Friday, February 10, 2006

In Iranian Eyes, the 'Cross-Eyed British' Are to Blame

Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
The Embassy of Denmark was attacked and pelted with gasoline bombs two days in a row because of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper. The Austrian Embassy was stoned and all its windows were smashed for the same reason. The United States has been dubbed the World Oppressor, and Israel has always been at the top of the enemies list.

But to understand whom Iranians distrust most of all, you need only visit Bobby Sands Street. Named after the Irish republican who died of a hunger strike in 1981, the street runs right past the British Embassy in a busy neighborhood of Tehran.

A not-too-subtle finger in the eye.

"We have not seen anything other than bad things from the British since they stepped foot here 200 years ago," said Seyed Razi Abbassian, 72, a dealer in stamps and coins at a shop across from the street from the British Embassy. "We have no good memories of the British."

In an often bitterly divided country, Mr. Abbassian's outlook is one that unites Iranians of many social, economic and political classes.

The idea that Britain is behind much of what goes wrong in Iran is not just a conspiracy theory but also a prism through which to view events. Indeed, America — the Great Satan itself — is often portrayed as merely a hapless, muscle-bound child manipulated by smarter, craftier, more deceitful forces in London. READ MORE

One European diplomat said he once received a gift from an Iranian child: a drawing of America as a marionette with Britain pulling the strings.

"For 200 years we have had a political relationship with the British," said Mansoureh Ettehadie, a history professor and writer. "They have never been innocent. There is a feeling in Iran that is widespread, that the British have not been blameless."

As Ms. Ettehadie intimated, there are sound historical reasons for the Iranians to suspect the British. Early in the 20th century, she said, Britain tussled with France and Russia over control of the country, and Britain's success in the south, and in dominating the rich oil fields, left a bad taste. She said, for example, that for many years, Iran did not even have its own central bank, but had to rely on the Imperial Bank to issue currency.

And as every Iranian schoolchild knows, it was the British who engineered the coup that brought to power the dictatorial Reza Shah Pahlavi, who founded the hated dynasty that lasted until the Shiite revolution in 1979.

Distrust of Britain is so ingrained in the public psyche — especially among the older generation — that it has been joked about, written about and even dismissed as paranoia, but never done away with. One of the most popular novels in Iran, "My Uncle Napoleon," is a comic love story spoofing how Iranians see a British hand in all dark deeds.

The book popularized the phrase, "This is the job of the cross-eyed British," which is often used here with a smile, and a wink. It can be said when bombs go off, or when there is really bad traffic.

While many Iranians are adept at poking fun at their Brit-fixation, the prevailing view also serves to complicate already tense relations between London and Tehran over such matters as the Iranian nuclear program. One Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified so as not to inflame his host country, said Iranians often raised the specter of "historical inequities" with Britain in diplomatic meetings.

Recently, as the United States and Britain and other European partners pressed for Iran to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear activities, Iranian officials accused the British of some recent bombings and deadly plane crashes in Iran.

In each case, government officials said that Britain was not working alone, but in tandem with Israel and the United States. Nevertheless, Britain was the ringmaster.

If there is an event that still angers many, it is the coup in 1953 that ousted the prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstalled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had fled the country. Although the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in ousting Mr. Mossadegh, sentiment here holds that British intelligence pulled the strings.

"The British were responsible for ending Mossadegh's rule," said Mustafa Jahangard, 26, who runs a fruit and vegetable store in central Tehran. Asked who is disliked more in Iran, the United States or Britain, Mr. Jahangard first drew a distinction between the American people, who "are good," and the American government, which "is bad." No such distinction was made for the British.

"The British win in this competition," he said. "England is even worse. They are sneaky."

The anger and suspicions are widespread, and widely discussed. On Jan. 31, Resalat, an Iranian daily, ran an article about the bombings in Ahvaz beneath the headline: "England's Hand in Measures Against Our National Security."

"Britain, the old colonizer, has a hand in all of these criminal measures," the article said. "Another trick of the government of the old colonizer, England, is that whenever its secret intentions — in conspiring against others — are somehow revealed, it takes totally friendly positions, that are against America's positions, regarding Iran; and when everything is back to normal, it follows up its previous hostile positions."

The British Embassy occupies a large compound in Tehran and is tucked back inside, behind a tall brick wall. Reza Razavi said he had run his pen store on a corner, on the other side of the wall, for 12 years, and had never, to his knowledge, had a British customer from the embassy. He said it was easy to believe that the British were up to no good because of recent charges made public by Russia about a British diplomat caught working as a spy — and of course the Mossadegh affair.

As for all the negative deeds Iranians attribute to the Americans, he said, "If you think about it, America was under the British as well."