17 Jun 2014

At last, Washington's poodle asserts itself on Iran

To be British in Tehran is to be cast as a pseudo-American. Nowhere is Britain more graphically depicted as Washington’s poodle. And to a very large extent British interests in Iran have been very severely damaged by our failure to pursue a foreign policy with Iran that was completely independent of US influence.

Indeed, it has cost this country dear and done us no detectable benefit in Washington. We have lost billions in trade relations and much more.

The United Kingdom has enjoyed some 300 years of relations with what once was Persia. The US has had less than three decades of full diplomatic relations – conducted during the worst years of the Shah.

On his behalf, in 1953, we even conspired with Washington to overthrow Iran’s last democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. He’d nationalised the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later to become British Petroleum) because of gross under-payments for the oil they were extracting.

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the UN headquarters in Vienna

Sadly, the British did not learn from the event, and neither did the Americans, who set about trying to run Iran like a 51st US state. A blind eye was turned to the Shah’s abuse of human rights, and few spotted the resentment that would fuel one of history’s most dramatic revolutions.

When it came, the United States felt the full brunt of the heat of the Islamic revolution. Not long after, Washington’s entire embassy was seized together with 52 diplomats inside. Those of us who were there thought the seizure would last a few hours – indeed, students inside the building told me as much.

But the US would not negotiate, neither would they talk with the Algerians who offered to mediate. And so this unprecedented hostage crisis lasted 444 days, until Washington allowed the Algerians to get the diplomats out and fly them to Algiers and freedom.

The Iranians had hitherto stubbornly refused to release the hostages, parading them and, in the process, shaming and enraging the Americans. Years later, during the US invasion of Iraq, it was the Iranians who helped to develop the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that killed hundreds of Americans and which were a big factor in the US departure from that country.

The United States has never returned to Iran. The British staggered on, constantly the butt of anti-American hatred. The poodle got regular beatings. At no point would the UK distance itself from the ostracisation, sanctions, and pressure, exerted from Washington.

Finally in 2011 we too abandoned Tehran as our own embassy was attacked by rioters protesting against US-led sanctions and much else. Those sanctions have been without global precedent. A draconian ban on all international financial transactions lay at their core.

Britain’s historic view of Persia, and subsequently Iran, has been far more complex, intricate, and informed, than ever America’s three brief decades were.

Finally, the deed is done and UK diplomats are going back to reopen the embassy. They do so knowing that for the first time, the United States actually understands the vital strategic role Iran plays in the region. Shia Iran is of value in resolving the crisis in majority Shia Iraq. Having savaged that country with a disastrous invasion in which Britain inevitably joined. The US is in desperate need of Iran’s help to sort the mess out.

But amid the rapprochement, the British would do well to make up their own independent minds as to how to behave, and how to relate with Tehran this time round.

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