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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Iran's love-hate relationship with the UK
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (left) with Iran's President Mohammad Khatami
Mr Straw's visit marks a new thaw in relations with Iran
By the BBC's David Blow

Throughout the 19th century, and right up to World War II, Britain and Russia - later the Soviet Union - were the dominant powers in Iran.

But the recent visit to Iran by the UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was the first since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The relationship between London and Tehran is complex, weighed down by the burden of history.

Britain and Iran have had a long and close relationship in which there has been much affection and mutual respect - but also a fair degree of justifiable suspicion on the Iranian side.

Harold Wilson, former British PM
Iranians were suspicious of the UK in the Wilson era
I remember being shocked when I was living in Isfahan in January 1965 and the then Iranian prime minister, Hasan Ali Mansur, was shot dead as he was entering the parliament in Tehran - and an Iranian friend turned to me and said: "You British did that".

What? Our young new prime minister, Harold Wilson - the Tony Blair of his day - with pipe and gannex overcoat? Was he behind this? In fact he wasn't. Mansur was killed by an Islamic militant. But my friend's reaction was fairly typical in a country that had experienced a century and a half of British interference in its affairs.

Mossadeq toppled

After all, it was barely 10 years since Britain had helped to overthrow another Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, because he wanted Iran, not Britain, to control his country's vast oil reserves.

Iranian oil worker, Imam Khomeini port, Iran
Britain wanted to control Iran's oil

This experience made many Iranians mistrustful of Britain - even to the point where a visiting Englishman like myself was widely assumed to be some sort of spy.

I thought this absurd until I returned to England and went to see someone at my old university whose job it was to give advice on what sort of career one might usefully take up. As soon as I mentioned that I spoke quite good Persian his eyes lit up. "Have you ever thought about a career in intelligence?" he asked.

I did not follow up the suggestion - although Britain and other western countries might have avoided a lot of mistakes if they had been better informed about what was going on in Iran under the last Shah.

The revolution of 1906 nonetheless marked the beginning of a democratic process that is still unfolding in Iran

It must not be forgotten either that the British have sometimes played a positive role in Iran. Their presence almost certainly helped to prevent further encroachment by Russia, which seized Iranian territory in the Caucasus in the early 19th century and - in the shape of the Soviet Union - set up a short-lived puppet republic in the north-western province of Azerbaijan after World War II.

And in the summer of 1906 some 14,000 people who were demanding a constitution and a parliament took refuge in the extensive grounds of the UK legation in Tehran.

The constitutionalists won their battle - the first such victory in the Islamic world - and the UK embassy was later given a magnificent, great embroidered tent as a token of thanks. It remains its proudest possession.

Best-loved Englishman in Iran

Although the hopes of the constitutionalists were later disappointed, the revolution of 1906 nonetheless marked the beginning of a democratic process that is still unfolding in Iran.

And then there was a remarkable Englishman called Edward Granville Browne, who was a Persian scholar of Cambridge University in the early part of the last century. He is still perhaps the best known and best loved English man or woman in Iran, and his achievements have done much to redeem the British in the eyes of Iranians.

His ground-breaking, scholarly and elegantly written four-volume Literary History of Persia, which appeared between 1902 and 1924, made a lasting impression in a country which values its writers and poets above all else.

Tomb of Hafez e Shirazi, Shiraz, Iran
Tomb of the poet Hafez

I remember once attending one of the weekly gatherings of poets in Isfahan, when a fierce dispute broke out between the traditionalists, who clung to rhyme and metre, and the modernists who championed free verse.

Seeing me, one of the modernists got up and said: "when our English guest goes home his friends will ask him what's new in Persian poetry - and I fear he will shake his head and say 'nothing has changed since E.G.Browne!'"

Browne was also a tireless supporter of political freeedom in Persia - often taking on his own government over the issue -- and his home in Cambridge became a refuge for Persian exiles.

When he died in 1925 the distinguished Persian scholar, Mirza Muhammad Qazvini, wrote that "the existence of Browne was for Persia a God-given blessing." For all the to-ings and fro-ings of ministers, in the end it is an English academic who has done more than anyone to bring Britain and Iran closer together.

Love-hate relationship

It would also be quite wrong to suggest that Iranians have felt nothing but resentment towards Britain. It has been a real case of a love-hate relationship and many Iranians have been been passionate anglophiles.

Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford
One immortalised by the English writer Christopher Sykes was a man called Bahram Kermani. Sykes knew him in the 1930s. He was a somewhat dissolute character who cherished the illusion that he had once been to Balliol College, Oxford.

In the winter of 1940, at a time when he was utterly penniless, Kermani was invited by the German press attaché in Tehran, to write pro-Nazi articles for Iranian newspapers. Although he desperately needed the money, he looked at the attaché coldly and replied: "I am surprised that you are so foolish as to make such a suggestion to a Balliol man". He turned on his heel and left - to disappear again, as Sykes puts it, "into his dim, hated familiar world of poverty, cold, hunger and hard-earned drink."

Better relations?

Britain and Iran ought now to be able to look forward to a much better relationship. That is not just because the Cold War is over or that Britain's role in the world has changed.

Street in Shiraz, Iran
The Islamic revolution was a triumph for anti-western clerics

One of the things that has poisoned Anglo-Iranian relations in the past has been the feeling on the Iranian side that they were being manipulated, that they were not masters of their own destiny. This was understandable, but it went much too far. Iranians underrated their own capacities and vastly overrated those of outside powers, particularly Britain.

A young Iranian once told me that he wanted to marry an English woman because his children would then inherit the secret of succeeding in the world. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, whatever one may think of it, has changed all that. Iranians have finally taken charge of their destiny. They may have made mistakes in the process, but they have thrown off that debilitating sense of powerlessness, that inferiority complex that sadly continues to hold back other countries in the region.

Audio: David Blow
'It's been a real case of a love-hate relationship'
See also:

26 Sep 01 | Middle East
Analysis: The two sides of Iran
25 Sep 01 | Middle East
UK fosters Iran relations
25 Sep 01 | Middle East
UK rallies Iran's support
24 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Analysis: Straw's visit divides Iran
24 Sep 01 | Middle East
UK in new Mid-East row
08 Aug 01 | Middle East
Timeline: Iran
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