Conceptual Constructs of Instability in Iran – Britain Relations

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mohammad Reza Saeed-Abadi  


From the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 up to the present time, relations between Iran and Britain have suffered from political instability and diplomatic differences and have went through many ups and downs. No real détente has taken place between the two countries. At the same time, relations between Iran and the United States have been hostile since the Islamic Revolution, which was also predictable, but observers expected Tehran and London to move toward stable diplomatic relations after the early waves of the revolution abated. Why relations between Iran and Britain have been less stable than Tehran’s ties with other Western European nations since the victory of the Islamic Revolution? What are the main roots of Iran’s consternation with Britain? What factors have led to the present situation and are sustaining it? What would be future prospects for relations between Iran and Britain?


It is no surprise that after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, less attention has been paid to the roots of animosity as well as unstable relations between Iran and Britain. While most papers and researchers were focused on Iran’s relations with the United States, relations between Iran and Britain were overshadowed by that issue and even those studies which attended to this issue did not pay attention to root causes.

This paper will try to take a conceptual approach to Iran – Britain relations and will try to review conceptual constructs pertaining to unstable political relations between Tehran and London. The paper will focus on three conceptual constructs which have affected Iran’s relations with the United States: perception and misperception; the theory of conspiracy; and special relations between Britain and the United States.

Perception and Misperception

Robert McCalla has written that one should differentiate between psychological environment which shapes mental pictures that decision-makers have of the status quo and under which they decide and the operational environment, that is, the real sphere in which decisions are implemented [1]. While the first part of what he says is known as “perception”, “misperception” is when there is mismatch between perception and reality [2]. Perception and misperception play an important role in foreign policy decision-making by countries and their role in foreign policy has been discussed by Robert Jervis in his book, Perception and Misperception in International Politics [3].

When sending a message, the important point is not how it is understood by sender, but it is important to know how other people understand it [4]. Since understanding plays an important role in international relations just like tangible realities, relations between Iran and Britain have been affected by how Tehran and London understood each other’s messages and policies. As put by Ted Gladue, the clearer one side’s understanding of another side’s policies, there would be more chance for constructive communications, negotiations, and dialogue [5].

Although perception and misperception constitute important components of political relations among countries, the main thing which has marked them as a major element influencing Iran – Britain relations is existence of multitude of historical perception on the part of the Iranian people, intellectuals and politicians toward Britain. Out of factors which determine the effect of historical experiences and perceptions on conceptual presumptions of a nation, the results of those experiences and perceptions are of the highest importance. If the results of those experiences have affected most members of an organization or a society, they would give rise to the process which has been called by Jervis as “organizational learning” [6].

The history of widespread intervention of Britain in Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the influence of British entities on the Iranian economy through obtaining various economic concessions under Qajar rule has prompted the Iranians to consider Britain an intriguing and interventionist government. Presence of Britain in Iran since the 19th century and its rivalry with the Tsarist Russia and the subsequent destructive effects of that rivalry on the economy as well as domestic and foreign policies of Iran have made Iranians see Britain’s policies toward their country as being opposed to independence and development of Iran. Intervention of Britain in Iran’s affairs was so profound that its effects have touched most Iranians and have produced a heap of historical experiences and perceptions.

Another point is that to the extent that established understanding of a country by another country is powerful, it would be more important in determining director of foreign policy of that country toward the other state [7]. As a result, Iran’s reactions to Britain’s policies have been largely a result of the established understanding of economic and political interventions of London in Iran through the course of long history of interactions between the two countries. In addition, established and institutionalized perceptions may give rise to “tunnel vision” which will make decision-makers pay attention to some policies and messages, while rejecting others and try to find evidence that would conform to their preformed perceptions and presumptions while rejecting conflicting evidence. Under these conditions, they will try to twist and turn conflicting information and evidence to match their preformed perceptions [8]. Therefore, it would not be surprising if even positive stances taken by Britain toward Iran were denied or interpreted in such a way that they would conform to the established concepts of conspiracy and intervention.

There is also general tendency among most decision-makers in the world to construe other countries’ behaviors as being too concentrated, predetermined and coordinated. The tendency to concentrate unrelated events into a coherent and coordinated model is one of the known methods used by political decision-makers of the world [9].

Perceptions of Iran and Britain with regard to each other’s policies and events related to both countries have been no exception to the above rule. Iran believes that British policies in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf are based on a predetermined and coordinated Machiavellian scheme which is against Iran, while Britain maintains that Iran’s policies in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Iraq have been coordinated and predesigned to jeopardize policies and national interests of Britain. Such perceptions in Iran and Britain which are based on perception of predetermined and coordinated schemes become more important when Tehran and London are experiencing unusual circumstances in their political relations [10].

Since less attention is paid to general lines along which politicians and decision-makers decide, Britain’s policies toward Iran have also been based on misperception [11]. British politicians have sometimes proved unable to perceive political arguments provided by Iran’s political leaders. While most decisions in Iran’s foreign policy, especially in the first decade after the victory of the Islamic Revolution were based on ideological ideas, British decision-makers thought that Iran’s policies emanated from political and economic interests of the country and that misperception made them adopt erroneous policies toward Iran, which simply increased tension.

Miscalculations about the extent to which domestic and foreign factors affected Iran’s foreign policy were also instrumental in shaping Britain’s approach toward Iran. Deborah Welch Larson has written in her book, “Anatomy of Mistrust” that when foreign policymakers analyze behaviors of other countries, they aggrandize the impact of domestic forces while underestimating the impact of foreign forces. Political decision-makers usually attribute other nations’ aggressive behavior to their ideology or national characteristics and ignore the point that the opposite side may be simply responding to their policies. When the other side takes a positive measure or adopts a positive policy, they think it is due to foreign pressures or weakness inside that country [12]. This situation characterizes perception of most Western countries from Iran’s policies. British leaders attribute Iran’s anti-West, especially anti-British policies to Iran’s domestic policies while considering Tehran’s peaceful approach to be the result of political and economic pressures imposed on it by Western states or due to the country’s domestic problems. At the same time, Britain was unable to perceive that to a great extent, Iran’s pragmatic and active approach, in general, and its anti-British approach, in particular, has been a direct response to British government’s policies, stances and moves in the Persian Gulf, inside the European Union and at the United Nations Security Council. In addition, Iran’s anti-West policies resulted from the fact that Iran felt threatened by the West; a threat which challenged Iran’s values, beliefs and political system [13].

In short, to the extent that realities as well as an objective environment have affected relations between Iran and Britain after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, perceptions and misperceptions between Tehran and London had done the same.

Theory of Conspiracy

Jon Anderson considers theory of conspiracy as a process in which an information process, which is related to a special event, is ascribed with more formality to general evens [14]. Experts maintain that conspiracy theories are not limited to a special cultural system or a political system or a special social group and can be observed in all social and political groups, whether they are leftist or rightist, and also among various political systems [15].

Iran is no exception to that universal rule. Although conspiracy theories can be found all across the world, as well as Iran like many Western countries, when it comes to Britain, this theory is more powerfully present among various groups of Iranian people as well as the ruling elite and social classes [16]. Iranians have given such nicknames to Britain as “the old deceitful fox” and have used such phrases as “hidden hands of the British policy” to describe its policies while considering most important occurrences in their country to be plotted by the “British” or their regional allies, which they call “British lackeys”. The phrase “Britain’s policy” is used widely among the Iranian nation which reflects that they consider Britain as a hidden power behind all mishaps which have occurred or is occurring in their country while looking upon British politicians and policymakers as cheating characters who are constantly hatching plots against Iran. Although the “conspiracy theory” concerning Britain was more prevalent in the 19th century and under Qajar rule, even now that the power of the British Empire has diminished both in Iran and the world, especially after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, its policies toward Iran are considered to be conspiratorial.

The reasons for using “conspiracy theory” in a country stem from various factors, including historical and psychological ones [17]. On this basis, the roots of Iranians considering Britain as a conspiring power are embedded in a history which has been marked by presence of foreign powers and their rivalries in Iran [18]. The fact that big powers were secretly conspiring against Iran had made the Iranian people, political parties and even the ruling system to analyze the country’s past history within the framework of complicated plots hatched by foreign powers [19]. In the meantime, the special status enjoyed by Britain as a country conspiring against Iran has been a natural outcome of Britain’s interventions in Iran [20]. Britain was the country which signed the contract for dividing Iran into two zones of influence with Russia in 1907. The Iranian people will never forget the bitter taste of Britain’s measures [21]. Also, Britain tried to imposed a contract on Iran in 1919, which if it had been signed, London would have gained unparalleled control over Iran’s military and economic affairs [22]. Britain was instrumental in a coup d’état which was staged in 1921 and introduced Reza Shah as king of Iran. Therefore, every measure which was taken by Reza Shah or every mishap which occurred in the country was blamed on Britain [23]. They also attributed ouster of Reza Shah and his replacement with his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, in 1941 and during the World War II as being planned by Britain. Britain also played a key role in another coup d’état which was staged in 1953 and led to the downfall of the popular government of Dr. Mosaddeq and reestablishment of monarchy in Iran which continued until the victory of the Islamic Revolution.

Although Britain has orchestrated many events that have happened in Iran, there is no concrete evidence to implicate it in some other events, but Iranians attribute them to Britain following their historical experiences. Basically, conspiracy theories become prominent once a group of people fail to achieve their important goals [24]. From this viewpoint, despite temporary achievements, Iranians had faced major obstacles since the 19th century for freeing their country from influence of foreign forces, especially Britain, and to get rid of their rivalries and also to achieve freedom and security under the rules of Qajar and Pahlavi. In addition, theory of conspiracy becomes more attractive when its contents are logically conformant to presumptions, mentalities and experiences of that group [25]. It is not surprising that historical behavior of Britain has made Iranians consider that country as the main cause for their political, social and cultural failures and shortcomings.

What differentiates theory of conspiracy from other forms of political analysis is the concentration of this theory on intentions, purposes and motivations as a main factor in analysis [26]. This is closely related to a country’s perception of another country. The way a country looks at behavior of another country as being cooperative, hostile or indifferent depends on how it construes motivations and intentions of the latter country [27]. Viewpoints of Iranians about anti-Iranian nature of Britain’s motivations and intentions as well as their mistrust in Britain have made them consider Britain as a hostile country. Mohammad Mosaddeq told Harriman, the American arbiter in Iran – Britain disputes over the oil industry, that “You don’t know how deceitful the British are and how wicked they are. You do not see how the British will interfere in every matter.” [28] Some 45 years later, Jomhuri Eslami newspaper reflected that viewpoint in this way: “Conspiracies hatched by Britain in the Persian Gulf and Middle East are such that Britain is protagonist of every conflict which flares up in this region [29]. Therefore, even conciliatory gestures and behaviors of Britain have been construed by Iranian leaders as being deceitful and aimed at cheating on Iran.”

Pruitt maintains that conspiracy theories rise from conflicts and disputes and help to exacerbate them. When a conspiracy theory is used, it will deepen animosity between two groups or countries and makes them adopt hostile tactics which will worsen the situation and the ensuing crisis [30]. At the same time that Iran considered Britain a conspiring country which hatched plots to cause instability in Iran, hostility between Tehran and London escalated.

Special Relations between Britain and United States

From the viewpoint of Vivekanandan, relations between Britain and the United States have no other parallel in modern international relations [31]. These special relations are based on “an understanding of strategic cooperation based on US view of Britain as its strategic frontline and Britain’s understanding of the United States as its strategic support. [32]” Cooperation between London and Washington which takes place within the framework of those special relations is focused on intelligence, diplomatic, technological, defense and economic fields. From the viewpoint of Henry Kissinger, the special relations have created such psychological conditions that make any decision-making by the United States practically impossible before consulting with Britain. He maintains that both Britain and the United States have gotten so used to regular meetings that any independent move by the United States without consulting with Britain first, would be considered a breach of the club’s regulations [33].

Special relations between Britain and the United States were further bolstered in 1980s after election of President Reagan in Washington and Margaret Thatcher in London. The two leaders as well as international milieu of that time provided a good opportunity for Britain and the United States to promote relations to a level, which had no precedence after the end of World War II [34]. Thatcher represented a new era of relations between the two countries. She noted that Britain would stand by the United States at all times because US success was their success and its problems were theirs too. She assured the United States that whenever it needed a friend to rely on, Britain would be there [35].

Relying on its special relations with the United States, Britain has tried to keep its international standing. In fact, London is trying to play a role in international scene, which is credited by Washington [36]. In return, Britain has offered its all-out support for world leadership of the United States [37]. Therefore, Washington has availed of powerful support and backing of Britain for its policies while facing problems with other European countries. Bombardment of Libya in 1986 was a good example. When the United States failed to get other European countries like France and Spain to provide it with needed support, it went to Britain and it was only London which provided the United States with needed facilities to bomb Libya. Tony Blair’s complete support for Bush’s attack on Iraq and their cooperation in post-Saddam Iraq despite opposition or lack of cooperation on the part of many European states is another relevant example.

Although special relations between Britain and the United States have, on many occasions, bolstered international standing of London, they have also been occasionally harmful to London’s interests. This is true with regard to the Middle East, in general, and Iran, in particular. The fact that regional countries consider the fate of London to be closely tied to that of Washington has caused damages to Britain’s’ interests because regional countries maintain that Britain is dogging US footsteps and enjoys limited freedom of action and independence [38]. The fact that Iranians consider Britain a US lackey has made political leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran to conclude that British policies toward Iran are either influenced by US policies or aimed to support US policies against Iran.

Similarity between the United States and Britain and reciprocal identification of London and Washington have caused Iranian leaders to see British approaches to Iran and its policies as being those of Washington. Since Iranians consider US policies toward their country to be hostile, they extend the same attitude to London’s policies, considering them as being hostile too. With no official ties between Iran and the United States and since US embassy in Tehran has been closed, the British embassy in Tehran has been the main place which has been targeted on many occasions by Iranians who wished to voice their official and unofficial protests to US policies. Therefore, existence of special relations between London and Washington is another important factor in fostering diplomatic tension and political instability in mutual relations between Iran and Britain.


