Accessibility links

Breaking News

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

Protesters burn a British flag taken from the British Embassy in Tehran on November 29.

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.

“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."

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.

  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.