Britain and the Iranian Revolution: Arms & Secret Deals

Mark Curtis reviews the expediency that for many decades has marked U.K. policy toward Iran.

By Mark Curtis
British Foreign Policy Declassified

Forty years ago, the Iranian revolution sent a shockwave through the Middle East, overthrowing the Western client, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and bringing to power the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

While Iran now poses the biggest challenge to Western power in the Middle East, British relations with Islamic Iran were not always so antagonistic. Britain dropped its support for the Shah before the 1979 revolution, seeking to ingratiate itself with Iranian opposition forces led by Khomeini. Once his regime was in power, Whitehall went so far as to arm it, even brutally conniving with it, seeing it as a counter to the Soviet Union.

Mohammad Mossadegh. (Wikimedia)

Mohammad Mossadegh. (Wikimedia)

The Shah was put in power in 1953 in an Anglo-American covert operation – known as “Boot” – instigated by London, removing Iranian leader Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalised British oil operations. “Our policy,” a British official later recalled, “was to get rid of Mosaddegh as soon as possible.” In fact, declassified files show that Britain’s ambassador in Tehran preferred “a dictator” who would “settle the oil question on reasonable terms.”

A little known aspect of the 1953 coup is British plotting with Ayatollah Sayyed Kashani, a predecessor of Khomeini. Kashani helped fund mobs that rioted against Mosaddegh in collaboration with MI6, which had bribed army, police, political and media figures. “These forces,” explained MI6 officer Christopher Woodhouse, who ran the U.K. end of the operation, “were to seize control of Tehran, preferably with the support of the Shah but if necessary without it, and to arrest [Mosaddegh] and his ministers.”

The Shah ruled for a further quarter of a century, brutally repressing opposition through his notorious  internal security service, SAVAK, which the U.K.  helped train. A year before the revolution, in April 1978, then Conservative opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher, visited Tehran and described the Shah as “one of the world’s most far-sighted statesmen” who had given Iran “dynamic leadership” and is “leading Iran through a twentieth century renaissance.”

A few months later, James Callaghan’s Labour government secretly agreed to the Shah’s request to supply 175,000 CS gas canisters and up to 360 armoured personnel carriers to Iran to help the regime put down growing demonstrations against it.

Switching Sides

By October 1978, with unrest in Tehran threatening the regime, Callaghan wrote: “I would not give much for the Shah’s chances,” and told his foreign secretary, David Owen, to “start thinking about reinsuring,” meaning to develop contacts with opposition figures.

Margaret Thatcher in Brighton, England, Oct. 12, 1984. (Levan Ramishvili via Flickr)

Margaret Thatcher in 1984. (Levan Ramishvili via Flickr)

By December, officials concluded that the Shah’s survival was unlikely and that Iran seemed on the verge of a revolution. Foreign Office officials then argued for Britain to completely switch its support to the Iranian opposition, though the declassified files do not state which figures.

The Shah fled Tehran on Jan. 16, 1979, and on Feb. 1, Khomeini returned from exile to Iran. Britain tried to “insure” itself further with the new Islamic regime by avoiding any association with the Shah. London and Washington both refused to allow their onetime placeman political asylum. “There was no honour in my decision,” Owen later wrote, “just the cold calculation of national interest.” He added that he considered it “a despicable act.”

In February, with real power concentrated in the Council of the Islamic Revolution, dominated by fundamentalists loyal to Khomeini, Callaghan recognized the new government of Mehdi Bazargan, a scholar jailed by the Shah. Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt wrote to Callaghan saying that “we should lose no opportunity to foster our relationship with the new government.”

Margaret Thatcher also reassured the new government that the arms ordered by the Shah, notably a massive tank deal, would continue to flow, along with “oil, trade and other interests.” Weeks later, an Islamic Republic was declared, with a new constitution reflecting the theocracy.

Arming Iran

Under the new Thatcher government, Britain continued to arm and train the new Iranian regime. By April 1980, months into the U.S.  hostage crisis, Britain was still training around 30 Iranian military officers in Britain. With Soviet invasion forces in Afghanistan, Thatcher saw Iranian theocracy as a counter to Soviet ideology.

