x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In times of trouble, Iran pins blame on old foes

The embattled Iranian regime is orchestrating a campaign to scapegoat "the perverted government" of Britain and other western powers.

The embattled Iranian regime is orchestrating a campaign to scapegoat "the perverted government" of Britain and other western powers for its worst crisis since the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979. The invective has mostly been aimed at Britain and the United States by Iranian officials, and the Tehran media is putting further strains on Iran's troubled relations with the international community.

The United States, in particular, has been preparing for a historic engagement with the Islamic republic on a range of issues, most pressingly the nuclear dispute but also on such areas of dove-tailing interest as Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain has often been a convenient whipping boy for the Iranian regime in times of domestic strife. Widespread mistrust of the "colonial old fox" is rooted in Iranian history and is a staple of high school textbooks. Washington armed and supported the Shah until his tumultuous final days in power, but "duplicitous" Britain still is seen as more Machiavellian and influential than the US "Great Satan", which is portrayed as a dim-witted and muscle-bound puppet of "perfidious Albion".

Now, however, it will be much more difficult for Tehran to use the West as a lightning rod to deflect popular anger: the mistrust of millions of Iranians who feel robbed by the June 12 presidential election is focused on their regime, not its critics abroad. Regime "progaganda" linking the peaceful actions of pro-democracy demonstrators to foreigners "is a symbol of wrong policies, which increase the gap between the people and the government", warned Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist former president, a key ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom protesters are viscerally convinced was the rightful winner of the "stolen election".

Undeterred, the hardline Siyasat e-Ruz daily took aim at Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, mocking him as "one of the most inefficient politicians of England who has witnessed cases of financial corruption in his cabinet". Little wonder, it argued, that Mr Brown was "trying to interfere in other countries' domestic affairs in order to hide his failures". Western governments have robustly denied as "baseless and unacceptable" Iranian accusations that foreign powers are supporting "rioters" - Tehran's term for pro-democracy protesters - and have called for an immediate halt to state violence against them. The White House spoke out against the lack of "justice" in Iran and said President Barack Obama had been moved by scenes of demonstrators braving repression, especially women.

But apart from criticising human rights abuses and urging an end to the crisis through "dialogue and peaceful means", western leaders wisely are refusing to take the Iranian regime's bait: they are not expressing outright opposition to Iran's existing power structure. To do so could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from the unprecedented turmoil in Iran. It would also enable the Iranian regime to amplify its unfounded claims that the protesters are western-backed stooges, dealing a possibly fatal blow to the demonstrators now risking their lives on Tehran's streets.

Yesterday, Iran took a step back from its brinkmanship with Britain by forbidding at the 11th hour a planned protest by pro-government students outside the UK Embassy in Tehran. Regardless, several hundred hardliners gathered outside the sprawling diplomatic compound in the teeming heart of the Iranian capital, which has in recent years been the main focus of sometimes violent, stage-managed ire against the West since the US Embassy became defunct in 1980.

Insisting there could be no compromise with the "old fox, Britain", Esmail Tahmouressi, a student leader, warned on Monday that the protest could be another "November 4", a menacing reference to the storming of the US Embassy in 1979 when 52 US diplomats and other personnel were taken and then held for 444 days. Fearing a repeat of that event - which is seared on the American psyche - Britain ordered the evacuation of the families of the 22 British diplomats and warned British citizens against any non-essential travel to Iran.

The green light to lambaste Britain was given by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his uncompromising sermon last Friday when he ordered the ostensibly defeated presidential candidates to accept that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his firebrand protégé, was the rightful winner of the election. The supreme leader excoriated Britain as the most "evil" of western powers, which he claimed were using the presidential election to destabilise the republic.

On Monday, Iranian parliamentarians urged a review of diplomatic ties with Britain while the country's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, accused Britain of plotting for two years against the election. A day earlier, the regime expelled the BBC's correspondent, Jon Leyne, and claimed that agents of the British secret services had been infiltrating Iran "in droves". Leading US media were not spared Tehran's wrath. "CNN and the BBC have set up a psychological war room," proclaimed Hasan Qashqavi, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry. "As for BBC Persian and VOA [Voice of America], their case is obvious," he continued. "Their objectives are: A, to weaken national solidarity and, B, to threaten Iran's territorial integrity and divide Iran. This is the approved agenda that was promulgated to the VOA and BBC Persian, after their budgets were approved by the British parliament and US Congress."

Iranians are steeped in the history of British imperial meddling in Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries. The defining moment was in 1953 when the US Central Intelligence Agency carried out a coup, backed by Britain's Winston Churchill, that toppled Iran's popular, democratically elected and charismatic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled the unpopular Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Mossadegh's sin, in Anglo-American eyes, was to have nationalised the Anglo-American oil company, the forerunner to British Petroleum (BP), which had previously paid huge taxes to Britain.

However the unpredictable situation in Iran turns out, it is a "historic turning point" in the history of Iran's Islamic Revolution, said Gary Sick, a senior Iran scholar at New York's Columbia University, in a blog post. Mr Sick served at the National Security Council under three US presidents. In a pointed reference to the June 12 election, he wrote in an earlier blog entry: "Iranians have never forgotten the external political intervention that thwarted their democratic aspirations in 1953. How will they remember this day?"

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae