Iran vs. Britain: A History of Distrust

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It would be something of an understatement to say that Iranian people have regarded Britain with a healthy dose of suspicion and anger. Throughout its history, Iran was never a colony of Britain or, indeed, a colony of anyone. Yet it has suffered much self-interested interference by Britain. Now six decades after MI6 engineered a coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister to safeguard the UK’s oil interests in Iran, the relations between the two countries is still fraught with mistrust. This anger surfaced on 29th November 2011, when a crowd of Iranian protesters attacked the British embassy in Tehran. While this event received widespread media coverage and led to condemnations from many Iranian officials, it is important to discuss what has actually lead to this level of anger amongst Iranians towards Britain. This documentary will look at the many historical involvements of Britain in Iran and her current anti-Iran policies, which have drawn a negative image of Britain in the minds of Iranians and may well be the roots of the deep distrust of Iranians towards Britain.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: On 29th November 2011, a group of Iranian students angry at what they claimed was Britain's anti-Iran policy, entered the British embassy in Tehran.

SOUNDBITE [English] Norman Lamont, Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer: “It damaged the relationship with Britain hugely.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Akbar Salehi, Former Iranian Foreign Minister: “You can’t show your objection to a country’s policies by occupying its embassy.”

Narration: Although deemed unjustified by both sides, the attack demonstrated the anger felt by Iranians towards Britain.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “Disagreement with that accident shouldn’t mislead us to forget about British wrongdoing in Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “They have oppressed our nation, both before and after the revolution.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “I think they do nonetheless need to acknowledge their role.”

Narration: Can the two countries put theirtroubled past behind them and enjoy a good relationship in the future?

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Akbar Salehi, Former Iranian Foreign Minister: “We should look to the future by learning from the past.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “The only guide to the future is the past, but you should not be trapped by the past.”

Narration: Iran and Britain have been far from the friendliest countries in the world. Their history of distrust goes back to many decades.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Akbar Salehi, Former Iranian Foreign Minister: “Iranians naturally have a negative perception towards countries that have interfered in our internal affairs, especially in the last fewcenturies. This is natural, especially regarding Britain, a country which has seriously interfered in our internal affairs in the past 100 years. In our modern history these interferences caused us serious problems in our pursuit of a democratic nation.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “On the whole British people are not aware of the way that some people in Iran view the United Kingdom. Most people here haven’t got a clue about the history. And for example people are not aware of the fact that there are these common phrases in Persian, in Farsi, that ‘it must be English’ or ‘behind every curtain there is an Englishman’, ‘under every rock there is an Englishman’, that kind of we are to blame and I understand the history of these phrases.”

Narration: The attack on the British embassy in Tehran is the latest chapter in the series of historical events that have put the two nations at odds with each other.The main reason behind the attack was the reaction of Britain to a documentpublished by International Atomic Energy Agency. This documentdetailed certain weaponisation elements within Iran's nuclear programme, something Iran strongly denied.

SOUNDBITE [English] Abbas Araghchi, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister: “Nuclear energy has a very important part in our economic development. Yes we are an oil and gas producing country but it doesn’t mean that we have to consume all of them and leave nothing for the future generations. Based on our previous experiences we don’t want to be in a situation anymore in which we have to extend our hands towards others begging for fuel, begging for our needs. So we decided to be self- sufficient in this important technology, we decided to be self-sufficient on fuel fabrication, so nobody can play with us in the future, nobody can deprive us of our needs in the future.”

Narration: Quick to respond to the report, Britain boycotted Iran’s central bank. Something that was seen by Iranians as just little short of declaration of war.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “It’s natural for us not to tolerate the presence of the British Ambassador in Tehran, while they are at the forefront of the confrontation against Iranian interests in all possible areas. We passed a law in the parliament in relation to the generally negative stance of Britain towards our nation. Also because of Britain’s role in the new sanctions, it was decided in the last parliament to degrade the relations from ambassador to charge d’affaires.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Akbar Salehi, Former Iranian Foreign Minister: At the time that this incidence the attack on embassy occurred, there was a negative atmosphere surrounding Britain. This was because the talks about sanctions against Iran were becoming more serious and Britain was spearheading thee efforts. There was no reason for Britain to be leading the efforts. This, in addition to their dark history in our national affairs, had left a very negative image in the minds of Iranians. People realised that Britain has not learnt from its past mistakes. Britain campaigned a lot for the sanctions and expressed that they wanted to increase pressure on Iran. The Iranian people could no longer tolerate this illogical approach from a colonizing government with a troubled history in Iran. Therefore, they became overwhelmed and this led to the occupation of the British embassy.”

Narration: Unsatisfied with the downgrade of relations, students from several Tehran universities protested bygathering in front of the British embassy compound near Tehran’s Ferdowsi square for several days, demanding the full closure of the embassy.

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “The embassy itself has become very much a kind of focal point of this collective distrust of British involvement in Iranian affairs.”

Narration: Only the arrival of the chief of the Tehran police could calm the situation, and helpedevacuatethe protestors out of the embassy compound.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mojtaba Heidari, Journalist: I suddenly saw the crowd coming out like a flock of chickens running away from something. I asked one of them what’s happening? He said “Radan, Radan is here”. Radan [chief of Tehran police] had given either 5 minutes or 8 minutes – I can’t remember exactly - for everyone to get out, or after that police will beat up anyone who remains inside. He said no matter if they are young or old, he will ensure this happens. The guy said jokingly that he gave us 8 minutes but the place was empty in 8 seconds.”

Narration: The breach into the embassy happened when the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was away on a diplomatic mission. The news was broken to him in a rather awkward situation.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Akbar Salehi, Former Iranian Foreign Minister: At the time of the incidence I was in Jeddah. Interestingly one of the agendas of the meeting was about the attacks on the embassies in Damascus.When I was heading to this meeting they suddenly informed me that Britain’s embassy in Tehran was occupied. I was extremely shocked and surprised. I was going to this conference and the same thing was happening in my own country.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “This event was clearly unacceptable and it was something that should have never happened; and this is why the Iranian government from the highest rank, i.e., the leader reacted to it.”

Narration: Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted to the event by stating that although “the sentiments of the youth were justified, but entering the embassy was not right.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “It is rare for the leader to express his dissatisfaction towards something, but he did do so on this occasion. This is because we naturally have a duty towards the safety of all embassies in Iran even if we don’t have a good relation with that country’s government. Security is generally very high in our country and such incidents rarely happen.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: With all the diplomats from around the globe lining up to condemn the attack, one important message was lost in the heat of the event: The anger towards Britain has deep roots within the hearts of many Iranians, something that must be understood if the two countries are to avoid similar troubles in the future.

SOUNDBITE [English] Mohammad Marandi, Professor of Tehran University: “Whether every notion about the British government that exists among ordinary Iranians is valid or not is debateable, but there isn’t really a doubt I think that Iranians have serious grievances with regards to British policy both in the past and in more recent years. The British government has traditionally played a very harmful role in Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “The roots of mistrust that wesee manifesting themselves today are very much derived in large parts from this very fraught relationship that’s gone on over the course of the past century or indeed more and I think certainly when one examines the way in which both the British see the Iranians and the Iranians see the British, it’s very much coloured by this tense relationship, particularly since the 1890s and 1900s.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “I’m someone who is all sought to understand the Iranian perspective on relations with Britain, and I worked very hard when I was foreign secretary and I actually have worked hard since I left as the foreign secretary in 2006 to try to comprehend Iran and its complex history, its sometimes difficult relationship with the United Kingdom.”

