Did BBC shape Iran's history to fit the UK agenda?

Published March 20th, 2014 - 07:26 GMT

“It’s all the work of the English!” Even when said in jest, for many Iranians this popular adage still has a special resonance. Dating back to the 19th century, it reflects the belief that Great Britain, known to Iranians as Engelestan (Land of the English), is the deus ex machina of international politics. “Even the sun does not rise without the say-so of Engelestan,” says Uncle Napoleon, one of the most popular comic figures in modern Persian literature.

Since the British Empire has faded into history, with Engelestan’s military machine no longer capable of exerting meaningful pressure on anybody, the question is: how could the old “Master of the World” impact events beyond its borders?

To many Iranians, including the late Shah, the answer comes in three letters—BBC. In this context, the three letters do not refer to the BBC as seen and listened to by Brits in their own country. The BBC that arouses so much suspicion among so many Iranians is the World Service, a distinct section of the pubic media conglomerate.

Until recently, the World Service was directly financed by the UK government and fell under dual supervision of the Foreign Office and the Treasury. And since the secret services were also “supervised” by the Treasury, it was often assumed, though not always accurately, that British Intelligence also had a say in how the network operated.

In this fascinating and well-researched book, Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh try to shed light on the role played by the Persian language service of the BBC World Service in key events in Iran’s modern history. They divide their narrative into several historical segments. The first starts with the creation of the BBC Persian Service soon after the start of the Second World War. At the time Iran’s ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was trying to keep the country out of the war by adopting a neutral profile. However, it was obvious that his sympathies lay with the Axis powers, especially Germany.

Reza Shah had worked his way up the ladder of power, as war minister and prime minister before becoming Shah, by easing out Sayyed Ziauddin Tabataba’i, the man London had backed as leader of a putsch against Qajar Ahmad Shah in 1921. A former commander of the Cossack Brigade, set up and equipped with Russian help, Reza Shah had always been disliked by the British. Their dislike intensified in the 1930s as Reza Shah played the “Aryan” card while refusing to expel some 4,000 German technicians, and possibly spies, from Iran.

Thus, as the book reveals, the key task of the new BBC Persian radio was to vilify Reza Shah, encourage opposition to his autocratic rule and, over time, prepare Iranians for an invasion of their country by Britain and its Soviet allies.

Sreberny and Torfeh implicitly admit that it is hard to gauge the actual impact of the BBC broadcasts. In those days, there were no more than a few thousand wireless sets in Iran and even fewer were able to receive shortwave signals beamed from India. So the fact that Reza Shah was toppled was more due to a full-scale Anglo–Soviet invasion than propaganda from the BBC.

Having defeated the Iranian army, the Anglo–Soviet alliance split over Iran’s future. The British forced Reza Shah to abdicate and tried to return the Crown to the Qajars who had been on the UK’s payroll for decades. The Soviets refused and insisted that the Pahlavis continue, with Crown Prince Muhammad Reza sworn in as the new king. Again, the BBC played a minimal role at best. In the Tehran Summit of 1943, then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to call on Iran’s new Shah. In contrast, Soviet leader Josef Stalin paid his respects to the young Shah.

Fast forward to the second segment in the BBC Persian Service saga, where Sreberny and Torfeh deal with the oil nationalization crisis. They show that the British government clearly used the BBC Persian Service as a propaganda tool against Muhammad Mossadeq, appointed by the Shah as prime minister with the mandate to implement the nationalization of Iranian oil. The Foreign Office instructed the BBC to portray Mossadeq as a demagogue and fanatic who was leading Iran to disaster. In the end Mossadeq fell from power, largely thanks to his own political mistakes rather than BBC propaganda.

The third segment deals with a long spell between 1954 and 1978, when the BBC Persian was almost forgotten. Because of the close ties between London and Tehran, the service was not needed to exert any pressure on Iranian leaders. The few Iranians who worked there were not allowed to produce any remotely political material on their own and were mainly used as translators of texts sent to them by the World Service in English. Once a year, on the Shah’s birthday, the Persian Service played the “Hymn to the Shahanshah” in homage to the Iranian monarch.

The fourth segment covers the period between September 1978 and the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1979. Initially, the Persian Service tried to hedge its bets in well-established BBC tradition of giving “all sides” a voice in the name of objective journalism. (Jean-Luc Goddard calls the practice a formula whereby both Hitler and the Jews get five minutes each when discussing the Holocaust.) Very quickly, however, the Persian Service adopted an increasingly sympathetic position towards the anti-Shah groups.

The authors say: “BBC Persian has probably never been as popular as it was in the year leading to the revolution. Yet it has also never been seen as so partial in its news reporting as it was during those years, at times even seen to be overstepping the line.”

As an example of “overstepping”, the authors quote at length a report written and read by journalist Baqer Moin, which is clearly favorable to Khomeini and his group. Moin tells the authors that he was sympathetic to “the revolution.” However, it might be unfair to imply that he acted as a rogue and against the policies of the BBC or the British government. That this was not the case was borne out later when Moin was promoted senior producer and eventually even head of the BBC Persian Service.

At the time, then-Foreign Secretary George Brown tried to fudge the issue by claiming that the BBC’s foreign-language programs, including Persian, reflected the view of those who worked there, not of the British government. Brown wrote that such programs were “staffed by émigrés, refugees from those countries who are hostile to the regime in the country, that is why they are émigrés in the first place.”

However, none of those working for the BBC Persian Service at the time were either émigrés or refugees. One staffer, the highly respected Lutf-Ali Khonjis tells the authors that he and 80 per cent of the Persian service Staff were sympathetic to the 1979 revolution. Andrew Whitley, the BBC chief correspondent in Tehran at the time, also tells the authors that he was sympathetic to the revolutionaries because “they had justice on their side.” He also claims that BBC broadcasts helped speed up the victory of the revolution, in other words the side he supported.

The authors quote Chris Rundle of the then-Foreign & Commonwealth Office Research Department [now Research Analysts] admitting that more time was given to opposition activities. They also show that attempts made by supporters of the Shah to put their side of the story led nowhere. None of the Shah’s supporters inside or outside Iran were interviewed. Even when the Shah’s then-finance minister visited London, he was interviewed by the privately owned ITV television but not by the BBC. Seyyed Hussein Nasr, a respected Shi’ite scholar and at the time head of Empress Farah Pahlavi’s office, tried to persuade the BBC to give the Shah’s supporters a chance to be heard, but failed.

Having established that the BBC was increasingly drawn to the anti-Shah camp, the authors said: “There does not seem to have been any intention on the part of the British government to destabilize the Shah.” They then say that the BBC Persian Service adopted the position for noble motives. David Perman of the BBC World Service, says: “Most of us did not know what an ayatollah was, could not even imagine he (Khomeini) would one day be leader of Iran. We wanted democracy for Iran.”

The authors show that the BBC staff could not have operated as loose cannons. Britain’s policy towards the Shah changed as it became clear he was no longer capable of keeping his power. Nicholas Barrington, the Foreign Office man in charge of supervising BBC external services at the time, advised against “short-term expediency” such as pleasing the Shah. The rationale behind foreign-language broadcasting was “to operate in the medium and long-term, influencing those who might one day form an alternative government,” he suggested. Barrington then asked: “Is there not some kind of national interest [in making Iranians] accustomed and sympathetic to Western democratic traditions, particularly when the opposition has no local voice?”

That Barrington was not speaking through his hat was soon demonstrated when he was knighted and given top ambassadorial assignments.

