From cabbies to shahs, most Iranians believe political events can be traced back to English interference, writes Robert Tait
Wednesday March 1, 2006
Watching his fellow countrymen observe the annual Shia Islamic mourning ceremony of Ashura, the disaffected Tehran taxi driver voiced a wish to convert to Christianity that may not have been as sincere as it was incongruous. But whatever his true ecclesiastical leanings, his beliefs about the source of the religious tyranny that so irked him about Iran were real.
"It is England that has imposed these mullahs on us," the cabbie mused, resisting all protestations at the notion's absurdity.
The idea that the Islamic revolution was a plot hatched in Whitehall, and that its spiritual leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was some sort of heavily disguised 007 in the secret service of Her Majesty's government does indeed seem weird. But not to many Iranians.
Suggestions that the convulsive events of 1979, which ushered in the Islamic republic, were manipulated and orchestrated by the British are widely accepted here as a given. It is a belief held, even before his reign was swept to oblivion in a revolutionary tidal wave, by the last shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Resentful that the British had deposed his pro-German father during the second world war, the shah commissioned a television drama, My Uncle Napoleon, whose main character's catchphrase was: "The British are behind everything". The shah echoed this mantra during his reign's last desperate days, telling the American ambassador, William Sullivan, that he "detected the hand of the English" behind the street demonstrations raging against him. Sullivan surmised that the teetering monarch had lost his mind and, with it, the will to survive.
But the shah was reflecting a broader mindset. The sun may have long set on British imperial might but in Iran it has been replaced by an enduring mirage of dominance which still shines brightly. If the rest of the world has become accustomed to the American hegemonic age, to Iranians Inglestan still wields the true power, albeit stealthily. Behind events great and small, they are ready to perceive the sleight of a hidden British hand. Belief in the "old coloniser's" diabolic powers unites Iranians in a way matched by no other issue, including the Islamic regime's pursuit of nuclear technology.
The regime's staunchest supporters cling to this belief with equal tenacity. Demonstrations by student Basij (Islamic volunteers) outside the British embassy in Tehran occur with bewildering regularity. The most recent railed against Britain's alleged responsibility for last week's destruction of the Shia shrine in Samarra, Iraq.
More generally, the Iranian authorities blame Britain for a wave of bombings that has killed more than 20 people in the southern city of Ahvaz over the past year.
It can be a bit of a jolt to Britons reconciled to their country's reduced global status to be instructed by Iranians of no particular ideological persuasion to "tell your government to leave us alone". It came as such to no less than Jack Straw. Having invested much energy and political capital cultivating a relationship aimed at breaking the ongoing nuclear imbroglio, the foreign secretary was said to be dumbfounded to discover the standard Iranian belief in his government's almost supernatural powers. He shouldn't have been.
For the all-consuming suspicion of British motives is rooted not simply in outlandish superstition, but in solid historical fact. Iran is hardly the only country where imperial Britain has form, but in few places are the memories - or wounds - so raw.
Top of the Iranian grudge list is the 1953 coup that toppled the nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, and cemented the rule of the shah. The coup was executed largely by the CIA but its genesis lay with the British secret services.
The British had been infuriated by Mossadeq's nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company, a move prompted by widespread anger at its refusal to share a fairer proportion of its profits (vital to Britain's tax revenues) with Iran.
Having taken the matter to the UN security council and lost, Churchill's government persuaded the Eisenhower administration, then paranoid about the spread of communism, that Mossadeq was a dangerous radical who should be toppled. The resulting chicanery destabilised Iranian politics for the next generation and resonates to this day.
But it is just one among many historical grievances. Britain's dubious distinction is to have alienated just about every identifiable group in Iran. During the 19th century, Iran was a pawn in the Great Game played out between Britain and Russia for power and influence in central Asia.
The ruling Qajar dynasty of the time was bullied into a host of humiliating territorial and economic concessions to each side. The abuses continued into the 20th century and extended to interference in Iranian internal politics.
"Historically, people believe Britain engineered the coup which brought to power Reza Khan, who became Reza Shah [the last shah's father]," said Mohammed Hossein Adeli, until recently Iran's ambassador to Britain.
"His ruthless rule made people blame the British for interference in Iranian affairs. Later, the British deposed Reza Shah. As a result the shah's royal family and the elite affiliated to them were alienated. This united the people and the elite, both of whom became very suspicious of the British."
British policy makers should be sobered to learn that the one thing that unites Iranians is us. If, one day, the taxi driver gets his wish and the rule of the mullahs should end, there is no doubt who will get the credit - or the blame.