Narration: The 19th century saw British interests towards Iran grow as part of their plans for imperial expansion. For Europe, Iran was the gateway to the East, and controlling this gateway would ensure an easy reach to important countries like India and China.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “Iran, because of its strategic position, became extremely important for what was called the great between the United Kingdom - the Jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom’s empire which was India (bear in mind India went right up to the Afghan border on the west), and Russia which was seen as highly expansionist and against whom Britain and France and Turkey had fought a big war in the 1830s. So that meant that Britain was heavily involved in Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “You can find many events and many elements in the Iranian history, especially in 19 and 20th century that the British government tried to be involved in every aspect of Iranian life. If you look at the British official documents at the British nation archives or specially BP archives in Warwick University (Anglo-Iranian oil company documents), you can see that the British government and the British officials and agents were very involved in many details of Iranian life.”

Narration: With all the interest in Iran, Britain did not even attempt to colonize it for it was a mission impossible, but rather opted to exercise neo-colonial power.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “There are many examples to show that neo-colonial power, with the practice but not the legality of colonial power, is actually worse for a country than colonial power because at least if there is colonial power as there was in India we had to take some responsibility as well, but we didn’t have to take responsibility. It was a kind of exploitative relationship. Because Britain was so much more powerful than Iran, it was the superpower of the 19th century, it was also able to exercise a lot of financial power, and so it was through that financial power and through the fact that the Qajar dynasty had to borrow money from the British banks, that Britain built up this extraordinary situation in Iran where for example there was the monopoly granted to Baron Julius de Reuter which was a monopoly to a single foreigner – a Brit – to build and run railways, canals, and large parts of industry for a tiny amount of money in return.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

Narration: The concession to Reuter from the Qajar dynasty was so immense that even imperialists like Lord Curzon characterized it as the most complete grant of resources ever by any country to a foreigner.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “Baron Julius de Reuter and his saga was quite important and sad part of Iranian history. That again was a symbol of expansionism and the colonial feeling of the British government and people who were related to British government that they were trying to add Iran to their own colonial imperialistic attitudes in the region. If you look at the region you will see at that time Iran was the only independent government that never became part of the British colonies or imperialism. Although the Iranian government was very much under the influence of the British government but never been hundred percent under their control.”

Narration: Perhaps the greatest watershed moment in the history of the two countries took place towards the end of the 19th Century, when Nasir al-Din Shah granted Britain full monopoly over the production, sale and export of Tobacco.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “In one of his trips to Europe and visiting the United Kingdom, Nasir al-Din shah agreed to give the monopolising of the tobacco activities and tobacco trade in Iran to a British company. This matter was firstly against the Iranian national interests, and against the interests of the Iranian merchants.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “The tobacco monopoly gave major Talbot complete monopoly over the production, manufacture and export of tobacco products and as you know it was that really, the popular opposition to that, which led to the first really big uprising in which the leadership was both ordinary people and Bazaris but also crucially the Ulamaas well, the clerics coming together.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “Unfortunately, most of the British diplomats at the time interpreted it as effectively a revival of Islamic fanaticism. They didn’t understand that in fact a coalition of course between Bazarior merchant interest and indeed clerical Ulama interest, and that these were coming together and represented a nascent nationalist movement.”

Narration: 1917 marked the start of one the darkest periods in modern Iranian history, when the flames of World War 1 reached the Middle Eastern country and resulted in a disastrous famine that almost halved Iran’s population. A famine that was far from natural.

SOUNDBITE [English] Chris Bambery, Political Analyst: “Although Persia/Iran was a formally neutral state, it was a battleground and of course it had been occupied by first the Russians and the British and divided between them, and then after the Russian revolution by the British. And the famine that took place in 1917 and 1918 some forty percent of the population, perhaps 10 million people died that’s a really shocking figure, was not a natural famine, it was consequence of war. Essentially, yes there were problems, but for instance Britain prohibited the importation of food from India or from United States who appeared to offer that food, because they didn’t really want to reveal the true extent of what was going on. It was a consequence of British forces themselves taking from the Iranian to feed their own army. So it wasn’t a natural famine, it was an artificial famine to a great extent.”