Objective developments between Tehran and London and political positions taken by both countries after victory of the Islamic Revolution, have differentiated Iran – Britain relations from relations existing between Iran and other European countries. Therefore, even if any future development works to improve relations between the two countries, as long as conceptual constructs, which play a decisive role in shaping people’s mentality and guiding political decision-makers, remain unchanged, no substantial progress and remarkable improvement will take place in mutual relations between Tehran and London.

1. Robert B. McCalla, Uncertain Perceptions; US Cold War Crisis Decision Making, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992, P. 20
2. Richard Ned Lebow, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, pp. 90-91
3. Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976
4. Ibid., p. 187
5. E. Ted Gladue, China's Perception of Global Politics, Washington: University Press of America, 1982, P. 7
6. Jervis, op. cit., pp. 238-9
7. Hendrik Van Dalen and L. Harmon Zeigler, Introduction to Political Science; People, Politics, and Perception, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977, p. 62
8. Kiyoko Kurusu Nitz, Perception, Attitudes and Images: A Study of Japanese Foreign Policy Behavior, Ph.D. Dissertation, Michigan State University, 1973. And Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics
9. Jervis, pp. 3 19-21
10. Ibid., p. 329.
11. Philip E. Tetlock, Cognitive Structural Analysis of Political Rhetoric: Methodological and Theoretical Issues in Shanto Lyengar and William J. McGuire (eds.), Explorations iii Political Psychology, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993, p. 380
12. Deborah Welch Larson, Anatomy of Mistrust; US-Soviet Relations during the Cold War, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 23-4
13. Richard K. Herrmann "Perceptions and Foreign Policy Analysis" in Donald A. Sylvar and Steve Ghan (eds.), Foreign Policy Decision Making; Perception, Cognition, and Artificial Intelligence, New York: Praecer Publishers. 1984. p. 31
14. Jon W. Anderson "Conspiracy Theories, Premature Entextualization, and Popular Political Analysis", The Arab Studies Journal, 1996, Spring, Vol. IV, No. 1, p. 97
15. Dieter Groh, "The Temptation of Conspiracy Theory, or: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Part I: Preliminary Draft of a Theory of Conspiracy Theories" in Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici (eds.), Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, New York: 1987, Springer-Verlag, p. 11
16. Ahmad Ashraf "Conspiracy Theories" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. VI, California: Mazda Publishers, 1993, p. 139
17. Ronald Inglehart "Extremist Political Positions and Perceptions of Conspiracy: Even Paranoids have Real Enemies" in Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici (eds.), Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, New York: 1987, Springer-Verlag, p. 231
18. Ali Asghar Shamim, Iran under Qajar Rule, Tehran, al-Amin Press, 1992
19. ibid
20. Mahmoud Mahmoud, History of Political Relations between Iran and Britain in 19th Century, 8 volumes, Tehran, Eqbal Press, 1958
21. F. Kazemzadeh, "Anglo-Iranian Relations: The Qajar Period" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. II, London and New York: 1987, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 50
22. N.S. Fatemi, "Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), Paedla Iramca, Vol. II, London and New York: 1987, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 59
23. Ashraf, op. cit., p. 140
24. Inglehart, op. cit., p. 231
25. Aria W. Kruglanski, ''Blame-placing Schemata and Attributional Research" in Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici (eds.), Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, New York -Verlag, 1987, p. 228
26. Anderson. Op. cit., p. 100
27. Larson, op. cit., p. 21
28. Wernona A. Walters, Silent Mission, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1978, p. 247
29. “Futile Efforts of the Old Colonialist”, Jomhuri Eslami Newspaper, November 1996
30. Dean G. Pruitt, "Conspiracy Theory in Conflict Escalation" in Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici (eds.), Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, New York: Springer- Verlag, 1987, pp. 198-99, 201
31. B. Vivekanandan, "Washington Must Rely on London, Not Bonn", Orbis, Vol. 35, No. 3, summer, 1991, p. 414
32. Raymond G. H. Seitz, "Britain and America: Towards Strategic Coincidence", The World Today, May, 1993, p. 87
33. Henry Kissinger, The White House Years, London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1979, p. 90
34. Vivekanandan, op. cit., P. 414
35. Ronald Reagan, Government Printing Office Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Washington, D. C. 1982, p. 165
36. Seitz, p. 85
37. Paul Sharp, "Thatcher's Wholly British Foreign Policy", Orbis, Vol. 35, No. 3, summer, 1991, p. 405
38. Anoushiravan Ehteshami, "The Problem of Wearing Too Many Hats", Parliamentary Brief, November, 1995, Vol. 4, No. 2, p. 57

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم