Why Iranians Are Still Railing Against Britain--And Why that Matters

News Abroad

Mr. Ross, a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Cambridge, is completing a PhD in history on Lord Curzon’s foreign policy toward Iran.

What with all the commemorations of 9/11 last week, other anniversaries might easily be overlooked, but even now the implications of a century old diplomatic entente between Britain and Russia remain highly relevant. One hundred years ago, on 16 September 1907, Iran was officially informed of the Anglo-Russian Convention. Signed without the knowledge, let alone the approval, of the Persian government of the day, the announcement of the treaty was greeted with profound resentment in the streets of Tehran.
Concluded at the end of August in St. Petersburg by diplomats representing Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas II, the entente was intended to stabilize relations between the British and Tsarist empires in Central Asia and to check German ambitions in the region.  While it acknowledged a de facto British protectorate over Afghanistan and affirmed Tibet’s status as a ‘buffer state’ under the suzerainty of China, its most important provision related to Iran, or Persia as it was then known in the West.  Despite the accord’s stated aim to maintain the integrity of the shah’s kingdom, the contracting parties divided the country into official British and Russian spheres of influence with a neutral zone in between.  A proud nation emerged from 1907 as no more than the latest victim of the two expanding imperial powers.
Today, the Anglo-Russian Convention can rightly be considered a diplomatic disaster.  Not only did it fail abysmally in its main objective of alleviating tensions between the two signatories in Central Asia— the ‘Great Game’ continued unabated— but it worsened relations with Germany and made the First World War all the more likely.  Those failures are serious enough but there were more.  The entente has blighted British-Iranian relations for a century and today we continue to pay for its mistakes.
Of the two targets for Iranian ire in mid-September 1907, abuse was directed overwhelmingly at Britain.  While little had been hoped of autocratic Russia, with its long history of encroaching upon Iranian sovereignty, Britain had seemed another matter.  The betrayal by an admired constitutional monarchy was deeply felt and would be bitterly recalled.
Anger was all the more acute since the accord came on the heels of Iran’s constitutional revolution, the first in the Middle East and a movement initially championed by Britain.  Since London had encouraged the constitutionalists in their struggle with the autocratic shah and welcomed the creation of a majlis, or parliament, in 1906, many patriotic Iranians had counted on British sympathy.  After the announcement of the Anglo-Russian Convention, however, the Persian press widely condemned Britain for having usurped from Russia the title of “enemy of civilization and justice.”
As the Iranian historian Firuz Kazemzadeh trenchantly observed, “It was in September 1907 that the modern Persian image of England crystallized …  Justifiably or not, most Persians would, from then on, be prepared to believe only the worst of England.”  No longer considered a moral force for good, it became a symbol of foreign tyranny and in the years following 1907 many Iranians came to view the British as “a cynical people totally indifferent to the sufferings of the rest of mankind, buying and selling entire nations, trading in opium, purposely starving millions of its colonial subjects, and secretly controlling the destinies of the world.”   This conclusion summarized a bitter loss of faith.
Today opinion remains much the same.  During a July 2007 research trip, I regularly encountered ordinary Iranians who, even if half-jokingly, invoked a hundred-year old memory of betrayal.  One of the country’s most popular television series of all time evokes the common sentiment.  Based on the 1970 novel, My Uncle Napoleon (Dai Jan Napoleon) by Iraj Pezeshkzad, the masterful satire televized the life of a family patriarch, a paranoid Iranian who sees the hand of the British everywhere and feels a deep affinity with their historic enemy, Napoleon.  Pezeshkzad’s choice of anglophobia as the major comic device resonates strongly with audiences.  Iranians remain ready to hold Britain responsible for many of the world’s ills.  From the perspective of outsiders, this tendency can approach the ridiculous.  For example, for many years after 1979, it was not uncommon to encounter Iranians who suspected the British of involvement in the Islamic Revolution itself and the overthrow of the shah.  In a far from untypical response, a recent Iranian documentary uploaded to YouTube featured a villager accusing the mullahs themselves of being British puppets.  Such seemingly extraordinary accusations can only arise because Britain early on sacrificed its moral credibility.
Over the past hundred years, British diplomacy has offered Iranians little reason to reconsider their 1907 conclusion.  London has repeatedly conspired to intervene in Persian affairs.  Even if Britons forget, Iranians remember full well Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon’s unsuccessful attempt to transform Persia into a veiled protectorate in the aftermath of the First World War and Winston Churchill’s instigating plans for the coup d’état which oustered a democratically elected and highly popular premier, Mohammed Mossadeq, in 1953.  In short, subsequent British policies have done little more than cement a reputation for arrogance and duplicity toward a country that had once hoped for very different relations.
It is high time to reconsider this tragic trajectory.  A century on, the Anglo-Russian Convention and the subsequent course of British-Iranian relations need to be reappraised.  Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a new government have an opportunity to set a fresh course.  Given the mistakes that have flowed so abundantly since 1907, a fresh start that takes account of legitimate Iranian grievance ought to be the order of the day.  Perhaps the centennial offers Britain a moment to reflect on its long-lost moral authority?

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