Iran and the ‘Old Enemy’

Relations between Iran and Britain have often been strained. Yet the relationship is an old one, marked by mutual admiration.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery, Abadan, 1945.During the Iranian elections of 2016, opponents of President Hassan Rouhani appealed to a tried and tested trope. Britain, the ‘old enemy’, they argued, was up to its usual tricks, seeking to manipulate the election in its favour by promoting and supporting key moderates as candidates. The campaign left little to the imagination. Posters depicting the ‘wily fox’, complete with Union Flag waistcoat, reminded the electorate that the ‘evil’ state of the United Kingdom (or ‘England’ in the Persian vernacular) was a perennial enemy of Iran. Britain’s malevolent message – spread by the BBC Persian Service – had to be rejected. Such sentiments build on a reading of Britain’s relations with Iran over the last two centuries, an abridgement – like all myths – of a historical relationship simplified to one of ‘cunning’ imperialism, sophisticated manipulation and control, principally of resources (especially oil), against which stands Iran’s valiant determination to liberate itself, an aim that, for some revolutionaries, is yet to be fulfilled.

The key event in this narrative is that of the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951 by the nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the trials and tribulations that led ultimately to his overthrow in the coup of August 1953, orchestrated by Britain and the US. The narrative of Iran’s oil nationalisation crisis is part of a historiography of anti-imperialism, even if this tends to perpetuate a Eurocentric focus on the relationship, in which Iran remains emphatically subject to – and the victim of – western actions. This often leads to the worst type of ‘politicised’ history, as narratives are shaped to ideological needs and the dynamic reduced to a series of caricatures. The tragedy of Mosaddeq’s overthrow was not so much the idea that he embodied anti-imperialism, but that he identified with an idea of constitutional politics that was drawn from the very power – Britain – that did so much to undermine him. It was all the more tragic because the narrative disguises two salient aspects of the relationship: the menace posed by imperial Russia (and subsequently the Soviet Union) and the intimacy of a British-Iranian relationship that is repeatedly confounded by the complexities of politics.

The lure of ‘Persia’

The relationship has a surprisingly long pedigree. Britons became reacquainted with Iran – Persia in the European vernacular – in the 17th century. Tentative steps to explore a trade relationship had begun under Elizabeth I, but it was under her successor, James VI and I, that the two states formally reconnected, with the dispatch of the Sherley brothers, Robert and Anthony. The latter’s account of his travels was to prove more fawning than critical in a barely disguised attempt to persuade readers at home to emulate a political system that, to his eyes, was both wealthy and politically settled. His account also reminds the reader that Britons did not approach Iran unencumbered by prejudice, though initially this often favoured the Iranians, descendants of the ancient Persians familiar to Europeans from Classical and biblical texts. The fascination with ‘Persia’ remained influential in court and literary circles even when the reality of ‘Iran’ proved disappointing. But, as Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and his many imitators indicated, ‘Persia’ remained a cultural reference point well into the Enlightenment.

The 18th century was nonetheless a turning point. The collapse of the Iranian state in 1722, following an Afghan invasion, plunged the country into decades of political turmoil, war and economic exhaustion. European observers pointedly referred to the consequences of ‘decadence’. By the time Iran emerged from its crises at the end of the 18th century such had been the dramatic growth in European power that the dynamics of the relationship were transformed. Britain had a growing presence in India and it was this geopolitical reality that would now come to define its relationship with Iran. Such a relationship was a strategic necessity, initially on its own merits and then as a buffer state against Russian expansion southwards.

With India, Britain had inherited part of the Persianate world, complete with its language and culture. The administration and political culture of the Mughal Empire had, after all, been Persian, and it was this language and culture that civil servants had to learn. A consequence of this was that British officials came to Iran already well-versed in the language and cultural idioms of the Persian world. This, along with the fact that British administrations, whether in Calcutta or London, sought to minimise expenditure, meant that diplomatic and political engagement – the application of soft power – was always preferred to the exercise of hard power which characterised Russian interference. Britain preferred to persuade, whether by example or manipulation. The problem for Iranians at the sharp end was that it was often difficult to distinguish between the two; more often than not aspiration fell victim to expediency. That the British themselves – including serving officials – were often as frustrated as their Iranian interlocutors with British imperial policy came as little comfort. Iranian disappointment was itself a reflection of the attraction these ideas had for those Iranians committed to change in their own country.

