Britain and Iran: A Brief Modern History (1941-2020)

"With heightened tensions within the region close to the brink of war, historical context shows why the British state fears Iranian retribution..."

Britain and Iran: A Brief Modern History (1941-2020)

As British flags burn alongside American ones in Baghdad this week, and the British foreign ministry updates its website to advise further caution for travel to areas in the Middle East (namely Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon), a question must be asked: Why is Britain drawn into this conflict?

The US assassination of Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani last Friday poses a definite escalation of conflict between the two nations. The United Kingdom, itself in a unique ‘special relationship’ of historical cooperation with the United States, was left out of the loop of this action, made apparent in its lack of an immediate response. Nonetheless, in keeping with their ‘special relationship’, Britain will align itself with the Trump administration, militarily and diplomatically, in this escalation of conflict.

The Mirror reported a statement by a UK security correspondent:

"As recent events have proven, [Iran sees Britain] as Washington’s top ally."

"Historically we are seen in Tehran as having played a key role in the manipulation of Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution and, as a weaker and less protected partner, we may be target number one."

So then, why does Iran resent Britain?

Contemporary UK-Iran relations began with the inauguration of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah in 1941. Under his rule, Iran was a key strategic ally of the British Empire in regards to the ‘Persian Corridor’ – a supply route for domestic oil fields and military transportation between the British Raj and Soviet Central Asia to the British Mandate of Mesopotamia and the Soviet Caucasus. During WWII, the Shah gave the Allies permission to use it as part of their 1942 Tripartite alliance pact.

The inauguration of Mohammad Reza Shah itself was fraught with British interventionism, as Mohammad's father abdicated the throne under threat of a Soviet-British invasion into his Axis-sympathizing Iran. This intervention into Iranian affairs would emerge in the Iranian public imagination through the publication of a popular book (and its TV adaptation), Dear Uncle Napoleon. The book satirized past British interventionism, particularly the 1953 coup d'etat and the aforementioned Anglo-Soviet invasion. Reviews of the show and book, even into the 21st century, maintains it as "an Iranian classic", and "the most important and well-loved work of Iranian fiction since World War II."

Britain's subsequent intervention, also mentioned in Dear Uncle Napoleon, was codenamed ‘Operation Boot’. In response to the democratic mandate given to the Iranian Prime Minister (Mohammad Mosaddeq) to nationalize Iran's oil industry – including holdings of BP (British Petroleum) – American and British secret services arranged a covert coup that was carried out in 1953.

Journalist Stephen Kinzer notes in his book, All the Shah’s Men, that the coup was initiated by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but was met with refusal by the Truman administration in the US, fearing the precedent it would set for direct interventionism by the CIA – the subsequent Eisenhower administration, however, would side with Britain. Kinzer writes,

“In 1953, the British secret service worked with the CIA to depose Prime Minister Mosaddeq, and over the course of the twentieth century, anti-British fervour has nearly always been more intense than anti-Americanism in Iran.”

The coup would conclude with the return of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah under an autocratic royalist government. With multiple decisive British interventions in Iran – deposing a democratically-elected prime minister, appointing a dictatorship, invading Iran – it's easy to see why Iranians generally dislike and distrust Britain.

Since Operation Boot, the US has gradually assumed Britain's old role with its dominating foreign policy, as seen in the UK's support of US sanctions against Iran in 2011. However, the UK continues its Iranian imperialism; since 2000, there have been numerous incidents involving seizure of British naval tankers, and accusations by the Ayatollah in 2009 of infiltration by British spies. Such tense relations led to the closure of the Iranian embassy (in the UK), only reopening in 2015.

More recently, in August 2019 the UK agreed to join the US in Operation Sentinel, a US-led naval mission protecting the free movement of foreign companies across the Strait of Hormuz. However, as The Guardian reports, other EU states have concerns with a possible imperialistic roadmap:

“France and Germany had indicated they would refuse to join any US-led mission, amid concerns about being too closely aligned to a Trump administration that has pulled out of the nuclear deal [with Iran] and contemplated airstrikes on the country.”

With heightened tensions within the region close to the brink of war, historical context shows why the British state fears Iranian retribution, why the Iranian people would want retaliation for British imperial conquests, and finally why the historically-built partnership between Britain and the United States will continue to attempt to undermine the sovereignty and self-determination of the Iranian people.