A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Persistence of Blaming Britain

The flap between Britain and Iran over the arrest of Iranian employees at the British Embassy — some have now been released — and the burning of British flags by pro-regime demonstrators are the latest eruption of a reflex still seen in certain Middle Eastern countries, a tendency to see Britain behind everything.

Long after the sun set on the British Empire in most people's eyes, there is still a tendency on the part of Iranians in particular (and Iraqis to some extent) to see British manipulation behind whatever they do not like. The US may be the Great Satan, but there is still a built-in reflex to suspect a British hand in everything, and of course there is no US Embassy in Tehran to harass.

Some of this is a legacy of colonialism. Though Britain did not directly rule Iran it had its sphere of influence there, outright invaded during World War II, and was a party, with the US, to the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh.

That Britain no longer casts so long a shadow in the world seems to have escaped some in the region. I knew educated Iraqis who were convinced that in the 1991 war for Kuwait, the US was essentially doing Britain's bidding. After all, hadn't Maggie Thatcher been visiting George H.W. Bush when Saddam invaded Kuwait?

While I'm told my Irish great-grandmother shared a similar conviction that Britain was behind all the evil in the world, she had more immediate memories of British rule in Ireland than the young people of Iran do today. Frankly, I doubt if very many Iranians really believe Britain is the mastermind behind the demonstrations, but it is a convenient and accessible lesser Satan to blame in the absence of a US presence. (And of course, they're burning Israeli flags, too.)

Gordon Brown, given the political troubles he has at home right now, is no Maggie Thatcher, and he's certainly no Disraeli or Curzon or Churchill. But the persistence of blaming Britain endures.

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