If there is one country on earth where the cry “Death to England” still carries weight — where people still harbor the white-hot hatred of British colonialism that once inflamed millions from South Africa to China — that country would be Iran. And that is what the leaders of Iran must have been counting on when screaming militiamen, unhindered by the police, poured into the British Embassy in Tehran to vandalize it on Tuesday.
Most Iranians, like most people anywhere, would deplore the idea of thugs storming into a foreign embassy. Nonetheless, some may have felt a flicker of satisfaction. Even an outrage like this, they might have said, is a trifle compared with the generations of torment Britain inflicted on their country.
So Iran’s mullahs — they, not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are reported to have been behind the attack — were not gambling in ordering, or at least tolerating, it. They presumably realized that the world would denounce their flagrant violation of international law. But they also knew it would resonate with the narrative Iranians have heard for so long about their own history.
The spark for the embassy invasion was Britain’s imposition of new economic sanctions on Iran. Pressure for those sanctions came not so much from Britain as from the United States and Israel, but those countries could not be targets for a similar attack because they do not have embassies in Tehran. Besides, Iranians these days can be surprisingly besotted with the United States; in my own visits I am often surrounded by people who compete to proclaim their love for America, and whose anger at Israel seems more political than emotional.
Those Iranians, however, feel quite differently about Britain.
Britain first cast its imperial eye on Iran in the 19th century. Its appeal was location; it straddled the land route to India. Once established in Iran, the British quickly began investing — or looting, as some Iranians would say. British companies bought exclusive rights to establish banks, print currency, explore for minerals, run transit lines and even grow tobacco.
In 1913, the British government maneuvered its way to a contract under which all Iranian oil became its property. Six years later it imposed an “agreement” that gave it control of Iran’s army and treasury. These actions set off a wave of anti-British outrage that has barely subsided.
Britain’s occupation of Iran during World War II, when it was a critical source of oil and a transit route for supplies to keep Soviet Russia fighting, was harsh. Famine and disease spread as the British requisitioned food for their troops.
One of the most popular Iranian novels, “Savushun,” is set in this period. It tells of two brothers who take roles every Iranian can recognize: The elder is ambitious and panders to the occupiers; the younger refuses to sell his grain to them and pays a tragic price for his integrity.
During their occupation, the British decided that Reza Shah Pahlavi, whom they had helped place in power, was no longer reliable. They deposed him and chose his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, as the new shah.
Once the war ended, Iran resumed its efforts to install democracy, under the leadership of Mohammed Mossadegh. He had campaigned against the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 and had written a book denouncing “capitulation” agreements, under which foreigners were granted immunity from Iranian law.
After he was elected prime minister in 1951, Mr. Mossadegh asked Parliament to take the unimaginable step of nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. It agreed unanimously. That sparked a historic confrontation.
Mr. Mossadegh embodied the anti-British emotion that still roils the Iranian soul. The special envoy President Harry S. Truman sent to Tehran to seek a compromise in the oil dispute, W. Averell Harriman, reported that the British held a “completely 19th-century colonial attitude toward Iran,” but found Mr. Mossadegh just as intransigent. When Mr. Harriman assured Mr. Mossadegh that there were good people in Britain, Mr. Mossadegh gave him a classically Iranian reply.
“You do not know how crafty they are,” he said. “You do not know how evil they are. You do not know how they sully everything they touch.”
Desperate to regain control of Iran’s oil, the British sought to crush Mr. Mossadegh with measures that included harsh economic sanctions — sanctions comparable to the ones they are now imposing. When that failed, they asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to join in a plot to overthrow him. He agreed, not because he wished to help the British recover their oil but because he had been persuaded that otherwise, Iran might fall to Communism. Iran, after all, was on the southern flank of the Soviet Union, standing between it and the oil fields and warm-water ports of the Persian Gulf.
The coup, staged in August 1953, ended Iranian democracy and allowed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to build a dictatorship that remained a staunch cold war ally of both Britain and the United States. But the alliance backfired on both countries when his repression set off the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power. Today, many Iranians who loathe the mullahs nevertheless look for Britain’s hand behind any dark plot; some even accuse it of organizing the 1979 revolution, and imposing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
More than half a century ago, Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote that Mr. Mossadegh was “inspired by a fanatical hate of the British and a desire to expel them and their works from the country regardless of the cost.” Many Iranians still feel that way, as their country falls into ever deeper isolation. In Iran, the words “anger” and “Britain” fit easily together.
Outside interference is a central fact of modern Iranian history. And for most of the 20th century, Britain was at the center of most of it.
Nonetheless, a spark of admiration has long been buried within Iranians’ anger, as it was in many other places across the British Empire. Mr. Harriman noticed it in his talks with Mr. Mossadegh. The old man liked to tell stories about his favorite grandson, and Mr. Harriman asked where the boy was attending school.
“Why, in England, of course,” was the reply. “Where else?”
By Stephen Kinzer, a visiting professor of international relations at Boston University, a former New York Times correspondent and the author of Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future.