This took on brutal proportions in 1982, when Britain secretly helped the Iranian regime nearly destroy the communist Tudeh Party, the main leftist organisation in Iran. MI6, working with the CIA, passed to the Iranians a list of alleged Tudeh agents acquired from a Soviet defector, in order to curry favour with the regime and reduce Soviet influence. Dozens of Tudeh agents were subsequently executed, more than 1,000 members were arrested, and the party was banned.

But Britain went still further, even as it by now regarded the Iranian revolutionary regime as a strategic threat to the West. As Iran fought Iraq in the brutal Gulf war in the 1980s, the Thatcher government armed both sides. From the very first day of the war, Britain sent millions of pounds worth of tank barrels and tank engines to Iran, helping to maintain the tanks Britain delivered to the Shah during the 1970s.

Two American hostages in Iran hostage crisis, Nov. 4, 1979. (Wikimedia)

Two American hostages in Iran hostage crisis, Nov. 4, 1979. (Wikimedia)

Whitehall also connived with a company called Allivane International to secretly ship arms to Iran in the mid-to-late 1980s, while another project enabled the British company BMARC to export naval guns, spares and ammunition to Iran via Singapore in 1986. Around the same time, a government-owned company exported five shipments of tetryl chemicals, a compound used to make explosives, breaking both the UN embargo and Britain’s own export guidelines.

Unfinished Business

The British tank exports agreed under the Shah are still plaguing relations between the two countries. Declassified files show that the new regime wrote to Britain in February 1979 repudiating six military contracts signed by the Shah for more than 1,500 British tanks worth £1.25 billion. The two countries are still haggling over the interest rate to be paid by Britain to settle a debt for the tanks that were bought by Iran but never delivered. Iran has been seeking to recover its money since 1979.

The British would like to remove the Iranian regime from the Middle East, and extremists in the U.S.  and Israel are now pushing for war. But this is not 1953, and Whitehall surely realises that Iran is much stronger than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

For now, London will continue promoting its commercial interests with Iran, while sometimes playing the side of the U.S.  in confronting it. British policy towards Iran has often been based on pure expediency. We can only wait to see if the U.K.  ends up playing more of a restraining than supportive role over regime change in Iran.

Mark Curtis is an historian and analyst of U.K. foreign policy and international development and the author of six books, the latest being an updated edition of “Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.”

26 comments for “Britain and the Iranian Revolution: Arms & Secret Deals

  1. February 19, 2019 at 01:44

    cousin of mine has finished his freshman year in college; like most freshmen, he now knows absolutely everything. He took it upon himself, this week, to announce (to my brother, who is a very patient man) that Iran‘s Islamist dictators were “a predictable consequence of American imperialism

  2. Robert Mayer
    February 9, 2019 at 21:24

    The new round of force feeding of US political prisoners & Dame Margaret’s pic remind me of in memoriam: Bobby Sands, Raymond McCreish, Frankie Hughes, Joe O’Donnel & Paddy O’Hare. (Please excuse any sp?)

    I’ve considered above in relation2 US policy differences w/ GB.

    Most disturbing 2 me, however, is Public Vote Count vs. Secret Ballot.

    ‘Nuff sed?

    Oh & of course tnx CN

  3. Casey VanSise
    February 9, 2019 at 16:20

    The story is deprived of its true complexity by viewing Iran under Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists as a constant adversary of US policy, for the present situation in Iran is also arguably a direct product of US action in the region. This is not only because of the oft-cited US (and British) role in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état fostering discontent, but also the US attempting to co-opt this discontent when it manifested revolution in 1979, as the US was presented with options to a) retain the Shah of Iran, b) support a secular military coup d’etat, or c) support Islamist elements of the revolutionaries in the advancement of creating an “arc of crisis” against the Soviet Union, as in Afghanistan (see here: http://dgibbs.faculty.arizona.edu/brzezinski_interview, and here: http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a1178arcofcrisis#a1178arcofcrisis). Evidence would suggest that some US policymakers under the Jimmy Carter administration such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and perhaps simultaneously even members of the Ronald Reagan campaign (see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/October_Surprise_conspiracy_theory) actively attempted to take the third option, as did influential proponents in the United Kingdom – for example, in addition to the resources outlined in this article, the BBC played an interesting role in supporting the Iranian revolution (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00j6lfk), as did other Western media, which initially portrayed Ayatollah Khomeini as a “Gandhi-like” figure (https://youtu.be/RjgR_TZrpi8?t=630).

