Most people think British power has declined over the past century, but not the Iranians. On the 30th anniversary of the revolution they remain deeply suspicious of British motives. These feelings are now irrational, but are grounded in historyby Christopher de Bellaigue / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
On 4th November, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s beleaguered president, lost his interior minister. Ali Kordan was impeached after his curriculum vitae was found to be full of lies. Most egregiously, Kordan credited himself with an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, a claim belied by a university statement denying all knowledge of him, his misspelled degree certificate and his apparent belief that Oxford University is in London.
Kordan says he was duped; he received his degree, he claims, from someone who had introduced himself as Oxford’s “Tehran representative.” To Iranians inclined to believe him, this exotic (but non-existent) post conjures up memories of the country’s Shah-era past, when British agents plotted to embarrass and even topple Iranian governments they did not like. To conspiratorially-minded Iranians, all too aware of Britain’s history of meddling in their affairs, the minister’s woes have a familiar ring.
Those who suffer from this syndrome imagine Britain to be fathomlessly powerful and duplicitous, constantly striving to achieve Iran’s collapse—a nation of people capable, in the Persian saying, of “cutting off your head with cotton.” To a remarkable degree, this perception has survived the end of empire and the decline of Britain’s global influence. No country in this age of cramped diplomatic horizons is more comforting to the British ego than Iran.
To be a British diplomat in Tehran is to be privileged with suspicion and abhorrence. To the Tehrani in the street, Britain’s power is confirmed by its ownership of two huge embassy compounds, which occupy many acres of verdant garden and are dotted with English suburban cottages. The absence of diplomats from the US, with which Iran has no diplomatic relations, means that Iranian ire at western perfidy is directed at the British embassy, whose chancery windows occasionally afford a view of stage-managed crowds burning Union Jacks and hurling rocks. Many Iranians ascribe to the British a combination of Machiavellian cunning, Metternichian realism and mystical omniscience. Far from being America’s servant, Britain is often credited with duping the Americans and getting them to do its bidding. (Recent evidence includes the division of labour in occupied Iraq, where Britain assigned itself the relatively quiet south, leaving America to deal with the much tougher Sunni heartland.) When, during a round of nuclear negotiations, a British official dropped a piece of paper detailing Europe’s diplomatic strategy (which was leaked to the press), clumsiness was ruled out. Iran’s…