Six Years: The price Nazanin paid for 110 years of bad behavior by UK government

We never forgave Iran for “breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests.”

Nazanin and her family

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an Iranian-British dual citizen who was detained in Iran for six years. In September 2016, she was sentenced to five years in prison for “plotting to topple the Iranian government”. She had traveled with her 22-month-old daughter to visit family in Iran and was arrested as they both were about to board a flight back to the UK.

When her original sentence ended, she was sentenced again to a further year for “propaganda activities” against the government. She was finally released the other day and flown back to the UK. Her husband maintained she was imprisoned “as leverage for a debt owed by the UK over its failure to deliver tanks to Iran in 1979″.

Back in February 2018 Richard Ratcliffe claim his wife’s release depended on the interest on a £450 million debt the UK has owed to Iran since the 1970s for a canceled arms deal. In October 2019 he said the UK government was using “every legal roadblock to delay and minimize the payment”. He was right.

How did the debt arise? In the mid-1970s the UK sold more than 1,500 Chieftain battle tanks and 250 repair vehicles to the Shah who then ruled Iran. Iran paid £600m in advance. But in February 1979 the UK, with only 185 tanks delivered, reneged on the rest of the order when the Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution. Iran of course wanted its money back.

After years of fruitless argument, Iran took the matter to international arbitration in The Hague. The UK counterclaimed but eventually lost. When Iran tried to enforce the award in the English courts, the UK government resisted but, in the end, paid £350m into court as security. The UK’s final appeal was dismissed in 2009.

Britain’s excuse for continuing not to pay was sanctioned. The EU decided in 2008 to make Iran’s defense ministry a sanctioned entity. Iran asked the UK courts for a declaration that the money was owed and the Treasury for a certificate for the money to be paid to the Central Bank of Iran, which wasn’t on the sanction list. No response was ever received while the matter descended into a wrangle over whether interest was payable. The debt of course was incurred long before sanctions so the UK hadn’t a leg to stand on, morally speaking. And the payment was almost certainly a precondition for Nazanin’s release. Britain chose to call it ransom and sure as hell they weren’t going to pay a ransom to anyone.

While this young woman – the mother of a young child – was languishing for 6 years in the filth of an Iranian jail three prime ministers and five foreign secretaries played silly buggers before doing the decent thing and paying up.


Britain and America would like everyone to believe that hostilities with Iran began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But you have to go back much further – to the early 1950s – in America’s case, while Iranians have had to endure more than a century of British exploitation and bad behavior.

In 1901 William Knox D’Arcy obtained from Shah Mozzafar al-Din a 60-year oil concession to three-quarters of the country. The Persian government would receive 16% of the oil company’s annual profits, a rotten deal as the Persians would soon realize.

D’Arcy, with financial support from Glasgow-based Burmah Oil, sent an exploration team. Drilling failed to find oil in commercial quantities and by 1908 D’Arcy was almost bankrupt and on the point of giving up when they finally struck it big. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was up and running in 1909 and completed a pipeline from the oilfield to its new refinery at Abadan

Just before the outbreak of World War I, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty wanted to convert the British fleet from coal. To secure a reliable oil source, and to give itself a diplomatic edge over their main competitor in the region – Russia – the British Government took a major shareholding in Anglo-Persian.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the company profited hugely from paying the Persians the miserly 16% and refusing to renegotiate. An angry Persia eventually canceled the D’Arcy agreement and the matter ended up at the Court of International Justice in The Hague. A new agreement in 1933 provided Anglo-Persian with a fresh 60-year concession but on a smaller area. The terms were an improvement for the Persians but still didn’t amount to a square deal.

In 1935 Persia became known internationally by its other name, Iran, and Anglo-Persian changed to Anglo-Iranian Oil. By 1950 Abadan was the biggest oil refinery in the world and the British government, with its 51% holding, had effectively colonized part of southern Iran.

Iran’s tiny share of the profits had long soured relations and so did the company’s treatment of its oil workers. 6,000 went on strike in 1946 and the dispute was put down violently with 200 dead or injured. In 1951 while Aramco was sharing profits with the Saudis on a 50/50 basis Anglo-Iranian declared £40 million profit after tax and handed Iran only £7 million.

Independence squashed

Iran by now wanted economic and political independence and an end to poverty. It’s called self-determination. Calls for nationalization couldn’t be ignored and in March 1951 the Majlis and Senate voted to nationalize Anglo-Iranian, which had controlled Iran’s oil industry since 1913 under terms grossly unfavorable to the host country.

Social reformer Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq was named prime minister by a huge majority and promptly carried out his government’s wishes, canceling Anglo-Iranian’s oil concession and expropriating its assets.

The reason, he said, was that long years of negotiations had yielded no results. “With the oil revenues, we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.” [M. Fateh, Panjah Sal-e Naft-e Iran, p. 525]

For this, he would be removed in a coup by MI5 and the CIA, imprisoned for 3 years then put under house arrest until his death.

Britain was determined to bring about regime change and orchestrated a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil, froze Iran’s sterling assets, and threatened legal action against anyone purchasing oil produced in the formerly British-controlled refineries. The Iranian economy was soon in ruins…

All sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

US and UK’s dirty tricks

America was reluctant at first to join this destructive game but Churchill (prime minister at this time) let it be known that Mossadeq was turning communist and pushing Iran into Russia’s arms at a time when Cold War anxiety was high. That was enough to bring America’s new president, Eisenhower, onboard and plotting with Britain to bring Mossadeq down.

Chief of the CIA’s Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt Jr, played the lead in a nasty game of provocation, mayhem, and deception. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi signed two decrees, one dismissing Mossadeq and the other nominating the CIA’s choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi, as prime minister. These decrees were dictated by the CIA.

In August 1953, when it was judged safe for him to do so, the Shah returned to take over.
Mossadeq was arrested, tried, and convicted of treason by the Shah’s military court. He remarked:

“My greatest sin is that I nationalized Iran’s oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world’s greatest empire… I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests.”

His supporters were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. Zahedi’s new government reached an agreement with foreign oil companies to form a consortium to restore the flow of Iranian oil, awarding the US and Great Britain the lion’s share – 40% going to Anglo-Iranian.

The consortium agreed to split profits on a 50-50 basis with Iran but refused to open its books to Iranian auditors or allow Iranians to sit on the board. The US massively funded the Shah’s government, including his army and his hated secret police force, SAVAK.

Anglo-Iranian changed its name to British Petroleum in 1954. Mossadeq died on 5 March 1967.

The CIA-engineered coup that toppled Mossadeq, reinstated the Shah, and let the American oil companies in, was the final straw for the Iranians. The British-American conspiracy backfired spectacularly 25 years later with the Islamic Revolution of 1978-9, the humiliating 444-day hostage crisis in the American embassy, and a tragically botched rescue mission.

Smoldering resentment for at least 70 years

And all this happened before the Iran-Iraq war when the West, especially the US, helped Iraq develop its armed forces and chemical weapons arsenal which were used against Iran.
The US, and eventually Britain, leaned strongly towards Saddam in that conflict and the alliance enabled Saddam to more easily acquire or develop forbidden chemical and biological weapons. At least 100,000 Iranians fell victim to them.

This is how John King writing in 2003 summed it up…

“The United States used methods both legal and illegal to help build Saddam’s army into the most powerful army in the Mideast outside of Israel. The US supplied chemical and biological agents and technology to Iraq when it knew Iraq was using chemical weapons against the Iranians. The US supplied the materials and technology for these weapons of mass destruction to Iraq at a time when it was known that Saddam was using this technology to kill his Kurdish citizens.

“The United States supplied intelligence and battle planning information to Iraq when those battle plans included the use of cyanide, mustard gas and nerve agents. The United States blocked the UN censure of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. The United States did not act alone in this effort. The Soviet Union was the largest weapons supplier, but England, France, and Germany were also involved in the shipment of arms and technology.”

The present Iranian regime, like many others, is not entirely to the West’s liking but neither was Dr. Mossadeq’s fledgling democracy nearly 70 years ago.

If Britain and America had played fair and allowed the Iranians to determine their own future instead of using economic terrorism to bring the country to its knees Iran might have been “the only democracy in the Middle East” today and a good friend. And of course, they’re entitled to a nuclear program just as much as Israel.

Now we need Iran’s oil again. But our historical nastiness is not a good basis for building a new relationship.

© Stuart Littlewood – 20 March 2022


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  1. “”The U.S.A. did not act alone…The USSR was the largest weapons supplier; England, France, and Germany were also involved””

    So all countries are controlled by not so nice guys?

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