Iran, the US, and the ‘English job’

The pains, pleasures and puzzles of the Gulf crisis.

Iran ship
A speedboat of the IRGC circles around a British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which its forces seized on July 19 [File: Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency via AP]

The plot of the latest escalation in the Gulf involving the United States, the United Kingdom and Iran seems increasingly repetitive like a badly written political thriller.

On May 12, shortly after the secondary US sanctions kicked in, forcing many countries to reconsider their dealings with Iran, four commercial vessels were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. A month later, two tankers were hit by explosions in the Gulf of Oman. The US and the UK accused Iran of perpetrating the attacks, Iran denied.

Then on June 20, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCshot down an American drone that – it alleged and the US denied – had entered the Iranian airspace. Less than a month later, Washington alleged and Tehran denied that it destroyed an Iranian drone approaching a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf.

Meanwhile, on July 4, British forces seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar, which London claimed and Tehran denied, was carrying oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.

Two weeks later, the IRGC impounded a British-flagged tanker, which – Tehran claimed and London denied – had violated international maritime rules.

Notice the pattern – not only in terms of actions and reactions, but also in terms of allegations, counter-allegations and denials? In the age of Trump, everyone seems entitled to their own claims, alternative facts and expert opinions. 

Following this pattern, all three – the US, the UK and Iran – have decried and denounced, dug in, doubled down, and cautioned about serious consequences, all the while insisting that war must be avoided.

Iran has been putting its bets on US aversion to military escalation – and that may last as long as President Donald Trump thinks he is going to win the next election. The Islamic Republic has taken this opportunity to confront its historical archenemy, taking great pride and pleasure in eliciting sharp condemnations from Washington.

But if badgering America is satisfying, bullying the “old colonial fox”, Britain, is even more so. Iranians’ hostility and distrust of Washington goes back decades, but their distrust and disgust with Britain go back even further. 

The English Job

As former British Foreign Affairs Minister, Jack Straw, has pointed out in his latest book The English Job, British involvement in Iran has a centuries-long traumatic history. It has not only resulted in deep historical distrust of the British authorities, but even spawned a common phrase in Persian – “when things go wrong, it’s always an English job”, which Straw aptly uses for the title of his book. 

In his own words, he summarises two centuries of British interference in Iranian affairs as follows:

“We bribed and cajoled Iran to do our will throughout the 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century and, if that didn’t work, we landed troops. We invaded Iran in the First World War, helping cause a catastrophic famine in the process. In the Second World War, with the Russians, we jointly occupied the country for five years from 1941-6. We deposed a Shah in 1941 and installed his weaker, more compliant son.

“When the Iranian parliament waged an eight-year struggle to nationalise BP’s huge refinery and vast network of oil wells, MI6 and the CIA responded by organising a successful coup against the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in August 1953. We helped prop up the Shah in the mid and late 1970s, even when it was obvious that he was losing popular support. Catastrophically so, in fact.

“But the worst was to come in 1980, when Iraq’s newly appointed president, Saddam Hussein, decided, without any justification, to invade Iran. Millions on both sides lost their lives in the bloody war that followed.” (The UK supported Iraq in the war that shaped many of today’s Iranian leaders.)

These are clear and categorical admissions by a former British official, who served as an MP for three decades, and home and foreign secretary for nine years.   

Unfortunately, Straw seems to explain and at times justify much of this as realpolitik; empires acting as empires do, whether in competition with the Russian empire to secure the western gateway to India and other Far East colonies, or simply in pursuit of trade monopolies. He even justifies Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.

Straw also spends much more time explaining, rather superficially and selectively, Shia Iranian political history (for example, drawing heavily on hateful and sectarian writings of Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr), instead of analysing the mindset and mechanisation of British foreign policy.

He also says close to nothing about – let alone apologise for – his and his government’s support for the disastrous 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq which had far-reaching consequences for Iran – an invasion he claimed he could have stopped. And when it comes to the master of the “English job”, Tony Blair, Straw mentions him as much as he does British ambassador Dominick Chilcott’s puppy, Pumpkin – twice and in passing.

But to his credit, the former British official doesn’t hesitate to come after the late premier Winston Churchill for his support and enthusiasm for the 1953 British-American-instigated coup in Iran. This, despite the fact that he is the ultimate national hero of newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Churchill wannabe

Many have rushed in recent weeks to compare Johnson with Trump, including the US president himself. Yes, Johnson does have a reputation for deception, populism and xenophobia, but he aspires to be compared with his historical idol.

Reading Johnson’s exhaustive book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, one could see how the new prime minister has tried to fashion his political career around the Churchill persona he admires so deeply.

It is a love story, an obsession.

Johnson cherishes Churchill’s vast intellect and experience, praises his fluid ideological leanings, appreciates his love for his wife, job, and empire, and adores his decisive leadership during World War II and his defence of Europe and democracy, notwithstanding the damage inflicted on Iran and other nascent democracies. He also unabashedly justifies his enthusiasm for war and even defends his long warmongering record.

Johnson, who tried to prove that contrary to the Marxist theory of “historical materialism”, leaders like Churchill were able to shape and change the course of history with their visionary leadership, hopes also to redefine modern British history and its relations with Europe.

But as the Marxist cliche goes: history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Ironically, a few days after Iran impounded a British tanker, Johnson adopted a British initiative for a European maritime force to be deployed to the Gulf, and at the same time, established a “war cabinet” ready to use “all means necessary” to force the UK out of the EU by the end of October.

I hate to break it to premier Johnson, but 2019 is not 1939, the EU is not Nazi-dominated Europe, Britain is no longer an empire, Trump is no Roosevelt, and he is no Churchill. The last is meant as a compliment.

Johnson does have a chance not to end his time in office in disaster. He could pull off a more peaceful and less imperialist “English job” by working closely with Europe to defuse the crisis in the Gulf, instead of dispatching more British naval destroyers – a move reminiscent of colonial times. He may also cooperate diplomatically with international and regional actors to contain and restrain Tehran’s aggressive posturing. But all that will only be possible if he is first able to get a united Britain out of the Brexit mess he helped create.

It is no easy task, but he may start by reading The English Job.