Britain Replacing U.S. as Iran's Favorite Target

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

For the past three decades, the United States has been Iran's "Great Satan." Schoolchildren learned to chant "Down With U.S.A." Conservative clerics sermonized against America. Anti-American murals depicting images such as a skull-faced Statue of Liberty dotted Tehran.

But since Iran's disputed presidential election last month, another Satan has gained ground: Great Britain.

Since Iranians took to the streets to protest the official vote results, the government has expelled two British diplomats, kicked out the longtime British Broadcasting Corp. bureau chief, and arrested British Embassy staff members, accusing them of fomenting the unrest. Last week, an adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Britain "worse than America" for its alleged interference in Iran's post-election affairs.

Although complaints about British meddling are enjoying a resurgence, they are hardly new. For many Iranians, especially those whose memories go back several decades, the British reach is long and deep.

"To the older generation of Iranians, it's as if the sun has never gone down on the British Empire," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle Eastern studies at Syracuse University. "They are considered the masters of political intrigue, and players such as the U.S. are considered to be novices, new kids on the block."

Suspicion of Britain heightened under Iran's current administration, said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "Ahmadinejad's government has always been very Anglophobic in its approach," he said, noting a 2007 incident in which Iran took 15 British marines and sailors into custody, saying they had violated Iranian waters. "They're really obsessed with Britain in a way that even previous Iranian governments, even in the Islamic republic, haven't been."

Ahmadinejad and those in his government have little political experience outside Iran, analysts said, and are often unsophisticated in their dealings with other nations, relying on local folklore that goes back a century -- to when Britain had great influence in the region.

Iranians found both good and bad in that history. Britain supported Iranians who pushed for a constitution in 1905, but it left them feeling betrayed when it joined with Russia to divide Iran into "spheres of influence" and attempted to create what effectively would have been a British protectorate.

When oil was discovered in Iran in 1908, the British built refineries there, turning the country into an oil producer for the first time. But resentment grew as Iran received only a fraction of the profits and Iranian workers lived in miserable conditions.

British influence was seen to be behind Reza Shah Pahlavi's 1921 ascendance and, 20 years later, his fall from power. Scholars debate London's influence on these events, but Britain, along with the United States, has admitted to helping oust Iran's democratically elected prime minister in 1953.

The United States gained more influence after World War II, but Britain's behind-the-scenes role remained ingrained in the popular Iranian imagination. Some, including the deposed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, believed the British orchestrated the 1979 Islamic revolution. "In fairness to the Iranians, the British have been manipulative," Boroujerdi said. "But, in my view, they have been given way too much credit in terms of their actions in Iran."

Even U.S. foreign policy was sometimes interpreted as directed from London. "There were a couple of members of Parliament that got up and said [President George W. Bush's 2002] 'axis of evil' speech was written by the British as a speech to read out," Ansari said. "They said the Americans weren't capable of this, they weren't intelligent enough to think of this."

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