From the early 19th century, British visitors to Iran came away unimpressed with the political system they encountered: a ‘despotism’ they considered singularly ill-suited to the needs of a modern and progressive political economy. This disdain was compensated for by an affection for the Iranians themselves, who were generally portrayed as engaging, inquisitive and cosmopolitan. That they were not able to realise their potential could largely be explained by the suffocating inadequacies of their political system. Central to these assessments were Whiggish ideas of progress born of the Enlightenment, which argued that education, discipline and the application of the rule of law were essential ingredients for the development of a stable political society in which an economy could grow and flourish, with all the associated benefits that might accrue. Such benefits were not the prerogative of particular peoples, races or nations, but were available to all who chose to learn and apply the lessons. Iranian travellers to Britain found a people willing to engage and encourage, while the Iranians themselves – at least those inclined towards reform – were receptive to new ideas. Even religion, shorn of the encumbrance of superstition, was not considered a bar to attainment and Iranian intellectuals and reformers found themselves inducted into Masonic lodges alongside Christian brethren – equals in an intellectual brotherhood. Here, Iranians absorbed political ideas and a philosophy of progress, while coming to terms reluctantly with the realities of politics and the gap between ideals and practice of which British colleagues were well aware.

Revolution and reform

Britain and Iran have – to date – only been at war once, in 1856 (the six-day conflict of 1941 has never been dignified as a ‘war’). It was a short, sharp imperial conflict that ended with the Treaty of Paris the following year, which confirmed the territorial limits of Afghanistan. From an Iranian perspective, the treaty was notable for its leniency, which stood in stark contrast to the humiliation of the Treaty of Turkmenchai with Russia 30 years earlier. As a result, Britain not only won the war, but effectively secured the peace, with British influence, both political and economic, reaching a high-water mark. Expectations among Iranian reformers were high, even if British policy remained frustratingly reactive to Russian sensibilities. Two examples serve to illustrate the complexity of the relationship.

By the end of the 19th century, Iranian intellectuals were agitating for political reform, demanding the implementation of a constitution and the rule of law. British officials on the ground were to prove more sympathetic than their masters in Whitehall, whose priority was to avoid policies that might provoke the Russian aggression towards India. When British officials, taking advantage of Nasir al Din Shah Qajar’s impending visit to Britain, convinced him to sign a convention guaranteeing the life, liberty and private property of his subjects, on the basis that these were prerequisites for political stability and economic growth, the shah’s interest did not outlast his trip to Britain, where he was courted enthusiastically by officials eager to stem Russian influence. On his return, therefore, the shah felt no need to honour the convention and responded instead to the continued agitation with his characteristic repression. The studied inactivity of the British, justified by the diplomatic protocol that they must not interfere in the domestic politics of the country (or antagonise the Russians), fell flat with activists who had been relying on British support. It was a reminder that inactivity was as consequential and detrimental to Iranian interests as deliberate intervention.

Anti-British propaganda in a Tehran street. ‘The evil state of Britain is an enemy of the Iranian nation and is one of its oldest and most traditional enemies.’

A more striking example was provided by the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the event that marked a peak of British influence, but which was squandered for fear of alienating the Russians at a time when European alliances were being forged in the years before the First World War. The revolution took hold at a time when most officials had given up hope of realistic change in Iran and were actively considering some form of modus vivendi, encompassing delineated spheres of influence between Russia and Britain, by which the rivalries of the ‘Great Game’ could be moderated and controlled. The Iranians, however, disrupted any such plans by suddenly and surprisingly accelerating towards a revolutionary transformation that sought to model Iran’s constitution and political institutions on those of Britain. The key event in a year-long struggle was the decision of the revolutionaries to seek sanctuary in the grounds of the British Embassy. Fortunately, the embassy was being minded by a charges d’affaires, Grant Duff, awaiting the arrival of the new minister. Duff politely waved away the request for sanctuary on grounds of non-interference. He must have indicated his sympathies, because the revolutionaries were soon back and, having been assured that force would not be requested to expel them, a steady stream of revolutionaries, eventually 14,000 strong, headed to the embassy compound. Organised and disciplined, save for some damage to the flower beds, the sanctuary – or bast – was all the more remarkable because the revolutionaries insisted that Grant Duff act as their intermediary in any negotiations. The result of the ensuing negotiations was that the ailing shah granted a constitution, which allowed the first ever elections to a parliament.

