Iran’s first Great Satan was England

December 6, 2011 - 17:8
If there is one country on earth where the cry “Death to England” still carries weight — where people still harbor the white-hot hatred of British colonialism that once inflamed millions from South Africa to China — that country would be Iran. And that is what the leaders of Iran must have been counting on when students poured into the British Embassy in Tehran on November 29. 

Most Iranians, like most people anywhere, would disapprove the idea of storming into a foreign embassy. Nonetheless, some may have felt a flicker of satisfaction. Even an outrage like this, they might have said, is a trifle compared with the generations of torment Britain inflicted on their country. 

The spark for the embassy invasion was Britain’s imposition of new economic sanctions on Iran. Pressure for those sanctions came not so much from Britain as from the United States, but Washington could not be target for a similar attack because it does not have embassy in Tehran. Besides, Iranians do not have negative feelings toward Americans. 

Those Iranians, however, feel quite differently about Britain. 

Britain first cast its imperial eye on Iran in the 19th century. Its appeal was location; it straddled the land route to India. Once established in Iran, the British quickly began investing — or looting, as some Iranians would say. British companies bought exclusive rights to establish banks, print currency, explore for minerals, run transit lines and even grow tobacco.   

In 1913, the British government maneuvered its way to a contract under which all Iranian oil became its property. Six years later it imposed an “agreement” that gave it control of Iran’s army and treasury. These actions set off a wave of anti-British outrage that has barely subsided. 

Britain’s occupation of Iran during World War II, when it was a critical source of oil and a transit route for supplies to keep Soviet Russia fighting, was harsh. Famine and disease spread as the British requisitioned food for their troops. 

One of the most popular Iranian novels, “Savushun,” is set in this period. It tells of two brothers who take roles every Iranian can recognize: The elder is ambitious and panders to the occupiers; the younger refuses to sell his grain to them and pays a tragic price for his integrity. 

During their occupation, the British decided that Reza Shah Pahlavi, whom they had helped place in power, was no longer reliable. They deposed him and chose his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, as the new shah. 

Once the war ended, Iran resumed its efforts to install democracy, under the leadership of Mohammed Mossadegh. He had campaigned against the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 and had written a book denouncing “capitulation” agreements, under which foreigners were granted immunity from Iranian law. 

After he was elected prime minister in 1951, Mr. Mossadegh asked Parliament to take the unimaginable step of nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. It agreed unanimously. That sparked a historic confrontation. 

Mr. Mossadegh embodied the anti-British emotion that still roils the Iranian soul. The special envoy President Harry S. Truman sent to Tehran to seek a compromise in the oil dispute, W. Averell Harriman, reported that the British held a “completely 19th-century colonial attitude toward Iran,” but found Mr. Mossadegh just as intransigent. When Mr. Harriman assured Mr. Mossadegh that there were good people in Britain, Mr. Mossadegh gave him a classically Iranian reply. 

“You do not know how crafty they are,” he said. “You do not know how evil they are. You do not know how they sully everything they touch.” 

(Source: The New York Times)