime and its Revolutionary Guards, reminiscent of the US hostage crisis in 1979, but the student involvement and popular hostility towards the British government is significant, and points to events that go well beyond the current sanctions imposed on Iran for their nuclear activity. One of yesterday’s protestors referred to the British embassy as a ‘centre for spying’, and when you delve into the past of the Anglo-Iranian relationship, it is not hard to understand why bitterness and suspicion remains towards Britain and its policies.

The 19th century marks a crucial period in the tale. Western powers were flexing their imperial muscles worldwide and the once great Persian Empire drew the attention of Britain and Russia particularly. Keen to exert geopolitical influence and glean natural resources, the two Western powers jostled for authority in Iran throughout the century. The British were shrewd in identifying the ruling Qajar princes’ penchant for a bribe and struck political and commercial deals that filled the deep pockets of the rulers but did little to meaningfully support a weakening and impoverished Iranian nation. Downing’s Street’s diplomats were adept at exploiting the Persian state’s disregard for its people in order to enhance its imperial power.

As this became apparent to the Iranian population, a revolution against the Qajars and the Western inference they had sanctioned was launched at the beginning of the 20th century. Cleverly turning events in their favour, the British embassy in Northern Tehran fell into the spotlight as it did yesterday, by opening its gates to protect the protestors within the gardens of its embassy compound. Reversing their support of the ruling monarchy, Britain encouraged the embassy-dwelling revolutionaries to propose a constitutionalist system in the style of the Western political models. That they did, but the new democratic order that was confirmed in 1906 was a complete failure, as outside a small band of intellectuals no concept of constitutionalism existed in Iran. Thus, politicians and people alike had little idea how to operate in the alien Western system that had been thrust upon them.

Downing’s Street’s diplomats were adept at exploiting the Persian state’s disregard for its people in order to enhance its imperial power.

These particular matters were soon relegated in importance, however. The stakes for Britain in Iran were to rocket shortly after the revolution owing to a three letter word that has gone on to dictate so much of the West’s rancid foreign policy in the Middle East: oil. Reports of Iran’s oil potential had been circulating for some time, prompting businessman William Knox D’Arcy to fund a mining operation that struck gold in 1908 when vast reserves were discovered. This gave birth to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) which later became the modern day British Petroleum (BP).

The AIOC spread its wings across the region, becoming a major asset of the British Empire and consequently a symbol of mistrust and hatred for the Iranian people. In a similar manner to the modern day BP refineries scattered worldwide, working conditions and accommodation for the native Iranian miners was appalling. And on the scandalous terms of the oil concession, their toil earned the country just 16% of the AIOC’s net profits. A young Winston Churchill was key in making the British government de facto controllers of the company, so as poverty, government corruption and a lack of modernisation continued to pervade Iran, it was the ‘meddling Brits’ that bore much of the people’s venom and were blamed for society’s problems.

Hence the widespread delight when the clever and compassionate Mohammad Mossadegh became Prime Minister in 1951 – promising to revive democratic principles, end government corruption and improve the lives of struggling masses. The key component of his masterplan was negotiating a higher share of the nation’s oil reserves, which he said would fund the ‘combat of poverty, disease and backwardness among the people’. But the British wouldn’t budge. Mossadegh was happy for Britain to maintain 25% of the profit share but Churchill, now in his second spell as Prime Minister, and the AIOC still wanted a strong majority, and a smear campaign against Mossadegh to weaken his position was subsequently launched by the foreign office.

Though the European-educated Prime Minister was renowned for humbleness, integrity and good relations with Western politicians, the British press villainised Mossadegh, presenting him as a kind of rabid Communist madman. This helped win support from America who allowed the CIA to execute a brutal coup d’etat to topple Mossadegh’s government. Negotiations abandoned in favour of illegal force. A Western puppet was restored to Tehran in the form of the hated Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Mossadegh, the man who dared to help his country instead of pocketing British money, was imprisoned and placed on house arrest for the remainder of his life; his supporters were rounded up, tortured and executed. Morality, ethics and international law mattered very little for Britain and the West, as crucially, influence in Iran and control over the nation’s oil reserves had been preserved.

The embassy storming may have been triggered by the sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear operations...but the vehemence, anger and bitterness that characterised the protestors’ actions points to issues lying far beyond the present.

It’s an historical episode that Churchill supporters and BP tycoons have chosen to forget. But the Iranian people haven’t, as we saw on Tuesday. The British interference brought 25 years of oppressive rule from the Shah and his vicious secret police force, before the 1979 revolution to end his reign was hijacked by the Mullahs, who broke promise after promise on their way to establishing the utterly reprehensible regime that remains in power today.

The embassy storming may have been triggered by the sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear operations and may also partly represent another product of the internal power struggle taking place within the Iranian regime. But the vehemence, anger and bitterness that characterised the protestors’ actions points to issues lying far beyond the present. The strong anti-British sentiment we saw can only be understood by recognising Britain’s history in Iran. You don’t have to be a supporter of the Islamic regime to hold a suspicion and mistrust of British politicians as an Iranian. The underhand dealings and Imperial gamesmanship of the past will ensure the UK never slips too far behind America and Israel as the country’s chief foes.

Nuclear programmes or not, the world would be a far better place without the current regime in Tehran and few would defend the mullah’s terrible rule. Yet nullification of the government must come from the inside as well as outside. To effectively stifle the Islamic Republic, Britain and the West needs the Iranian people on its side. But as this latest diplomatic crisis shows, the damage inflicted by their sordid imperial past, not to mention its twenty-first century foreign policy in the Middle East, may have made this impossible.

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