"Death to America" and "death to Israel" chants may be a widespread feature of politics in the Middle East, but Iran's leaders seem unique in the degree to which they detest the British. This week Ayatollah Khamenei described Britain as the "most evil" of the Western nations interfering in Iran's internal affairs. It does seem a little odd that Khamenei should find Britain -- a country with which the regime does have some (albeit strained) diplomatic relations -- more "evil" than Israel and the United States, two countries where actually attacking Iran has recently been a topic of mainstream public debate.
Perceptions of Britain as the “wily fox” run deep in the Iranian
political class - some are even convinced that American foreign policy
is dictated by Whitehall - and, if this is tinged with admiration, it
nonetheless betrays a profound anxiety about the role of Britain in
modern Iranian history.
Britain, or more accurately England, has enjoyed relations with Iran
stretching back to the beginning of the 17th century, longer than those
it has with many European states. But formal diplomatic relations were
not established until the beginning of the 19th century when Britain
sought to secure Iranian friendship against the ambitions of Napoleonic
France and, later, Tsarist Russia, in defence of British India.
These relations crystallised at a time when Iranian power was in
decline and the British Empire was in the ascendant, so it was never a
relationship of equals. The Iranians felt this loss of power acutely.
Iranian politicians often struggled to balance the demands of Russia
and Britain as the two imperial powers struggled for dominance in the
region. Russia was always the more brutal of the two, but Britain left
deeper political scars. Quite why this should be so is a matter of some
debate - but the meddling of the British Imperial Bank of Persia, and
the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company played a part. It was the nationalisation
of the oil company in 1951 that led ultimately to the Anglo-American
coup against the nationalist Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.
This last event, in particular, has left a deep impression among
Iranians, although its exploitation by the Government in recent years
has been opportunistic.
That is not to say that those who push this anti-British agenda do
not believe in it. President Ahmadinejad's world-view, largely
supported by the Supreme Leader, is deeply antithetical and suspicious
of the West. But Britain, not America - whoever is in the White House -
has been the target of their wrath.