Countering Germany

The reaction in Whitehall, when the news arrived, was less enthusiastic. Edward Grey, the Liberal foreign secretary, had already begun preliminary discussions to cement relations with France and, by extension, Russia, as a means of countering the growth of German power. This required a settlement of outstanding disputes with Russia, which had been made all the more difficult by what Grey considered to be the unwarranted initiative shown by British diplomats on the ground in Tehran. As the Russians recovered from their own domestic difficulties and started to flex their muscles in defence of the Iranian crown, British support for the revolutionaries began to wane. Grey’s priority was a settlement of Asian disputes in order to shore up European security. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 resulted in Iran being divided into spheres of influence, in which the lion’s share went to Russia. The south-east corner of Iran deemed part of the British zone was devoid of any political or economic value other than as a potential buffer zone for British India. The convention was widely condemned. Lord Curzon considered it short-sighted and contrary to Britain’s long-term interests, while the minister in Tehran reported to Grey that the developments would be regarded as a betrayal. Revolutionaries visited London to plead for support for ‘the spiritual child of Great Britain’.

Grey’s fateful decision would have dramatic consequences. For both Iran and the Ottoman Empire, Britain’s ‘liberal moment’ was seen to have been tragically compromised by political priorities they simply could not appreciate. Britain enjoyed no political affinity with Russia, with which it had engaged in a century of rivalry. Yet in order to preserve its entente with France and retain, as it saw it, the balance of power in Europe, Britain had decided to sacrifice wider interests and, perhaps more damagingly, principles. The decision was understandable, given the perceived threat from Germany, but it was striking that Grey’s alignment of Britain with French interests on the continent elicited widespread criticism, including within the Cabinet itself. The complexities of such political choices were lost on those for whom the consequences were most severe. Iran’s constitutionalists now found themselves at the mercy of a Russian autocracy for whom the emergence of a constitutional system on its borders posed a threat to its political order.

The short sightedness of the Convention was exposed within a year, when the Anglo-Australian entrepreneur William Knox D’Arcy discovered oil in south-west Iran, seven years after being awarded the concession. Although few immediately understood the impact of this discovery, the decision in 1913 of the then First Lord of the Admiralty – Winston Churchill – to purchase a controlling share in the new Anglo-Persian Oil Company, with a view to securing supplies for the Royal Navy (then being transitioned from coal to oil), ensured that the Company and, by extension, Iran became a strategic concern beyond the needs of India. More damagingly, the Company became a proxy for the British government in the eyes of many Iranians, an association made worse by the coup of 1953. Yet the complexities of the relationship between the company and its political masters, to say nothing of dissident voices in Britain, were buried under a fog of simplicity. Iranian travellers to Britain in the 20th century, like their predecessors in the 19th, found the diversity of opinions and the sympathy for their cause something of a revelation. Britons, they discovered, were often more critical of their government’s policies than they were.

Power of ideas

The persistence of liberal dissent, characterised by the Cambridge Persianist, Edward Browne (there is a street named after him in Tehran), helped maintain a relationship that might have all too easily fractured under the weight of apparent political inconsistency. Geopolitical realities may have ensured the continuation of a relationship with Russia, the power that undoubtedly did most harm to Iran’s territorial sovereignty over the previous two centuries. But it was the power of ideas and the diversity of British opinion that ensured a continuation of a British-Iranian relationship long after the British had left India and oil interests had diminished. The relationship was perhaps best characterised by Denis Wright, the diplomat sent to restore relations in 1954 and who would go on to become one of the longest-serving British ambassadors to Iran.

Britain and Iran, he argued, were like ‘estranged lovers’, occasionally falling out with each other, but inevitably seeking a way back on account of their deeper ties and shared aspirations. This helps explain why, 25 years after the oil nationalisation crisis, Britain and Iran seriously contemplated a much deeper corporate partnership on nuclear matters, or why, after a revolution that was very much defined against the West, Iranian politicians were keen to boast of their British education (not least Rouhani himself, who highlighted his ‘British’ doctorate in his campaign video) as a means of bolstering their political credentials.

The political paradox persists in the representation of Mosaddeq. The Islamic Republic is keen to raise the spectre of the coup as a means to berate the West, but it is not at all keen on the ideas that Mosaddeq represented: the realisation of a constitutional revolution drawing on ideas defined by the British political experience. British institutions, not least the BBC, are still widely admired.

What is perhaps most striking about the relationship is that Iranians continue to adhere to the Whig narrative of political development long after it has fallen out of favour in Britain. Their continued adherence to such a view reflects a strategic perspective and distance that the British no longer enjoy and a local political context that simply serves to highlight the British achievement. It may help to explain why the admiration is more mutual than the Iranians might care to admit.

Ali Ansari is Professor in the School of History and the Director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.