In the four or five crucial months of the revolutionary turmoil, the BBC Persian Service was able to play an important role for two reasons. The first was that it became virtually the only radio station to cover Iranian events in Persian. Iran’s own radio and TV networks were shut down as a result of anti-Shah strikes which also stopped almost all newspapers and magazines from being published. At the time, only three other foreign powers had radios broadcasting in Persian: the Soviet Union, Iraq and Egypt. But all three had adopted supportive positions vis-a-vis the Shah, reflecting the policy of their respective governments. The BBC Persian Service gave the Shah’s opponents a platform&8212;programs from Cairo, Baghdad and Moscow either ignored the anti-Shah groups or minimized their importance. The second reason why the BBC Persian Service achieved a special position was the common Iranian belief that “the English” knew how to shun losers and pick winners.

The fifth segment deals with Iran under the mullahs. After 1979, the BBC again faded into the background. It observed strict neutrality towards the Khomeinist regime and was in turn allowed to maintain an office in Tehran. Relations with the new regime remained cordial, if not especially warm, during the eight-year presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani whose faction succeeded in keeping the presidency under one of its members, Mohammad Khatami. The BBC Persian Service was clearly enthusiastic about Khatami and his promises of reform and liberalization. It was no mystery that during Khatami’s presidency, the BBC Persian Service reflected British government policy which was based on support for the “reformist” president. Tony Blair’s second Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, visited Tehran five times, more than any other capital, and publicly praised Khatami as a friend of the Western democracies.

With the advent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new president, things changed again. After defeating the Rafsanjani faction, Ahmadinejad started dismantling the network of contacts that Straw had created over the years. Naturally, reflecting the British government’s dislike of Ahmadinejad, the BBC Persian Service adopted a critical tone towards the Islamic Republic. During the disputed presidential election of 2009, the BBC Persian Service strongly sided with the anti-Ahmadinejad faction and won a vast new audience among supporters of the so-called “Green Movement.”

London retaliated by setting up a BBC Persian television channel with an annual budget of 22 million US dollars and a staff of more than 150. Many new staffers were recruited from Iranian journalists close to the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction. As Ahmadinejad purged them, they came to Europe and North America, helping to create a network of support for the Rafsanjani-Khatami tandem abroad.

Several prominent members of the Rafsanjani faction became regular commentators and panelists at the BBC Persian Service, among them Khatami’s chief communications officer Ali-Asghar Ramazanpour and Rafsanjani’s presidential assistant for parliamentary affairs Ata-Allah Mohajerani.

Hassan Rouhani’s election as President last June has kindled new hopes for a revival of the UK’s network of influence in Tehran. Diplomatic relations, suspended under Ahmadinejad, have been restored and a UK parliamentary delegation has visited Tehran. The UK has strongly endorsed Rouhani’s attempt at easing tension with the major democracies, notably the United States.

That there is much sympathy towards Rouhani is indicated by the authors’ assertion that he had won the presidency “an astonishing first ballot victory.” However, the fact is that, with the exception of Ahmadinejad’s first electoral victory in the second round, all the six previous presidents of the Islamic Republic also won on the first ballot. (Ahmadinejad won his second presidential term in the first round.) Rouhani’s victory was, in fact, the weakest. He won with just 50.7 percent of the votes in an election with the lowest turnout.

Nevertheless, goodwill towards Rouhani has meant overlooking his record so far, including the dramatic rise in the number of executions, political arrests, closure of media outlets and distribution of posts among members of the Rafsanjani faction.

The authors say: “It is to be hoped that president Rouhani will open up the media environment in Iran” and allow the BBC to operate inside Iran as “just another useful media channel.” Sreberny and Torfeh assert that the BBC started as “state-orchestrated propaganda” but developed into “subtle advocacy of fair and balanced journalism as the best agent of British values and influence.”

If BBC staff helped the opposition against the Shah, and then against Ahmadinejad, it was because they were “on the side of democratization—not necessarily of the British.” Since it is hard to imagine the British spending money on propaganda against democracy, the inevitable conclusion is that BBC external services, including the Persian one, reflected and would continue to reflect the strategic goals of the British government.

By Amir Taheri


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