Britain vs Iran: the politics of nostalgia

Who’s more deluded: Iranian students who think Britain’s still an imperial threat, or British ministers who fantasise that Iran is EVIL?

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

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The current stand-off, such as it is, between the West and Iran seems more than a little unreal.

Yes, a US spy-drone really was shot down over the weekend, to the barely disguised glee of the Iranian authorities on the one hand, and the ‘we wondered where it had got to’ embarrassment of the US on the other. And yes, a student stage-army really did break into the British Embassy in Tehran last week and smash a portrait of the British head of state, Elizabeth II, much to the manufactured glee of a few hundred Iranian protesters and manufactured outrage of the British foreign secretary, William Hague.

Yet despite the contemporary reality of the stand-off, it appears a little too rich in political nostalgia. It’s as if both sides are desperate to fight old battles, desperate to reinvent older certainties in the midst of so much contemporary uncertainty.

So, the ransacking of the British Embassy has been eagerly compared by some commentators to the 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Tehran, when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini held US staff in captivity for 444 days. Likewise, Britain’s response to the embassy attack, with Hague puffing his tiny chest out and ‘expelling’ Iranian diplomats from London, seemed like an excited attempt to pose once again as an important player on the world stage.

On the part of the Iranian state, the whiff of wilful historical re-enactment is also difficult to dispel. ‘Death to Britain’ was reportedly one of the chants in the Iranian parliament last week, following the announcement of further Western sanctions against Iran. As the BBC’s John Simpson reports: ‘The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Ardashir Larijani, said the attack on the embassy was Britain’s fault for interfering in Iran’s affairs and trying to dominate it over the decades.’

If Hague and Co would like to imagine Britain as an important world power, it seems their Iranian counterparts are only too happy to help out. The attack on the British Embassy, allegedly encouraged by parts of the Iranian regime, can be seen then as an attempt to reinvent Britain as the imperial enemy of yore. This is not 2011 anymore, when Britain’s impotence in the Middle East has been apparent throughout the tumult in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. It is 1913, when Britain really was confident enough a power to draw up a contract which made Iran’s oil fields British property. Or perhaps it’s 1919, when still-imperial Britain annexed the Iranian treasury and army. Or even the 1950s, when the decision of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh to nationalise the oil industry and rid Iran of Anglo influence prompted Britain and the US effectively to engineer Mossadegh’s downfall.

So although Britain has not been an imperial power proper for at least 50 years, parts of the Iranian state, beset by considerable internal problems both economic and political, are only too keen to portray it as such. On both sides of this stand-off, then, there is mutual gain. The West, with Britain to the fore, can act tough and moral towards that one-time pivot in then-President George W Bush’s ‘axis of evil’; and conservative elements in Iran, striving to hang on to and justify their power, can act tough and moral towards various sizes of Satan.

Of course, this current, barely diplomatic dispute has occurred within the broader narrative of the West’s recently revamped crusade to rid the world of nuclear weapons. And, like the current stand-off, this broader narrative has provided Western leaders with the chance to pose as forces for good, as leaders with moral purpose. Indeed, in April 2009, US president Barack Obama announced to the world that it was his ‘agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’. This, he said, was a ‘moral responsibility’.

The current Western antagonism towards Iran stems from the attempt to exercise this ‘moral responsibility’. Not that Iran actually has a nuclear weapon. The problem, it seems, is that the Iranian government might be trying to manufacture one. As Patrick Hayes reported on spiked recently, this was the dubious finding of the West’s weapons inspectorate last month. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had supposedly carried out tests ‘relevant to the development of a nuclear device’. That the IAEA did so on the basis of intelligence which ends in 2003, that it relied on documents that the Israelis conveniently found on a laptop, and that the claim itself that the explosion chamber supposedly used for nuclear testing was disputed by a former IAEA chief inspector… all this was disregarded by the US, Britain and Europe in their rush to fight the good fight against the mad, bad and dangerous of Iran.

So, on 17 November, the UN issued a resolution urging Iran to ‘comply with all of its obligations under international law’ and to ‘cooperate with states seeking to bring to justice all those who participated in the planning, sponsoring, organisation and attempted execution of the plot’. That wasn’t enough for the US, Canada and UK which, a week later, announced a new raft of economic sanctions against Iran, effectively freezing Iranian assets abroad and refusing to do business with Iranian banks. And then last week, the EU, with the UK and France leading the charge of the morally light brigade, declared further measures to deal with the none-too-obvious threat of Iran, namely freezing assets of Iranian companies and individuals, and implementing travel bans.

While some commentators appear to be keen to re-enact a bit of history of their own, viewing the current round of moral posturing and rusty sabre rattling as a replay of the run-up to the Iraq War, this use of nuclear-weapon ownership to demarcate morally responsible nations from the morally irresponsible and immature hordes actually has its own distinct post-colonial function. It allows, under the conditions of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the West, or at least the permanent members of the UN Security Council (America, Russia, China, France and Britain), to continue to divide the world up between the civilised and uncivilised. It’s just that the mode in which this divide is expressed is no longer racial, but moral: there are some nations mature and responsible enough to possess nuclear weapons, and some, such as Iran, which are not.

This is no doubt why of the 22,000 nuclear warheads estimated to be knocking around the world, Russia has 12,000, the US 9,400, France 300, China 240 and Britain 185, with Israel, Pakistan and India sharing somewhere in the region of 250. Iran, the dread enemy of the month, the current threat to world peace, has precisely… none. And the only country actually to have used a nuclear weapon against people? That remains the ‘moral responsibility’ of the US when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The phoney battle with Iran does have a contemporary reality, then. But it is not the one of current historical fantasy; it is the reality of the West’s purpose-seeking leaders. Befuddled before the economic crises gripping the developed world, the chance to pose, on the basis of nuclear-weapon ownership, as the righteous guardians of world peace has proven too alluring. Iran is not the Iran of 1979 in this historic re-enactment. It is merely the token opponent in Western leaders’ desperate struggle for moral authority.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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