On 11 February 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei came to power in Iran, replacing Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi’s Western-backed and installed dictatorship. What few knew at the time, and indeed today, is the British government played a pivotal role in supporting the leader for years before and after the Islamic Revolution.
“If you lift up Ayatollah Khomeini’s beard, you’ll find ‘MADE IN ENGLAND’ written on his chin,” raged Shah of Iran Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, not long before the insurrectionary fervour which had angrily surged throughout his kingdom for a great many months finally swept him from power in January 1979, ending his nigh-on 38-year reign.
On the surface, it was a strange statement for the shah to utter — after all, he’d notoriously been reinstalled as Iran’s supreme ruler by an Anglo-American coup in August 1953. Ever since too, he’d been a seemingly unwavering ally of London, militarily supporting various British-backed regimes in the Gulf region, becoming one of the country’s biggest arms markets in the Middle East, and allowing British Petroleum to pillage the country’s vast crude oil reserves at highly beneficial rates.
Moreover, the year prior, then-opposition leader Margaret Thatcher visited Tehran in April, offering a vehement reaffirmation of British support for Pahlavi’s rule.
“I have watched the progress of Iran. I have been impressed by the speed and sureness with which an ancient land has transformed itself in a single generation from one of the world’s poorer countries into one of its leading military and industrial powers. [The shah] must be one of the world’s most far-sighted statesmen…no other world leader has given his country more dynamic leadership. He is leading Iran through a 20th century renaissance,” she said.
A mere two months later, then-Labour Foreign Secretary David Owen also signed off on the shipment of 175,000 CS gas cartridges and up to 360 unarmed armoured personnel carriers to Pahlavis’ notorious internal security force, SAVAK — which the British helped train — in order to brutally crack down on the initial wave of prostests that would eventually lead to Pahlavi’s ouster.
Just Because You’re Paranoid…
Despite these rhetorical and practical efforts, the shah’s allegations of British support for Khomeini were far from paranoid and bitter conspiracy theorizing. After all, Whitehall had a long-established history of backing the most extreme Islamic factions in the Middle East in order to counter threats to its regional interests, for instance covertly funding and directing the activities of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in an ultimately failed effort to depose then-leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s.
In fact, another Iranian Ayatollah, Sayyed Kashani, had played a pivotal role in ‘Operation Boot’, the very coup d’etat that catapulted Pahlavi back to the throne, funding and organising large-scale protests which provided the — MI6-supported — Iranian army a pretext for removing leader Mohammad Mosaddegh from power.
More importantly though, despite London’s practical and rhetorical backing for the shah in public, behind the scenes Whitehall was acutely aware the writing was on the wall for Iran’s leader — in an internal memo dated October 1978, Prime Minister James Callaghan is quoted as saying he “wouldn’t give much for the shah’s chances”, and thought “[Foreign Secretary David] Owen should start thinking about reinsuring”, code for cultivating contacts with opposition figures.
While it was well-understood the removal of the shah had “the gravest political, strategic and economic implications for the West”, that “the emergence of an extreme government dominated by the religious right-wing might create almost as many problems for the Soviet Union”, was viewed as a “consolation”.
Furthermore though, in addition to expediently limiting damage to Britain’s interests in the country, Foreign Office planners were looking ahead — to a time when they could once again install a leader more to their liking. By December 1978, they were arguing ministers should jettison all support for the shah — both public and private — and throw their weight behind the opposition.
“We needed someone with charisma who would only be in post for a few years, brave enough to make enemies, and ready later to step aside for the shah’s son as a constitutional monarch,” Foreign Secretary Owen wrote in his memoirs.
While there’s no documentation directly indicating the British decided to back Khomeini as a leader-in-waiting — although it was certainly considered — the BBC Persian Service had for some time by that point been backing the still-exiled Ayatollah. Owen refers to this coverage — which was so pro-Khomeini some dubbed the station ‘Ayatollah BBC’ as “a form of insurance with the internal opposition”.
Its support was almost certainly crucial, given it was virtually the only radio station to cover Iranian events in Persian — Iran’s own radio and TV networks had been shut down shortly after the anti-shah protests erupted.
In Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran, Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh note the Service had “never been seen as so partial in its reporting as it was during those years, at times even seen to be overstepping the line”, going so far as to prevent any and all pro-shah voices inside and outside from reaching the airwaves. The authors make clear this was deliberate policy, advocated by Foreign Office apparatchik Nicholas Barrington, who was in charge of supervising foreign BBC services at the time.
In an internal memo to BBC Persian staff, he suggests giving a platform to pro-shah individuals would amount to “short-term expediency” — the purpose of the station’s broadcasts was to “operate in the medium and long-term, influencing those who might one day form an alternative government”.