    Even when things publicly went south with post-revolutionary Iran following the Iran hostage crisis, the US attempted to court Iran as a Cold War ally while the USSR simultaneously attempted to do so, with both competing for influence by supplying weapons to Iran during the Iran–Iraq War (even as both countries gave more extensive aid to Iraq). Though both were rhetorically rebuffed and excoriated, Iran showed a willingness to carry on a covert relationship with the US and the USSR, but if anything, the US probably had more clout. For instance, this dynamic was demonstrated in 1983, when the Central Intelligence Agency supplied Ayatollah Khomeini’s government with a list of suspected leftists for persecution, eliminating much of the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran (https://archive.org/stream/TowerCommission/President%27s%20Special%20Review%20Board%20%28%22Tower%20Commission%22%29#page/n67/mode/2up).

    Lest one forget, to name just a few examples, Brzezinski’s early overtures to Mehdi Bazargan (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19791102&id=pTBPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kQIEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3889%2C3647586), the Iran–Contra affair, the Gulf War and subsequent coordinated efforts to destabilize Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s administration (for instance, see here: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/05/27/world/fake-money-flood-is-aimed-at-crippling-iraq-s-economy.html), the Croatian arms pipeline in Bosnia (http://www.srebrenica-project.com/DOWNLOAD/NOD/Appendix%20%20Intelligence.pdf#page=139), attempted rapprochement with Ayatollah Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, Operation Merlin and other efforts of nuclear proliferation (for instance, see here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/jan/05/energy.g2, here: https://web.archive.org/web/20171005002648/https://www.corbettreport.com/how-the-cia-runs-the-nuclear-black-market/, and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cre67lMqvXI), the War in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the Iraq War to depose Saddam in favor of the Iraqi National Congress government (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/may/25/usa.iraq10), and the negotiations with Hassan Rouhani’s government, all of these were efforts of US policy that seized upon cooperating with Iran and/or geostrategically bolstering Iran.

  4. mike k
    February 9, 2019 at 12:08

    Are white people any worse than other groups? Yes, our record shows our huge capacity for violence and abuse. Why is that? Power corrupts. Because white folks gained a lot of power (mostly through violence and deceit) they became corrupted by it, and used their power to dominate and abuse others.

  5. Theo
    February 9, 2019 at 11:22

    Good and interesting article.Generally I agree with the other commentators.

  6. Helia
    February 9, 2019 at 11:14

    providing references would be great ( especially for declassified documents), a lot of highlighted words takes me to a document written by the same author without any reference there either. thanks

  7. A
    February 9, 2019 at 03:26

    This is a good summary of UK government complicity.
    It would be good to do a similar summary of US government complicity.

  8. Rob Roy
    February 8, 2019 at 18:34

    Fascinating article with information new to me. It should also be noted that the British asked Truman to join them in interference in Iran so the oil tycoons by taking out Mossadegh could get “their” oil back. Truman refused, so when Eisenhower was president, they asked him and he agreed, thus the involvement of the CIA (now as we speak, hard at work in Venezuela).

    (Britain has always been disgusting as is the US. What/who will finally take these two out of the picture and off the map?)

  9. February 8, 2019 at 18:02

    Seems to me the oil industry should owe the American taxpayers at least several $trillion for the use of the American taxpayers’ socially-funded military which spends no small portion of its resources in acquiring and protecting geo-political ties to oil resources. Research US and British oil companies operating in Iraq, and our navy secures the Persian Gulf for oil tankers, We invaded Afghanistan based on false flag operations to the benefit of the CENTGAS/TAPI pipeline CONSORTIUM. In fact PNAC and Carlyle Group, I.e., Pappy Bush and the Bin Laden’s were members as we’re other fossil fuel cretins. The PNAC document even spelled out the need for a “catalyzing and catastrophic event like a new Pearl Harbor. In order to “GALVANIZE” the public to support their admitted agenda of “full spectrum dominance.”

