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Britain Replaces US as Favorite Target of Iran


In the aftermath of the disputed Iranian presidential election, Tehran has hurled some of its sharpest rhetoric not at its traditional nemesis, the United States, but at Britain. Iran accused Britain of instigating protests, arrested some of its embassy workers and expelled a British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent. Britain has now ascended to the top of Iran's enemies list.

Virtually every week since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Friday prayers in Tehran have been punctuated with the ritual cry of "Marg bar Amerika" -- Death to America. But in recent weeks, that has been replaced by a new slogan -- "Marg bar Ingles" -- Death to Britain.

Iranian officials have described Britain as the most treacherous power and railed against what they claim to be British instigation of protests over last month's disputed presidential election.

Has Britain replaced the United States as the "Great Satan" in official Iranian eyes?

Analysts say Britain already occupies a special place in Iranian political mythology.

Rosemary Hollis, who teaches Middle East politics at City University London, says Iranian rhetoric about Britain is rooted in a long-held perception that while the United States might be more powerful, Britain is more devious. "The perception is, and you get this across the Middle East, that the Americans are at least straightforward, even if you resent what they're doing. They pretty much come in the front door. But the British pop in the window and nip out the back door," she said.

Britain has a long history of deep involvement in not only Iran, but across the Middle East during the past 200 years. The 1979 Iranian Revolution focused on the United States because of its longtime support of Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. But Hollis says Iranian conspiracy theories have always seen Britain as the key supporting player, or even as the grand covert manipulator.

"I think it's only been since the Iranian Revolution that the United States has been the 'Great Satan.' And there was always a suspicion that the British were behind the scenes, even if the United States was more upfront involved in some kind of activity that was seen to counter Iranian national interests," she said.

Reva Bhalla, a Middle East analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says the Iranian government is angry over U.S. and British covert activity in Iran. But, she adds, hurling insults at London rather than at Washington is less risky for Tehran, especially if Iran harbors any notions of a rapprochement with the United States.

"The regime has paranoia over both U.S. and British covert activity in Iran. So it's not like it's saying one is doing more than the other. There is, of course, U.S.-British collaboration on covert activity in Iran, even if it is limited. But remember, Iran is surrounded by U.S. troops on both sides of the country. And so that poses a much bigger threat to the Iranians. As far as targeting the Brits, that is the perfect attack by proxy to get the U.S.' attention," she said.

Analysts say that Iran was particularly incensed about the new British Broadcasting Corporation's Persian language TV station that was started early this year.

Alex Vatanka, a senior Middle East analyst for the Britain-based Jane's Publishing Group, says that compounded official anger about Western broadcasts to Iran when it was already the target of broadcasts by Voice of America's own Persian News Network.

"They're clearly upset about the creation of the BBC Persian [TV] Service. And that TV station has been playing a very unique role in many ways. It's not to say that Voice of America Persian Service hasn't done it. But Voice of America Persian Service has been there for a long time. The [BBC] Persian Service Section is a newly launched, relatively newly launched service. From day one, the Iranian authorities have been complaining about the creation of this channel," he said.

The United States cut ties with Iran after the 1979 Revolution, but Iran and Britain still have diplomatic relations. However, the two nations have had a bumpy relationship over the years. Twenty years ago, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on the faithful to kill author Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, over his book The Satanic Verses. In 2007, Iran seized eight British sailors for allegedly being in Iranian waters. They were later released.

In 1981, Tehran authorities changed the name of the road running in front of the British embassy from Churchill Street to Bobby Sands Street, after the Irish Republican Army member who died on a hunger strike in prison. The change still rankles many in London. Britain has waged a quiet, but so-far unsuccessful, campaign to have the name changed.

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