Earlier this month, Iranian authorities sentenced Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old British Iranian who was detained after attending a men’s volleyball match in June, to a year in prison for “spreading propaganda against the regime.” Her brother told the Guardian that authorities had been “suspicious of her dual citizenship.”
On October 30th, Iran’s former Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi claimed that Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, MI6, was behind a series of acid attacks against women in Isfahan that had led to large protests.
Both stories hint at what historian Ervand Abrahamian has named “the paranoid style in Iranian politics,” but Britain is no mere regular in the Islamic Republic’s lineup of usual suspects, alongside the United States and Israel. Some in the Iranian regime have interpreted recent events based on Britain’s unique reputation as an uncanny force for conspiracy in Iranian political life--a reputation it has enjoyed and endured for over 150 years.
Running the Show
In the late 19th century, Iran’s weak and venal Qajar monarchy exposed the country to penetration by Britain and Russia, two great powers active in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia respectively. By the end of the century, says Ervand Abrahamian, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the City University of New York, Iranians widely perceived the two powers to be “running the show.”
Conspiracy theories, says Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, emerged to meet a cultural need in Iran, and became “a balm for despairing souls,” who felt they had no role in determining their own future at a time when British interventions were almost endless.
Britain’s reputation eclipsed that of its Russian rival, Milani says, because Britain proved defter at influencing various strata of Iranian society, and because of its association with Freemasonry, a movement many Iranians saw as a tool of British foreign policy. While Iranians, Abrahamian says, perceived Russians as physically aggressive — willing to invade Tabriz (as they did in 1911) or bombard Mashhad (as they did in 1912) —they saw Britain as the more devious actor. The British military’s role in the coup that brought Reza Shah to power in 1921, he says, entrenched that view. “The notion was, even the Shah comes to power because of the British.”
The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, absorbed that worldview. Britain’s backing, along with the United States, of the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq helped keep him in power. Britain, along with the Soviet Union, had unseated his father in 1941. He understandably saw Britain as a kingmaker, and feared that Britain could also unmake him. “He never gave up on the notion that they were the force behind everything,” Milani says.
Beards Made in Britain
In 1978, the pro-Shah newspaper Ettela’at published an article that slandered the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a British agent. It angered Khomeini’s supporters so much that it helped tip the revolutionary balance against the Shah, but also entrenched among royalists a conspiratorial view of Iran’s clergy. “There is this notion among secular writers that the clerics have always been used by the British,” Abrahamian says. The fact that Khomeini’s grandfather had lived in Kashmir when it was part of British India and that part of his family had the surname Hindi, provided material for the Shah’s intelligence service, SAVAK. “During the revolution the joke was that if you lifted up Khomeini’s beard, you would find ‘Made in Britain’ under it.”
After revolutionaries overthrew him, the Shah clung to a belief that a host of unlikely allies had collaborated against him. Immediately after he left Iran, says Behrouz Afagh, head of the BBC World Service's Asia & Pacific Region, the Shah’s anti-British paranoia escalated. “There is an interview in which he says, ‘Do you think that Mr. Khomeini, an uneducated person…could have masterminded all this?’” The Shah, Milani says, went to his grave believing that Britain, along with the US and the major oil companies, had caused his overthrow. He included these accusations in his final memoir, Answer to History.
Conspirators? We’ll Slap Them!
In November 1979, Khomeini’s supporters mounted their siege of the US Embassy with the idea of forestalling another British and American-backed coup on the model of 1953. But the US, Abrahamian says, did not have assets with which to carry out a coup in 1980 even if it had wanted to. “I’m sure Khomeini knew that. But if the public accepts these conspiratorial theories, then whenever you want to, you can tap into it.” Following the revolution, Khomeini and his supporters exploited public acceptance of conspiracy thinking to new ends.
Khomeini, Afagh says, made the idea of foreign enemies wanting to harm Iran and Islam a strong part of his narrative. But unlike the Shah, Khomeini vowed to fight conspirators. “His narrative was coupled with a bombastic claim that ‘None of these people can do anything to us. Yes, these enemies are out to get us, but we’ll slap them and they will see how they are defeated by our conviction.’” In 1979, revolutionaries tended to conflate perceived British and American aims but continued to see the two nations differently. “Iranians see the British as wily and super-smart, but timid and unresourced, Afagh says. “They see America as big, bolshie, bullish, but not as smart. The caricature is that the Brits do all the sinister thinking, and Americans use their muscle.”
Conspiracy theorists in Iran, from royalists to clerics, now keep innumerable rival theories in play. But the main purveyor, Abrahamian says, is the Iranian government. “After the contested election in 2009, the government line was that anyone protesting was doing it at the behest of the Americans, but the British are still there: The BBC is always labeled as part of the conspiracy to bring about a velvet revolution in Iran. In the 2009 show trials of the reformers there were some 200 NGOs and foreign organizations cited as part of the conspiracy, but the BBC played the most important role in that.”
Yet if Iran wanted to draw people away from the BBC, Afagh says, it would be easy. “Just give some freedom and independence to your own journalists and people won’t turn to us.” Iranian misperceptions about British power, he says, also extend to wider politics. “A lot of British officials, when they talk about Iran, they do refer to this. It’s a big joke. They say that Tehran is the only foreign capital where they think Britain is still a superpower. Of course, they don’t mind.”
While foreign powers have played a detrimental role in Iranian society, Milani says, the best days of conspiracy theories in Iran are over. “When a society ascribes omnipotence to conspirators, it blames only the other, and foregoes a critical look at its own failures and responsibilities. I think that the younger generation doesn’t buy this stuff. I think the younger generation is much more inward looking, much more critical, much more skeptical. My sense is that Iranian society in general is moving beyond that.”