Narration: Recent release of US military records and British official documents reveal the extent of Britain’s role in causing this great calamity.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “There are documents which reveal that the British purchased Iran’s wheat and sent it to their troops outside Iran and across other parts of the region. It was an unjustifiable act particularly during the difficult circumstances of WWI, which resulted in a great famine across many provinces in the country. And it can be still remembered by older Iranians and has been passed on to later generations. Historical document especially those of the British Foreign Office also provide evidence for this and leave a bad memory in the minds of Iranians.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

Narration: In the early 19th century, the world started to realize the importance of oil for industrial and military purposes. The British extracted yet another concession, through which they obtained the rights to almost the entire oil reserves of Iran in return for a disgraceful sum of only 20,000 pounds. This led to the establishment of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, known today as British Petroleum or BP.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “Winston Churchill, when he was the navy minister in the second decade of the 20th century from 1911 onwards, he decided that all of our battlefields should be fuelled by oil not by coal since it was more efficient and so on. And one of the major oil fields was that owned by the Darcy petroleum company in Iran. Now the moment he decided that we needed to run our battleships with oil coal, Iran and those southern oil fields in Iran became of crucial strategic importance. So it was imperative for us to run Iran regardless of what the Iranians thought about it I’m afraid.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Norman Lamont, Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer: “It was a British asset; it explored and developed the oil resources of Iran which Britain as a strong imperial power at the time wanted for its own purposes. History changed, the world developed, Iran was becoming more assertive of it and wanted to have its own resources for its own purposes.”

Narration: Britain was now much more concerned about the stability of Iran because of their reliance on the country’s vast oil reserves. They needed a strong pro-British figure to lead Iran and crush the spread of communism within the country. This lead to a British-backed coup d'état in 1921 that brought Reza Shah, the founder of Iran’s last monarchy, to power.

SOUNDBITE [English] Chris Bambery, Political Analyst: “By 1921-1922, they were very worried about Communism and Bolshevism spreading. There had been this very popular revolution in 1912 for democracy, actually some of those ideas impacted into Iran from Russia, so they were very nervous about the spread of left-wing ideas. They also had a problem, Britain was now far over-extended. It was fighting a serious gruelling war in Ireland, it was fighting a rebellion in what is now Iraq a very serious rebellion, there was serious unrest in 1990 in Egypt, things were getting out of hand in India where the first World War lead to the independence movement taking place. There were not enough British troops to go around. And the solution they seized upon in 1922 was handing power in Iran effectively to this military strongman, Pahlavi dynasty and funding it. A reliant anti-communist figure who was going to crush the Majlis, crush the democracy inside Iran and stabilize it. This is what Britain wanted. So this is one of the first instances Britain and later on the United States looking for policy of not direct intervention but finding a local ally who they could rely on to police the region for them. Of course we know that the dynasty was a certain hick-up during the second World War, the dynasty survived until 1979 and played that role first for the British and the for the Americans.”

Narration: Decades into the rule of Pahlavi dynasty, Iranians had lost all hope for independence. Only in 1953 there came a glimmer of hope. AnIranian politician unhappy with what he regarded as the plunder of his country’s oil by the British rose to power with huge national mandate and intent onnationalizing Iranian oil to the benefit of Iranian people. That man was Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Mossadegh.

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “Mossadegh is very much a man of his time and having witnessed of course British interventions in Iranian domestic politics over the course of his life, he was understandably wary of British involvement in the country through such vehicles as the Anglo-Iranian oil company. And so in some sense he did have a kind of paranoia about the British, but it was a paranoia that was certainly understandable given the historical context, and given the British interventions in Iran.”

TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “Mossadegh I think was a very interesting man from what I’ve read of him and quite aristocratic, quite distant, educated in France and Switzerland largely. But he didn’t like the British, at an emotional level he didn’t like the British and we somehow didn’t get on with him. But he was elected as prime minister, he had a democratic mandate and he sought to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian oil company because we were taking so much money which was really the Iranian people’s, and that lead to a crisis and in the end – now well documented – to the British intelligence service and the American intelligence service, conspiring with a lot of elements within Iran itself to have him removed and place under house arrest.”

Narration: The British had to either play fair and witness the end of their fortunes in Iran, or somehow get rid of this man and his nationalistic ideas. It was an easy choice to make at the time, with the British intelligence service soon called into action.

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “Despite there not having been an official acknowledgement by the British government, one can go to the national archives and certainly find traces of the original plan for the coup which was essentially conceived by the British initially of course as Operation Boot and then gets rebranded as Operation Ajax after the Americans essentially take over operational control of it, but it is essentially conceived of by the British.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “The British involvement in Iran and their influence towards the press, national opinion in the parliament and in different towns in Iran was very important and significant. They spent a lot of money for coup d’état, the British agents and officials managed to convince the Americans that Mossadegh was not negotiable and that was very helpful to have a coalition between the new conservative government of the United Kingdom, as well as the new Republican government of the United States.”

Narration: The coup d’état to overthrow Mossadegh’s government took place on the 19th August 1953, through CIA and MI6 engineered protests and bribery of Iranian officers.

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “If one looks at the paper trail, there are a number of individuals who are influential in helping the genesis of the coup, notably Christopher Woodhouse an MI6 agent, but also Ann Lambton who was of course a scholar of Persian studies and was employed by the foreign office for a time as well. So it’s this group of individuals in the foreign office and indeed in MI6 who eventually of course go on to eventually influence or perhaps prey upon American communist paranoia particularly so that the Americans eventually of course decide to implement the operation after the British are expelled by Dr Mossadegh on the grounds that of course they are plotting to overthrow him.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Ian Black, Middle East Editor at the Guardian: “This has rankled ever-since with ordinary Iranians seeing it as an unacceptable interference in the affairs of their country. For most people in this country that’s not only not a distant memory it’s something that people know nothing about.”

Narration: For decades after the overthrow of Mossadegh, Britain enjoyed having Mohammad Reza Shah ruling Iran, supporting him unreservedly despite his coercive and tyrannical methods.

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “The British supported the Pahlavi regime and certainly were very involved in backing Mohammad Reza Shah’s claim to the throne of Iran and to a kind of absolute monarchy on the basis that he more effectively represented the Western interests in Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Ian Black, Middle East Editor at the Guardian: “Britain was certainly a supporter of the Shah as was virtually every other Western country in the period when he was on the peacock throne. The British saw him as the guarantor of stability in the Gulf, everybody remembers the phrase policeman of the Gulf, Iran was an important market for Britain for other European countries.”

TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Norman Lamont, Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer: “The Shah was the main ally of the West in the Middle East during a period where the fear of the West was the fear of the Soviet Union and the possible expansion of communism in different parts of the world. The Shah was obviously a bulwark of the security arrangements worldwide, but in particular in the middle east of the West.”

Narration: The British involvement in bringing the Shah to power and their sustained support made him a very close friend and ally.Nicholas Barrington was the head of British mission in Iran immediately after the revolution. He speaks to us about how Britain struggled to keep the Shah in power.

SOUNDBITE [English] Nicholas Barrington, Former British Envoy to Iran: “People began to realise that the situation and public opinion was growing up very much against the Shah and I think the British as far as I remember were telling the Shah not to be too tough with these people. I mean there were some around the Shah who said let’s kill them all and so on, be too tough. And I think we were saying be moderate because it would be in our interest to have an Iran that was working smoothly of whatever political background with which we could trade and do dealings.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “With the Shah in power they’re of course able to sell vast amounts of arms to him. Ultimately the Shah ends up I think with more Chieftain tanks than in fact the British armed forces possessed. And so the British do in that sense have a sort of economic interest to keep the Shah in power.”

Narration: As the Islamic revolution of 1979 gathered pace, Britain failed to understand the signals coming from Iran, and continued to support the Shah until his very last days.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “They undermined the religious leadership especially Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership and they didn’t understand how they are important to influence the hearts and minds of the public opinion in Iran. You can see the British government always relied on the reports of their ambassador in Iran – Sir Anthony Parsons – and they thought the Shah is very powerful and for the British interest good to not criticise the Shah’s foreign policies and human rights policies, because of keeping the business activities of British government in Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “I was a teenager I didn’t know much about Iran but Iran was seen as a developing Western style country, and people really closed their eye to the fact that it wasn’t remotely democratic. And of course as the internal difficulties he faced increased, then SAVAK – the secret police – became more and more unpleasant in their dealings with people to repress internal opposition. The great mistake that was made by British diplomats in Tehran and to some extent in the British foreign office was that they failed to read the signs of coming turbulence until it was too late. So they were briefing the British foreign minister until the last moment to say the Shah would survive when, I wasn’t there, but it seems to me looking all the history of it that it was perfectly obvious that this was a regime in its death throes as we say and it would have been far better if we and other friendly countries had said to the Shah it is time for you to go.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Ian Black, Middle East Editor at the Guardian: “It is well-known, well perhaps well-known to people like who are interested that until 1978 until the last moment before the revolution the British ambassador in Tehran described Iran as being a bastion of stability and that there was no prospect in view that the Shah would be overthrown. So they not only supported the Shah until the very end but they were also quite wrong about the balance of forces until the very last minute before the Islamic Revolution.”

Narration: Being a close ally of Britain did not spare the Shah from their harm. In 1971 Britain orchestrated the independence of Bahrain from Iran, through a survey of the Bahraini population.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “Iran was defeated to approving its claims, its historical and legal claims to ownership of Bahrain, and virtually the British government deceived Iran on that. Iran under pressure of international community accepted the referendum in Bahrain, but the British government actually pursued the Al-Khalifeh clan in Bahrain to not doing any referendum and just had a very fabricated information gathering and that called that referendum. That was a fabricated referendum and Iran had to accept that although it wasn’t in the agreement of Iran and United Kingdom. So Bahrain became independent and Iran had to accept that and Iran couldn’t follow its historical claims on the ownership of Bahrain and practically more than two third of Shi’i originally Iranians Bahrainis became under the control of the migrant minority of the Sunni rulers and that was the act of British government and Iranians always thought that was the fault of the British to terminate Iranians’ claim to Bahrain.”

Narration: The arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini to the political scene after the revolution posed many challenges to the interests of western countries in Iran.

SOUNDBITE [English] Nicholas Barrington, Former British Envoy to Iran: “When the Shah left and Ayatollah Khomeini came, we had to work out how to establish relations with the new regime and for a long time all people around the world didn’t know how to do that.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Norman Lamont, Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer: “When the Shah was removed by the revolution obviously that was upturning the whole security arrangements that the West and the United States had so obviously that was at that time the initial reaction. I think the tragedy is that the West was not able to get on with the Islamic Republic and relations deteriorated so much after that.”

Narration: With Iran engulfed in difficulties after the revolution, and defying western hegemony in the region, some saw anopportunity to put an end to the newly established Islamic Republic once and for all. It was Iraq’s ruler Saddam Hussain who took the initiative, starting an all-out war against Iran, a war that would become the longest conventional war in the 20th century. Britain, as many other western powers, claimed neutrality during that war.

SOUNDBITE [English] Norman Lamont, Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer: “I was a member of the British government during Iran-Iraq war and our policy was to supply nothing to either side and I was a minister and we were always having to make marginal decisions about you know ‘was a sailing boat something that had a military purpose’, if someone wanted to buy a sailing boat in Iraq could we justify that or not. Some of these decisions were not very easy but I know as a member of the British government at the time the attitude was one of studied deliberate neutrality. But I know a lot of Iranians don’t really believe that.”

