During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Iranians who subscribed to the “reformist” camp referred to their political opponents, ie the country’s principalists, hardliners and conservatives, as “English”. The latter in turn called the reformists “American”.
In the aftermath of the death of Queen Elizabeth II last Thursday, with some irony the discourse has been reversed. In the past few days some of Iran’s principalists have referred to Britain’s longest-reigning monarch as “the mother of the reformists”.
The government of the Islamic Republic has been markedly reticent about releasing any kind of official statement about the death of Elizabeth II. But the state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and a cluster hardline media outlets have used her death to attack decisions taken by successive British governments during her 70-year reign. A few also zeroed in on the recent scandal around Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, and remarked on how much her funeral and associated mourning ceremonies will cost the British public purse. Some sought to paint her death as harbinger of the breakup of the United Kingdom.
Nine Years of Nervy Silence
At the time of writing, no Iranian official of note had offered their public condolences for the death of Queen Elizabeth II, not even at the level of the Foreign Ministry. The last time a senior holder of office in Iran said anything at all about the British monarchy was nine years ago – and then, only involuntarily.
In 2013, at one of his weekly press conferences, then-Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi was asked by a French reporter if the birth of Prince Charles’s grandson George might herald new beginnings, and improvement, for relations between the two countries. Araghchi smiled, extended his congratulations on the birth, and said: “Our relations with Britain are much too complex for events like these to make any difference.”
The divied political atmosphere in Iran at the time – Araghchi was a holdover from the Ahmadinejad administration, just after the Hassan Rouhani presidency had begun – meant Araghchi received instant criticism from hardline figures and media outlets associated with the Supreme Leader, who felt he should not have commented on the birth at all.
Later on, the unfortunate official was asked by another reporter if congratulating the British royal family on the birth might have been the wrong thing to do. He responded: “I’m surprised as to why you are making such a big deal out of this. When a spokesman is asked a question, he ought to observe diplomatic rules and decorum [in his reply].
“My congratulations were not impromptu. They came in answer to a question, and in any case, all parents deserve congratulations for the birth of their children. The important point was that we were asked if this event affects relations between Iran and Britain, and we answered in the negative.”
So bizarre was the episode that Araghchi joked about it at his handover ceremony in 2021, when the job passed to Marzieh Afkham. “I wish Ms. Afkham every success,” he said, “and hope that she doesn’t offer congratulations on the birth of any baby.”
But it also appears to have been formative. This past week, public figures in Iran have demurred on responding to the death of the Queen – possibly because they are now afraid of coming under fire from representatives of Iran’s unelected state.
Dredging Up Scandal
“Elizabeth II, Queen of England, Dies” was the subtitle beneath a rolling news broadcast that the IRIB used to announce the death of the British monarch. Shortly afterward came its first full report on this seismic event. It was entitled “The British Prince Loses his Protector”.
Instead of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, her legacy, her pre-revolutionary contacts with Iran or global reactions to the death, the IRIB focused on the accusations of sexual assault on a minor levelled against her son, Prince Andrew, during the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. Andrew denied the allegations. He settled a lawsuit against him in February this year and has since been withdrawn from public life as a member of the royal family.
“Even though many sexual [misconduct] charges were levelled against Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite son” IRIB News wrote, “his mother supported him until the end of her life. But now, with her death, this support is gone.”
This, however, was one of the gentler takes. The official Islamic Republic News Agency IRNA had this assessment: “Charles III, Elizabeth II’s oldest son, ascends the throne immediately after the death of the Queen, in a situation where family disputes on the one hand, and anti-monarchist movements and also the danger of the disintegration of Britain on the other hand, threaten the future of his reign.”
The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency led with an article entitled “The Death of the British Queen: Will the Legacy of Royal Scandals Continue?”. It led on the publicly-funded status of the royal family, also touching on the Prince Andrew affair and “the moral corruption of [the Queen’s first son, now King] Charles”.
