Britain vs Iran: the politics of nostalgia
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.