Brown’s Britain: the Mr Bean of diplomacy?

The irony of the embassy controversy is that the UK has been singled out for attack by the Iranian regime because it lacks influence there today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

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It is a sign of the times that so many have reacted with bemusement to the Iranian regime’s move to single out the UK as the ‘most treacherous’ Western power, and the arrest of several members of British embassy staff. How could anybody imagine that the British authorities were capable of stirring up trouble in Tehran today? Once Britain would have been feared and reviled as the evil empire in the Middle East. Now it seems Britannia can be targeted because it is seen as the weedy kid in the West, and the response will be a pathetic plea of ‘why is that nasty boy picking on us?’

Faced with a crisis at home, nothing is generally more welcome to a British government than an international dispute with a less powerful state, a chance to act the strong statesman on the world stage. Even in more recent post-imperial times, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were both keen to export their domestic problems on to a foreign field in this way – albeit that, as time went on and Britain’s authority declined, they did so with diminishing degrees of success from the Falklands (1982) through Kosovo (1999) to the debacle of Iraq (2003 onwards).

Seen in these traditional terms some might think that the timing of the stand-off with Iran could scarcely be better for New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. With his government dead on its feet and a General Election in the offing, it might present an opportunity to show that Brown’s Britain still stands for something in the world, and to distract attention from the crisis of democracy at home by railing against the undemocratic regime Over There.

Yet the reality has turned out very differently. Iran’s willingness to single out Britain has shown that the UK is now considered a soft target. And the government’s response has only confirmed the impotence of the former empire. This episode suggests that it is not only Brown’s grip on power that is coming to an end, but also Britain’s hold on its seat at the top table of world affairs.

In one sense the attempt to blame Western powers for the protests in Iran is nothing new. Ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Islamic regime has sought to exploit international conflicts and anti-Western feeling to consolidate its authority within Iran, from its long war with Iraq to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

The US has always been the prime target of Tehran’s anti-Western gestures, the ‘Great Satan’, with the UK seen as its ‘little Satan’ sidekick. Now, however, the Great Satan has an angelic-looking new president and Barack Obama has been making overtures about a new diplomatic relationship if the Iranian regime will ‘unclench its fist’. Unkeen to be seen rejecting Obama’s advances prematurely, the Iranians have cast around for a softer target. They have alighted upon Brown’s Britain as a proxy for the West that can be denounced without fear of serious repercussions.

The irony is that Britain has been singled out as the villain of the Tehran protests primarily because of its lack of influence over Iran and the Middle East – because of its weakness, not its power.

It is important for anti-imperialists to take a fresh view of these developments. It may come as a surprise to some to discover that we are not living in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Many British commentators who had never previously uttered or apparently heard of the word ‘imperialism’ have suddenly discovered that Britain has a history of domination over and interference in Iran, and sought to depict the latest ructions as a continuation of that long-running conflict. This lazy ahistorical approach risks missing how far things have altered.

It is certainly true that Britain was the major Western power in the region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, carving up and exploiting Iran along with its neighbours. In 1872 the then shah awarded the naturalised British aristocrat Baron Paul Julius Von Reuter, founder of Reuters news agency, an effective monopoly over much of Iran’s economic wealth. British foreign secretary Lord Curzon described it as ‘the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has probably ever been dreamt of, and much less accomplished, in history’.

Public outrage at the ‘Reuters concession’ helped to galvanise the movement for democratic reform in Iran. But after the end of the First World War, the British Empire was still influential enough to establish a client regime in Iran, putting the shah on the Peacock throne. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the British economy ran on Iranian oil extracted by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation, later called British Petroleum and now BP.

The historical episode that has most often been mentioned in recent weeks, as an apparent explanation of Iranian hostility to Britain, is the 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammed Mossadeq, Iran’s radical democratic prime minister. Mossadeq wanted to nationalise the assets of Anglo-Iranian oil. The notion of Iranians taking control of their own oil was obviously outrageous to Winston Churchill’s Tory government. Yet in 1953 the British Empire was already too far gone to get rid of Mossadeq alone. The Brits had to plead with the US to send in the CIA to organise the coup.

More than half a century of declining power later, as it retreats from Iraq, Britain has almost no ability to influence events in Iran. The Iranian regime may use the same language in denouncing the evils of British imperialism, but the context has changed dramatically, as the half-hearted response of the British government confirms. The model for British-Iranian relations today was perhaps set a couple of years back, when the Iranians captured a boat load of Royal Navy sailors in disputed waters without a shot being fired, and dubbed one brave Brit ‘Mr Bean’ because he kept crying, apparently over the confiscation of his iPod. Now PM Brown and his foreign secretary David Miliband are being treated as the diplomatic equivalent of Bean. Brown, we may recall, is the British statesman dismissed even by President Robert Mugabe of the former colony Zimbabwe as a ‘little tiny dot on this world’.

Understanding that Britain has been singled out because it is impotent does not mean that Iran is strong, however. Those who have sought to compare the detention of a few Iranians working at the British embassy with the infamous seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and American hostages by militant students at the time of the Iranian revolution are also on the wrong historical track. This latest little stunt by the regime, and the bizarre argument that Britain is somehow to blame for the political crisis in Iran, are a far cry from the popular revolutionary fervour of 1979. The Iranian government, too, is acting out of weakness today, thrashing around for somebody to blame and something to divert attention from its own crisis of internal authority.

What we are witnessing in effect is less an historic clash between British imperialism and the oppressed of Iran, and more of a phoney war between two phoney governments. Britain remains of course a richer and more influential world power than the likes of Iran (even though the UK government may fall first). Yet the fact that an international crisis in Iran and Iraq is now more likely further to undermine British authority than to give it a Falklands-style boost shows how far the world has turned.

There are calls now from a top New Labour think-tank for Britain to stop trying to ‘punch above its weight’ on the world stage and accept that it can no longer be a global military power. Speculation is also mounting that the economic crisis and weight of public debt could finally put paid to the renewal of Trident, Britain’s independent nuclear arsenal – the symbol of being a world power since the Second World War. It remains to be seen how far and how fast the British political elite is prepared publicly to go down that difficult road towards accepting a lesser role for itself. But when even Obama has to recognise the limits of American influence in former client states such as Iran, the writing is surely on the wall. There can be no dream of a US/British-backed coup in Tehran this time.

The anti-war protesters still marching around with banners warning the British government not to bomb Iran are living in as much of a fantasy world as any remaining empire loyalists. British imperialism is bombed out. No doubt the authorities will still try to mount Afghan-type operations to demonstrate their moral authority in the world, and such interventions should be opposed. But sooner rather than later everybody will finally have to face up to the new world.

The overdue loss of the delusions of empire is not to be mourned. The question for a UK society without a clear identity or mission today is: what do we want to put in their place?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that the Iranian protestors need more than sympathy for Neda. He also looked at the chances of another revolution in Iran. Brendan O’Neill wondered why Britain’s foreign secretary was so opposed to Iran having nuclear technology. David Chandler contrasted the UK government’s bombastic attacks on Iran with its relative silence once British sailors were seized by the Iranians. Or read more at spiked issue Iran.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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