It’s not uncommon, among the most conspiratorial Iranian politicians, to hear fulminations against British plots, even today. And to be fair, there’s some basis for Iranian antipathy toward nearly two centuries of antipathy between the Persian and British empires.
The British increasingly sidelined the Persian empire in the 19th century during the so-called ‘Great Game,’ as the Russian and Turkish empires increasingly encroached on historical Persia. In 1908, with the discovery of oil, British interests quickly swooped in to negotiate favorable terms for themselves, to the detriment of the Iranians. During World War II, though Iran was officially neutral, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran in 1941 as part of efforts to secure Iranian oil, installing the young Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the country’s new shah. The resulting chaos led to famine, economic mismanagement and starvation throughout Iran for the rest of the war. Though the United States Central Intelligence Agency carried out the 1953 ouster of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, British intelligence greatly facilitated the operation.
More recently, a mob invaded the British embassy in Tehran in 2011, setting fire to the British flag, which caused the United Kingdom to cut relations with Iran.
So it’s no exaggeration to say that the United Kingdom might today be even more hated in the Islamic Republic of Iran than the United States of America.
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All of which makes this week’s bilateral meeting between Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and British prime minister David Cameron so fascinating.
Rowhani is hoping for a successful deal with the ‘P5+1’ group (the five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) that would allow Iran to continue to enrich at least low levels of uranium for its nuclear energy program, while simultaneously reducing US-led international sanctions, which have exacerbated the Iranian economy’s current downturn. The group faces a November deadline to extend an interim agreement settled last year. Rowhani believes that Iran has much to gain through engaging Western powers from which his country has been estranged since the 1979 revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic.
As a moderate reformist, Rowhani, unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wants greater contact with Europe and the United States, though the domestic political climate makes Rowhani’s task incredibly difficult — including the skepticism of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
But Rowhani (and Iran) suddenly have new leverage, as the United States and five Arab allies join forces to destroy the Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية) that controls large parts of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. US warplanes launched the first US airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria this week, broadening military action that had been limited to northern Iraq over the last six weeks.
The Shiite-majority Iran has long been an ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Though Syria’s population is predominantly Sunni Muslim, Assad’s Alawite sect is a branch of Shi’a Islam. Moreover, Iran holds an important advisory role to the Shiite-dominated central Iraqi government in Baghdad and its new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi (حيدر العبادي). That makes Iran, directly or indirectly, a partner with US and UK efforts to stabilize Iraq and to prevent the further growth of Islamic State/ISIS.