The King is Dead
The shah would duly flee the country 16 January 1979, ostensibly on vacation, although he’d never return — and while he’d sought refuge in Britain, officials had refused to let him settle there even temporarily, as part of a new policy of distancing themselves as much as possible from the ‘ancien regime’. Under this policy, British officials travelling to meet Pahlavi and his representatives in his temporary residence in the Bahamas would adopt fake names and members of the deposed leader’s family were prevented from travelling to Britain. Similarly, when the shah eventually died in July 1980, Britain sent only its deputy ambassador to his funeral.
Khomeini would return to Iran from exile 1 February that year, and soon appointed Mehdi Bazargan prime minister — 11 days later, in a speech in the House of Commons, Callaghan said his government “[looked] forward to establishing good relations” with Bazargan’s administration. Despite Bazargan cancelling some outstanding arms orders with Britain that same month, Whitehall was undeterred.
“In winding up the contracts, we should not give the impression we are turning our backs on Iran…we should let the Iranians know we are ready, if they wish, to resume the supply of routine items such as ammunition and spare parts which are essential to the basic functions of their armed forces… We should also continue to encourage them to complete any contracts which they have not yet repudiated or defaulted on… In settling the defence contracts we had with the former regime we should lose no opportunity to foster our relationship with the new government,” Cabinet Secretary John Hunt wrote 20 March 1979.
Britain’s attempts to curry favour with the newly formed Islamic Republic even endured after the siege of the US embassy in Tehran — which saw 52 US diplomatic personnel held hostage for 444 days — began in November 1979, with British arms continuing to flow to the country, and dozens of Iranian military officers trained on UK soil.
Thatcher, elected prime minister in May that year, was keen to continue the previous government’s policy of “reinsurance”, and in addition, saw Iran as a potentially important bulwark against Soviet power in the Middle East. In a parliamentary speech on East-West relations on 28 January 1980, a month after the Red Army invasion of Afghanistan, the new premier warned Moscow could take advantage of the insurrectionary fervour in the region.
“The revolution has stirred up feelings for ethnic autonomy among Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Baluchis and many other ethnic groups…the temptation to the Russians is apparent. There are signs that the Iranians themselves are increasingly aware of the danger. The Soviet Union has driven a wedge into the heart of the Muslim world. If its hold on Afghanistan is consolidated, the Soviet Union will have vastly extended its borders with Iran, acquired a border more than 1,000 miles long with Pakistan, and will have advanced to within 300 miles of the Straits of Hormuz, which control the Persian Gulf. These are the facts. They are a cause for alarm both to the countries of the region and to ourselves,” she said.
As part of these continued efforts at cultivation, Britain aided Iranian authorities’ destruction of Tudeh, the country’s largest and most powerful left-wing political party. In 1982, KGB Major Vladimir Kuzichkin defected to Britain, and provided much valuable information — including a list of Soviet agents in Iran. This was passed on by MI6 to Iranian authorities, who duly executed dozens named on the list, imprisoned over 1,000 Tudeh members, and banned the party.
The violence unleashed by that disclosure would pale in comparison to the bloodshed unleashed by British contributions to the Iran-Iraq war, however. Two years earlier, Washington — intensely unhappy about Khomeini coming to power — contacted then-ruler of Iraq, a close US ally, and offered financial support and arms if he were to invade his upstart neighbour. Hussein, who viewed Shiite fundamentalism as a threat to his power, eagerly acquiesced — Iran was invaded 22 September 1980. Both he and Carter banked on a swift collapse of Ayatollah Khomeini’s newly minted regime. What resulted was the 20th Century’s longest conventional war.
In contravention of a UN embargo which banned the supply of arms to either country, both the US and UK would go on to arm both sides in the conflict, helping greatly extend and exacerbate a conflict which would claim the lives of one and a half million people over the course of nearly eight years. Iran would receive almost US$2 billion in weaponry over the course of the hostilities, while Iraq reaped US$4.7 billion.
No official was ever prosecuted, penalised or reprimanded for their role in the complex conspiracy, although the ‘Arms to Iraq’ scandal was officially investigated by the Scott Inquiry in the mid-1990s. The investigation was essentially a whitewash farce, which exonerated all involved from any wrongdoing, and kept 90 percent of its resultant report’s content classified — only its conclusion, that “the Government only violated the embargo in an effort to keep the country’s machine-tool industry in business”, was released to the public.
London’s extremely aggressive stance on Tehran in the present day is rendered all the more perverse given Whitehall played such a crucial role in promoting and supporting Khomeini before, during and after the Islamic revolution, turned a blind eye to his government’s most extreme actions, and did its utmost to train and equip Iranian forces. One wonders how many British-made weapons are still in circulating among the country’s military today — and whether, without Whitehall’s support for the Ayatollah, Iran’s history would’ve taken the same path.