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In Wake of Unrest, Britain Replacing U.S. as Iran's 'Great Satan'

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."

In every Iranian crisis, the BBC has come in for blame, perhaps in part because of its history in Iran. "BBC Persian service has a very specific position in Iran -- it was created in 1941 to help with the overthrow of Reza Shah," Ansari said. By the late 1970s, however, "it played a role that was at odds with the British government. . . . It gave Khomeini a lot more airtime than they thought was useful or helpful," he said, referring to the late ayatollah and leader of the revolution.

Still, many in Iran find it hard to separate the BBC from the British government. The station's popularity there has stoked suspicion, as has its recent introduction of Farsi-language satellite television service.

"Because the BBC is seen as having been so important during the revolution, with the fact that the BBC is opening a new channel of communication, there's a feeling that perhaps the BBC is gearing up for a new revolution," said Dick Davis, a professor of Persian at Ohio State University.

Ervand Abrahamian, a history professor at the City University of New York's Baruch College, agreed, adding that by blacking out local media now as in 1978, today's rulers "are doing the same thing the shah was doing."

In this case, however, the focus on the BBC and the British government could also be part of a broader political strategy by Iranian leaders, some analysts said. After years of antagonism, the United States would be a key player in any future negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, and blaming America for the current crisis could hurt those prospects.

"The U.S., after all, is the big prize that the Iranians are after," Boroujerdi said, "and they basically neglect the Europeans because they feel that the U.S. is the big kid that they have to talk to."

President Obama's international popularity could also be a factor. "I think they have real problems with Obama," Abrahamian said. "He has offered major concessions, and they haven't really replied to that."

But even if the U.S. role as the Great Satan is being played down, that does not mean it has lost the title, Boroujerdi said.

"Great Britain seems to be the flavor of the month right now. . . . But I don't think that anyone can take comfort that the flavor of the month has changed; it can change again at a moment's notice."

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