Glory and Humiliation:
Iran, Britain and that Coup

House of Lords Reviews Bitter British-Iranian History

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | February 12, 2006                      

LONDON — February 9, 2006: During three hours of deliberations on Iran policy at the House of Lords, several members discussed their country’s history of intervention in Iranian affairs. The residual mistrust from the past, they agreed, continues to hinder diplomatic options over matters such as the nuclear issue.

Lord Douglas Hurd of Westwell (Conservative)

Iran is an ancient country with a huge history of which it is very conscious. This is more than simply a platitude for after-dinner speeches; it is a relevant political fact. We have forgotten so much of our history and, in a way, the Iranians remember too much of theirs. They remember past glory; they remember humiliation—at our hands, Russian hands and American hands; and the coup of 1953 against Mossadegh—things which we never knew or have forgotten. Out of this comes a deep reluctance to be told by other people how they should behave.

Lord David Chidgey (Liberal Democrat)

It pays to put our relationship with Iran in some perspective. As has been said already, the Iranians are a very proud people. Through their history, they [trace] themselves directly to the ancient Persian empire. Indeed, they tell me that the collapse of the Persian Empire, following its defeat by Alexander the Great, still grieves them to this day, some several thousand years later. So the injustices that the Iranians suffered at the hands of the United States and us over 50 years ago are as fresh and disturbing to Iranians as if they happened yesterday. Iranians remember well that in the 1950’s, the United Kingdom introduced a two-year embargo on Iranian oil exports as a response to Mossadegh’s socialist government nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They remember well that the United Kingdom, again in league with the United States, orchestrated the overthrow of their Prime Minister and the reinstallation of the Shah to counter the threat of Iranian oil and gas fields falling under influence of Russia. [That was the excuse, at least]

When I visited Iran, I was amazed to find that it is one of the few countries in the world where the BBC is intensely distrusted. Iranians believe that BBC World Service announcements to Iran facilitated the regime change of Mossadegh. [The BBC’s own program "A Very British Coup", confirms this] Again, they believe that the 20 million demonstrators who took to the streets against the Shah, which led to his fall, were mobilized through the BBC. [Not true, although such suspicions were alleged by the Shah himself]. That is what Iranians believe, and today they are still deeply suspicious of the United Kingdom instigating regime change from outside.

Iranians look around and see the US and UK military presence in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Gulf states. They are more or less surrounded. It is hardly surprising if Iranians consider that the pursuit of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attack is the logical course. So how should we react? Clearly, threats of military reprisal could well be counter-productive. They could reinforce the inherent distrust and the hold that the regime has on the Iranian people through fear. They could encourage conservatives in the Iranian regime to pursue nuclear weapons development with all possible haste.

Baroness Shirley Williams of Crosby (Liberal Democrat)

In that context, I add one thing to what the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said, because it is often easy for us to forget these things. There was Mossadegh, there was the Shah himself who to a great extent was imposed upon the country, but we should not forget that the most dreadful war of recent times in terms of the loss of young men was the Iran-Iraq war. The level of casualties in that war was equivalent to the First World War in Britain or France; it was the sacrifice of a generation. That generation was mostly sacrificed to arms and weapons provided to Iraq by the West, particularly by the United States, in order to defeat and weaken Iran. That is not long ago, it is a recent memory and feeds deeply into Iranian paranoia about the West—a paranoia which is not, alas, entirely a fantasy.

Lord David Hannay of Chiswick (Crossbench)

It is clear that we are going to have to live through a considerable period of heightened tension between Iran and the international community. It is important that the EU3 continues to pursue a coherent and flexible strategy—one that combines firmness over the nuclear issue with a willingness to look beyond that to a prospect of enhanced co-operation. So far as Iran’s internal politics are concerned, recent developments cannot but be a serious discouragement to all who want to see a fully democratic Iran, in which sectarian and ultra-nationalist views no longer determine Iranian foreign policy. But it is for Iranians themselves, and not for us, to seek to bring that about. Loose talk about regime change is liable to be counter-productive, merely strengthening the hand of those in power and encouraging the very policy options that we are seeking to avoid-just as bad as public discussions of military options. Of course these do exist; it would be naive in the extreme to suppose otherwise. But it is surely right to make it clear at every stage and to every interlocutor that the policies that we are pursuing are to be achieved by diplomacy and peaceful means and not by the threats of force.

Finally, I make a plea as someone who began his diplomatic career 45 years ago in Tehran. We must really try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranians and to understand their thinking. It would be quite wrong to suppose that this is exclusively conditioned by religious extremism. Some of the things that President Ahmadinejad says could just as well have been said—indeed, they were said—by Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950’s. Iran’s experience of being pushed around and manipulated by the great powers is a long and bitter one. We need to appeal to the pragmatic instincts, which exist in every Iranian whom I have ever known and to avoid playing to those memories of earlier defeats and humiliations. To coin a phrase, we need to show them respect, even when we disagree with them.

The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable
The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable


House of Lords Sessions:

British Oil Interests In Persia | House of Lords, May 1, 1951

Persian Oil Dispute | House of Lords, May 29, 1951

Persia | House of Lords, June 20, 1951

Related links:

Historical Reasons For Suspicion of Britain in Iran

Jack Straw on Iran’s “Perfectly Democratic” Prime Minister Mossadegh

Lord Norman Lamont: Iran Has Been Interfered With By Foreigners

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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