The hardline daily Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by the Supreme Leader, took an economic approach with an article entitled “Six Billion Pounds: The Cost of the Queen’s Burial Ceremonies at the Height of the Economic Crisis in Britain”. It stated: “Queen Elizabeth died at 96 when she the richest queen in the world, and now the cost of her burial ceremonies has attracted a lot of attention at a time when inflation in Britain is casting a long shadow over the people’s lives.”
Queen’s Reign Maligned for UK Government Decisions
Tasnim News Agency pulled no punches with the rest of its coverage, claiming without evidence that Queen Elizabeth II – then in her first year on the throne – had been one of the masterminds of the 1953 Iranian coup d'état that returned Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to power.
Another outlet, Fars News Agency, which is ultimately owned by the IRGC, also wrote: “The former British queen leaves a legacy of not only hundreds of millions of dollars but also the spilled blood of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
Besides the 1953 coup, Fars claimed the Queen was responsible for downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which was shot down in July 1988 by the US navy, killing 290 people on board. It further said the government of Margaret Thatcher “immediately supported this crime by America and even helped to cover it up.”
Vatan-e Emrouz, known for its headlines, called the death of Queen Elizabeth II the “Death of the Queen of Tricksters”. Like other principalist newspapers, Vatan-e Emrouz focused not on the queen’s life and character but on actions by the British government during her reign, such as the 1953 coup and the supposed support of Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s. “In recent years, Elizabeth II had the highest number of meetings and talks with Arab dictator rulers,” the same article added.
“The End of a Century of Decline” was the title of an editorial by the newspaper Javan, also affiliated with the IRGC: “Elizabeth reached the end of her life after close to a century of decay, but she was not the founder of British colonialism and it will not end with her death. The death of Elizabeth II is only an excuse to review the injustices done by Buckingham Palace and London’s 10 Downing Street to humanity, and to grieve for the wrong done to the world’s downtrodden.”
Questions of Leadership
Other Iranian state-aligned media suggested the death of the Queen would bring about the breakup of the United Kingdom and/or the collapse of the Commonwealth. “The Death of Elizabeth II: The End of the British Empire?” was the headline that Tehran Municipality’s newspaper Hamshahri chose.
In an accompanying editorial, however, Hamshahri actually attacked Iran’s reformists, accusing them of having promoted a constitutional form of government modeled on Britain, in which – despite the above claims from hardline media – the head of state plays only a ceremonial, non-decision-making role.
Javan’s managing editor Abdollah Ganji made a similar point. Recently Ganji attacked reformists for raising fears that the leadership in the Islamic Republic is on the verge of the becoming hereditary, and that Khamenei’s son Mojtaba is being groomed for the top job. In a tweet shortly after news of the Queen’s death broke, Ganji wrote: “The ruler of England, Wales, Australia, Scotland, Canada, Ireland... died after 70 years on the throne and her rule is likely to be inherited by her oldest son on a hereditary basis. Our intellectuals who envy that democracy say this model is appropriate for Iran but at the same time fight against the idea of a native hereditary ruler in Iran.”
Reformist Reactions to the Death of Queen Elizabeth II
Under the headline “Britain’s New Age”, the reformist newspaper Shargh asked: “Where is Britain Heading After the Death of Queen Elizabeth?” One of the achievements of the Queen’s 70-year reign, it said, had been her “success in preserving the monarchy and stability in Britain in its most turbulent era, in a rapidly changing world where it faced numerous domestic and foreign challenges.”
The paper, however, focused more on the life of the new King Charles III: “Charles’ role is to ensure stability at a time of political and social upheaval... He represents a generation different from that of the queen. In fact, he is the first British monarch to have gone to school.”
The newspaper Setareh Sobh headlined with “A 70-Year Reign without Interference”. Its front-page report mostly alluded to domestic topics of discussion: “Had Mohammad Reza Shah ruled like Queen Elizabeth II, he would not have fallen from power,” Ali Bigdeli, a professor of history and international relations, told one of the newspaper’s reporters..
Shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week, a picture of President Mohammad Khatami and Prince Charles while he was visiting Iran in 2004 to help survivors of the disastrous earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam was posted on Khatami’s official Instagram page. It was one of a precious few: most other Iranian political figures have said nothing out loud, leaving the media to do articulate the state line for them.