Narration: It was later understood, however, that guidelines had been established by the British government in keeping neutrality but were not necessarily followed.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “Having lost as it were influence within Iran, although as usual in a post-revolutionary situation it was very turbulent you never quite know what’s going to happen because revolutions are chaotic, but the Britain and the West really saw Iraq as the means of containing the Iranian revolution and so a blind eye effectively was turned when the Saddam Hussain regime launched what amounts to an unprovoked attack on Iranian interests in the south.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Ian Black, Middle East Editor at the Guardian: “I think it’s quite clear that Britain during the Iran-Iraq war was much more supportive of Saddam Hussain than it was of the Islamic Republic. It professed of course to be neutral as did many countries but of course we know that in secret there were British weapons export to Iraq during that period, something that wasn’t clear at the time it came out later and was the subject of much criticism, and broadly speaking it’s no secret that Western countries supported either mostly passively to some degree occasionally actively the Iraqi war effort against Iran.”

TIME CODE: 40:00_45:00

Narration: One specific case of Britain’s active support for for the Iraqi war efforts against Iran relates to sale of British Chieftain tanks to Saddam Hussain - a dispute which is still pursued by the Islamic Republic.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “Chieftain tanks after revolution again became problematic. The British government took the money many years before revolution at the time of the Shah but stopped giving them to Iran. First of all, because of the revolution they said we are not going to give it you, some of them at least. Then after US embassy saga they said we are not going to give you that, and then the third excuse was the starting of Iran-Iraq war. Okay, they said we have international obligation to not giving these Chieftain tanks to Iran anymore, they took money they should give the money back. They didn’t give the money back, but at the same time when the Iran and Iraq both had been sanctioned and they should be treated in the same situation again with highest possible dishonesty the British government sold the already sold Iranian tanks to Jordan and Iraq, and gave the Iranian tanks to Iran’s enemy although Iraq was under sanctions same as Iran in the war.”

Narration: Documents suggest that not only did Britain resell the Iranian-owned tanks to Saddam Hussain, but also sent servicemen to Iraq in order to repair any damaged tanks.

SOUNDBITE [English] Majid Tafreshi, Historian and Political Analyst: “They excused that we cannot help Iranians, we cannot give anything to Iranians, but practically they were helping Iraq for that and you can see the documents on Chieftain saga, reselling the Iranian tanks that already been paid many years ago to the Iraqi and Jordanians as well repairing them in favour of the Iraqis in Iraqi land.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Mohammad Marandi, Professor of Tehran University: “British companies were also involved in providing assistance to the Iraqi regime in order to produce chemical weapons and this was done with the knowledge of the British government.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Ian Black, Middle East Editor at the Guardian: “I believe that if you look at the list of Iranian complaints against Britain and other Western countries I think the most justified complaint is indeed on that point, because it’s not that long ago, the cost of that war was a terrible one, and there was a policy in the West generally supported by the Israelis for their own reasons that did tilt certainly to use that word towards the Iraqi side.”

Narration: More than two decades after the war, the gridlock between the Islamic Republic and the West did not start to look less tense.The Iranian nuclear issue caused even more tension between the two sides. With the absence of the United States around the negotiating table, Britain initially spearheaded diplomatic efforts.

SOUNDBITE [English] Jack Straw, Former British Foreign Secretary: “What I can say and it’s very important to say this was that the idea of negotiating with Iran over the nuclear dossier rather than confronting Iran was an idea which came from three European foreign ministers: from Dominique de Villepin who was the French foreign minister at the time, from Joschka Fischer the German foreign minister and from me. And the Americans were not involved at that stage and indeed elements in the American administration like Don Rumsfeld the defense secretary were hostile to what we were doing. So sensible Iranians including people like the now foreign minister Zarif, Mousavian, and Dr Rouhani who was man across the table from us as well as Kamal Kharrazi recognized that we were (three foreign minsters) their best hope for solving this issue in a sensible way.”

Narration: However,the attitude assumed in the negotiations by Europe led by Britain was at times even tougher than American position, and aimed to stop Iran from pursuing any nuclear activity. This was accompanied by harsh sanctions against the Islamic republic, adding fuel to the already antagonistic feelings of Iranians towards the UK.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “During the long period of negotiations with western countries in the last 10 years, Britain’s role has been most influential after the United States, especially when we were not negotiating with the United States. For instance, when the foreign ministers of the three European countries of France, Germany and Britain were in Iran, Jack Straw famously responded negatively to our request to have 20 centrifuges for our researcher.”

TIME CODE: 45:00_50:29

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “From these three ministers Jack Straw was the one who said,“We we will not even allow two centrifuges to operate.” He has this written in his memoirs. Two years ago he came to Iran as part of a parliamentary friendship group, and when I met him here in the Parliament, I said to him, “As you mentioned in your book, and the evidence exists in our ministry documents as well, back then you mentioned this with arrogance but now we have 19000 centrifuges installed at our nuclear sites.Who do you think won and who lost in this game?””

SOUNDBITE [English] Mohammad Marandi, Professor of Tehran University: “While there were countries in Europe that did not want to wreck Iran-EU relations – countries like Germany, most of Southern Europe – the British were very heavily involved and the British representatives in Brussels as well in the EU, they played a very effective role in the demonization of Iran and in creating hostility towards Iran among policymakers in the EU, and they did this alongside the United States and of course there were other lobbies such as the Saudi Israeli lobby, but the British played a very effective role.”

Narration: The sanctions created many difficulties for the civilian population of Iran, including access to important pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

SOUNDBITE [English] Chris Bambery, Political Analyst: “The lack medicines which when talking to people I know who have relatives in Iranian were quite shocking, the basic inability because of sanctions to access Western drugs, pharmaceuticals and Western technology here.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Abbas Araghchi, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister: “Sanctions yes were costly, created lots of problems for us, but they never will be able to bring Iran to its knees. They wanted to impose crippling sanctions, it never worked. So I think it became crystal clear for everybody that Iran would never give up its rights because of sanctions because of pressure because of threats, and we were ready to stand for all of them.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Chris Bambery, Political Analyst: “Sanctions which affect the wholescale population of civilians, it’s a retribution against civilians which after 1945 the Second World War was made illegal. Now, I’m not a lawyer but I think there is a case for saying the damage inflicted by these wholesale sanctions can be regarded as a crime against the humanity.”

Narration: In August 2015 the two countries decided to put aside their differences and their troubled history by reopening their embassies.

SOUNDBITE [English] Philip Hammond, British Foreign Secretary: “I’m proud to declare this embassy once again open.”

Narration: But should historical events be addressed if Iran and Britain were to enjoy good relations in the future?

SOUNDBITE [English] Christopher Ross, Research Fellow at University of Victoria: “Following the announcement of the restoration of relations between Iran and Britain, the new foreign secretary Philip Hammond made quite clear that the British government had no intention of acknowledging its role in Iranian domestic affairs over the past century and I think there a sense from his perspective that history was too fraught perhaps to delve into in any detail. But my sense would be that he perhaps ought to acknowledge it.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Iranian MP: “They have oppressed out nation both before and after the Revolution, be it in regards to the UN resolutions, sanctions or supporting terrorist and opposition groups in Iran. What do they plan to do with their new presence in Iran? There must be a clear plan. They should present a clear indication of the change in their attitude towards Iran that would be acceptable to the Iranian people.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Akbar Salehi, Former Iranian Foreign Minister: “Our nation is an intelligent and educated nation. By learning from history we want to look to the future. But of course a wise person would not subject himself to harm twice, and so our nation will try to avoid any more harm from colonizing powers.” 


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