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'Blame It On The Brits' A Familiar Refrain In Iran


By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

The central character in Iran’s best known and most popular satirical novel, “Uncle Napoleon,” sees plots by the British behind everything that has happened in his country. “Blame it on the Brits!” is a key line in the 1971 book, which was turned into a superb TV series that was watched over and over by millions of Iranians, who learned most of its lines by heart.

My Uncle Napoleon

“Uncle Napoleon” and his paranoia toward the British is a work of fiction. It is, however, rooted in reality.

The book's author, Iraj Pezeshkzad, has traced the origins of the main character of his best-selling novel to his own childhood, according to Azar Nafisi, who wrote an introduction to the book.

"In a speech at the University of California at Los Angeles, Pezeshkzad traced the origins of Uncle Napoleon's character to his own childhood, when, listening to grown-ups, he was baffled by the way they indiscriminately labeled most politicians 'British lackeys,'" Nafisi says. "This obsession was so pervasive that some Iranians even claimed Hitler was a British stooge and Germany's bombing of London a nefarious plot hatched by British intelligence."

Photos: UK Embassy in Tehran stormed

Iranians blame the British for all kinds of ills -- even for bringing the clerics to power. When you lift a mullah’s beard, it says "Made in England," or so went a popular joke in the early years following the 1979 revolution. Or: "If you stumble on a stone, it must be the work of the Brits."

The animosity has historical roots.

Britain helped the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency with the 1953 coup that led to the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, which would be enough on its own to make Iranians deeply suspicious of Britain.

But the distrust goes back hundreds of years, to Britain’s role in Persia and its political and economic domination in the country.

It's a hostility that was very much in evidence on November 29 when parliament member Hamid Rasayi showed up at the British Embassy protest and recited a long list of accusations against Britain.

In Iran’s constitutional era, the British Embassy has played the biggest role in knocking the country off its true path, he said.

He blamed Britain for giving the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein the chemical weapons that were used against Iranian soldiers in the bloody 1980-88 war, he said.

Also, Britain has supported the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), he noted, which is designated as a terrorist group both by Iran and the United States. Many of the MKO’s terrorist attacks have been conducted with Britain’s backing, Rasayi declared.

Finally, he charged that Britain played a key role in the 2009 postelection protests that shook the Iranian establishment. During those protests, several employees of the British Embassy in Tehran were arrested -- including Hossein Rassam, who was jailed for four years after being accused of "acting against national security.” That charge is often used in fabricated court cases against the opposition. In Rassam's case, it was later suspended.

To those who might want proof to back up his allegations, Rasayi said there is no need to look for “secret documents” inside the embassy.

“Clear evidence shows that their embassy is a den of spies,” he said.

Even so, Iranian news agencies reported that some of the embassy invaders had "confiscated secret espionage documents" before fleeing the scene.


The swift reaction from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which expressed regret over the "unacceptable behavior by a small number of protesters in spite of efforts by the police," suggests that some within the conservative Iranian establishment are trying to do damage control and prevent tensions from rising even further.

Conversely, the 1979 occupation of the U.S. Embassy was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who called it Iran's "second revolution."

Power Struggle

The current supreme leader of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not yet publicly reacted to the attack on the British Embassy. What he eventually says will be central to what the Islamic republic does next vis-a-vis Britain.

As both international pressure and the government's internal power struggle reach new heights, the Iranian regime may be hoping that the incident could generate popular support.

On social media sites following the attack, some Iranians close to the opposition movement were trying to distance themselves from the protesters. One person even wrote that the people who stormed the embassy belong to the same Basij forces that attacked the peaceful 2009 protests.

Ironically, the country that some 30 years ago coined the slogan "Death to America" is today thought to have the most pro-American population in the region.

It remains to be seen if and how the attack on the British Embassy will impact the sentiments of Iranians toward the U.K.

Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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