Why Britain is still Iran’s enemy number one

“Death to America” and “death to Israel” chants may be a widespread feature of politics in the Middle East, but Iran’s leaders seem unique in the degree to which they detest the British. This week Ayatollah Khamenei described Britain as the “most evil” of the Western nations interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. It does seem ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
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Iranian hardline students wave the Iranian flag and hold mock Israeli, Britihs and US flags during a protest outside the British embassy in Tehran on June 23, 2009. Iran is to recall its ambassador to London for consultations, the official news agency IRNA quoted a lawmaker as saying, amid growing tensions with Britain over the disputed presidential election. AFP PHOTO/FARS NEWS/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

"Death to America" and "death to Israel" chants may be a widespread feature of politics in the Middle East, but Iran's leaders seem unique in the degree to which they detest the British. This week Ayatollah Khamenei described Britain as the "most evil" of the Western nations interfering in Iran's internal affairs. It does seem a little odd that Khamenei should find Britain -- a country with which the regime does have some (albeit strained) diplomatic relations -- more "evil" than Israel and the United States, two countries where actually attacking Iran has recently been a topic of mainstream public debate.

But Iranian Anglophilia is nothing new. Ali Ansari gives some needed background in the Times:

“Death to America” and “death to Israel” chants may be a widespread feature of politics in the Middle East, but Iran’s leaders seem unique in the degree to which they detest the British. This week Ayatollah Khamenei described Britain as the “most evil” of the Western nations interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. It does seem a little odd that Khamenei should find Britain — a country with which the regime does have some (albeit strained) diplomatic relations — more “evil” than Israel and the United States, two countries where actually attacking Iran has recently been a topic of mainstream public debate.

But Iranian Anglophilia is nothing new. Ali Ansari gives some needed background in the Times:

 

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.

AFP/Getty Images 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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