    So many people have missed the boat in recognizing just how diabolical and demented people who think they are entitled to billions of dollars of profit no matter the cost to others. These people will unite long enough to reach their collective goals, but I suspect their allegiance to one another could be strained with the threat of TREASON hanging over their heads. Too bad few people understand this and get easily scared away by the CIA generated terms “conspiracy theorists.”

    • Skip Scott
      February 8, 2019 at 19:55

      That’s a really interesting perspective regarding public vs. private. They socialize their oil while we socialize our military to protect private profits. Maybe we should send the bill for our missing 21 trillion in DoD accounting to Exxon!

    • A
      February 9, 2019 at 03:30

      I suggest you read “War is a Racket”, by USMC Major General Smedley Butler.

      Though he wrote it in 1935, it continues to be true to this day.

    • February 10, 2019 at 12:52

      Indeed…. I make it a point in political discussions to bring in Smedley Butler and his book. He was raised a Quaker , but at the age of 17 felt compelled to enter the military. It makes his revelations all the more powerful as he reclaims his authentic self.

    • Sam F
      February 9, 2019 at 20:12

      Yes, the vast, largely-informal collusions of political and financial racketeers could fragment in the face of major prosecutions like those done in China. The problem of course is that we cannot restore democracy for that purpose, because the tools, mass media and elections, are already controlled by oligarchy. The US will be massively embargoed in the future; if ever democracy is thereafter restored, and oligarchs rooted out, they will incriminate each other enthusiastically.

    • Gregory Herr
      February 10, 2019 at 14:31

      Thanks for this perspective. Planning, motivation, means, and insiders are evident. Diabolical is not too strong a term.

  10. February 8, 2019 at 13:14

    Excellent and interesting report.

    This is the kind of world in which we live with nothing being as it seems.

    I am reminded of Britain’s role in Syria where it has been almost the opposite of its public claims.

  11. Mike Perry
    February 8, 2019 at 12:22

    “…To Protect the Rich.. & .. Serve Their Wealth…”

    Some very great people are currently battling very hard – right now.

    .. With enough awareness and support, this could not only be a very significant moment for fossil fuels — but it could also have a very significant influence with the dialogue of this campaign season of 2020.
    (.. Which Is Truly, about the only time, that we even approach having an “honest” conversation – on our airwaves..)

    If you are not familiar with these great young reporters: Alice Speri, Alleen Brown, and William Parrish for their current works, then I would highly recommend them:

    ~ Leaked Documents Reveal Counter Terrorism Tactics Used at Standing Rock to “Defeat Pipeline Insurgencies” ~
    https://theintercept.com/2017/05/27/leaked-documents-reveal-security-firms-counterterrorism-tactics-at-standing-rock-to-defeat-pipeline-insurgencies/

    ~ How Police, Private Security, and Energy Companies Are Preparing for a New Pipeline Standoff ~
    https://theintercept.com/2019/01/30/enbridge-line-3-pipeline-minnesota/

    .. And, a taste of what the “profit before people” are saying:
    ~ Canada’s Most Crucial Pipeline Comes Under Fire ~
    https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Canadas-Most-Crucial-Pipeline-Comes-Under-Fire.html

    And last but not least, I always thought that perhaps, Jimi was talking about England with his tune:

    The traffic lights, they turn, uh, blue tomorrow
    And shine their emptiness down on my bed
    The tiny island sags down stream
    Cause the life that lived, is dead

  12. Deniz
    February 8, 2019 at 11:28

    The very last thing the UK & US want is a responsible, democratic Islamic leader who will put the interests of his own people above himself.

    This is their nightmare scenario, not terrorism or dictatorships, which is an extremely lucrative business.

  13. Jeff Harrison
    February 8, 2019 at 11:24

    Well, an excellent description of the way that the colonial powers became accustomed to ordering the world to their liking. I should point out that Iran was always seen as a bulwark against the old SovU by the US. I think that the US and Britain were concerned when the Shah’s father who had been installed by the Brits backed the wrong side in WWII. But I read this description and all I can think of is the outrage here in the US over a handful of Russian trolls a tweeting.

    • Sam F
      February 9, 2019 at 20:34

      The alleged “concern” of the US about the USSR in the Mideast was to support its building of militant Islamic radicalism from WWII through the present, but apparently there was little or no evidence that the USSR sought influence there, bogged down as it was already with Muslim radicalism in its central Asian republics. See Dreyfus’ Devils Game. It seems likely that the entire gambit of fearmongering about the USSR after WWII was that of Brezinski, to
      1. Build militant opposition to the USSR within its borders;
      2. Attack socialist republics everywhere, to suppress socialism in the US;
      3. Cover up and promote militant zionism in the Mideast;
      4. Make excuses for more military spending; and
      5. Get bribes to politicians from the MIC, zionists, and christian loonies.

  14. Jdd
    February 8, 2019 at 10:41

    The British Foreign office has been organizing and supporting Islamic fundamentalists from even before it created the Muslim Brotherhood. This article is a good exposure of the duplicitous role of the British to prevent any nationalist leadership which might seek to develop and modernize his state. If only the president would stop listening to the likes of Bolton and Pompeo and realize the truth about this potentially great nation, with a deep cultural past, which has played a key, but largely unrecognized.role in the defeat of ISIS.

  15. AnneR
    February 8, 2019 at 08:42

    It is about time the UK began to mind its own business and started taking care of its own people and country. Its ruling elites simply can’t let go of their orientalist, imperialist residual dreams.

    Greed and imperialist presumptions concerning who should have the “right” to Iranian resources (oil in this case) led to the CIA’s fomented, supported, connived with the British, coup removal of Mossadegh and installation of the American puppet Shah who ruled with great brutality (but hey, “our guy” so “we can do business with him”).

    We (in the “west”) have no right to interfere in any other country’s governance. No right. We certainly wouldn’t accord to “southern” nation governments the right to interfere with our governments; so why should we think it fine and dandy when we do?

    And matters regarding political-commercial connections in the UK don’t seem to have changed much. May’s husband being an investment manager at Capital Group which just happens to own over 10% shares in Lockheed Martin which is benefiting nicely from the ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen – to which the UK is partner (in crime). Surely to goodness this connection should be illegal? It is a form of corruption – and were it to take place in some African or Asian nation would be heartily decried across the MSM and western political classes.

    • February 8, 2019 at 13:18

      The last thing imperial leaders anywhere care about is their own people.

      When you get into the imperial business, you almost sign a contract to devote your energies and resources abroad for special interests.

      Which is where America finds itself today, only on a far vaster scale.

    • Rob Roy
      February 8, 2019 at 18:26

      Good comment, Anne. Thank you.

  16. Skip Scott
    February 8, 2019 at 08:11

    We are pawns in a game played by those who determine our (read their) Vital National Security Interests. Any secular leader in that part of the world who puts the welfare of their citizens ahead of the interests of the pillagers becomes a target- Mossadegh, Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi, Assad. This game has been going on for a long time. It’s time for a prole rebellion.

    • Realist
      February 10, 2019 at 04:20

      The interests promoted by Washington are most definitely not those of the common American people, as taxpayers we only pay the bill whenever a war, clandestine operations, terrorism by proxy, or some set of economic sanctions are ordered up in service of the plutocrats.

      We Plebeians in America have never had an elected protector of our rights as the ancient Romans did in the form of the Tribune. And, no, the Chicago Tribune never really filled that role, it championed only the prerogatives of the Patricians.

      Some might say the Speaker of the House (as the House is the counterpart to the Plebeian Council) is meant to fill that role. What Speaker in your lifetime ever stood up for your rights over those of the corporations and the top 1%? No question the president (America’s equivalent to the Roman Consul) was meant to protect the Patrician interests, being elected by a special “college” of electors rather than the populace–and this after the candidates are picked by whatever moneyed oligarchs will financially support them in a contest between only two viable parties.

      What political office under the sun (or at least under our constitution) ever asked you if you wanted to go to war, or listened to your outcries when Washington bucked popular sentiment and made war anyway? Rather, they’d use the media to gin up war fever and conscript your sons to be used as cannon fodder. No great leaders looking out for the well-being of the people in this “exceptional” country… ever!

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