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What is behind Iran's war on the BBC?

Iran's historic distrust for the BBC has led to the persecution of BBC journalists and their families.

BBC Persian service

by Massoumeh Torfeh

On October 25, the BBC sent an official complaint to the United Nations over the persecution which the staff of its Persian service face in Iran. A criminal investigation has been launched against 152 former and current BBC staff for "conspiracy against national security". In August, a court ordered the freezing of assets of the 152 individuals and their families.

The Iranian authorities have harassed, insulted and intimidated staff of the BBC Persian service for almost 40 years, often accused of being spies for the British government.

This sustained campaign has no justification whatsoever in the present day but its roots could be traced in the role that the BBC used to play as a propaganda tool during World War II and the early days of the Cold War.

Documents of the British Foreign Office reveal how in December 1940 when BBC's Persian radio first came on air they were part of the British strategy to counter Nazi propaganda. The broadcasts in Persian included texts written by the British intelligence directly targeting the then shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, who was suspected of supporting Adolf Hitler's expansionist plans in Asia. The broadcasts which are said to have led to the downfall of Reza Shah criticised his "dictatorial" methods and advocated republicanism. 

"His Majesty's Government now agreed that the BBC might begin to give various broadcasts in Persian which had been prepared beforehand, starting with talks on Constitutional Government and increasing in strength and colour until all Reza Shah's mismanagement, greed and cruelty were displayed to the public gaze," one document stated.

Moreover, in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the diplomatic crisis over the nationalisation of Iranian oil came to a head, BBC Persian broadcasts were used to discredit the popular prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq. In March 1951, when the nationalisation was carried out, he was portrayed as "a misguided and often purblind patriot whose distinct demagogy, his single-minded obstinacy and his total lack of construction ideas" had caused the crisis.

Those episodes had a lasting impact on the collective memory of Iranians towards the BBC Persian. But two points should be noted here: First, that the Islamic Republic has no affinity with either Reza Shah or Dr Mossadeq. Second, in the decades following the Mossadeq affair, the BBC gradually changed and by the time the popular uprising against Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi started in 1978, it was looking to cover events in the country objectively.

The Persian service became a highly debated topic in the Foreign Office with many agreeing with Parsons that the service should be closed and others including the then Foreign Secretary, David Owen, saying the BBC should be allowed to operate independently.
Today, the conspiracy theorists in Iran, led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, still regard the BBC as an instrument of British political machinations

"The lie-broadcasting BBC channel funded by English intelligence services is aiming to interfere in Iran's internal affairs and this requires vigilance of the revolutionary forces," said the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) when BBC Persian TV went on air. 

However, the authorities have conveniently forgotten that it was the BBC Persian broadcasts during the two years prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979 that first aired their demands from the shah's regime.

They have forgotten how they benefitted from BBC's independent reporting when despite mounting pressure from both Iran and the UK governments not to air an interview with the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the BBC decided to go ahead with it.

For that reason, the shah called the BBC his "number one enemy" in the final months of 1978, demanding the Foreign Office to close the section down.

Archive documents have revealed that the complaints were transmitted by Sir Anthony Parsons, the then UK Ambassador in Iran, who argued that the broadcasts had enraged the shah "an important British friend in the region". 

The BBC remained adamant that its reporting on the revolution must continue. Several prominent supporters of the shah presiding in the UK bombarded the BBC with complaints.

The Persian service became a highly debated topic in the Foreign Office with many agreeing with Parsons that the service should be closed and others including the then Foreign Secretary, David Owen, saying the BBC should be allowed to operate independently. The latter argued that the long-term interests of Britain lay in allowing the BBC to be independent and trusted as a world broadcaster. 

Since the Iranian revolution, the BBC has had difficulty sustaining an office in Iran and keeping its Iranian staff out of harm's way. It has complained of harassment to the authorities on several occasions but without any result.

Since the protests of 2009, which the BBC covered extensively, harassment against its staff has increased exponentially.

The complaint the network filed with the UN details "multiple ongoing infringements of the BBC Persian staff's right to freedom of opinion, movement and expression". It also states that measures being imposed on its staff and their families potentially "engage a wide range of rights under general international law and international human rights". 

It documents several cases of harassment of its staff such as how the sister of a journalist was held in Evin prison for 17 days and forced to plead with the journalist via Skype to stop working for the BBC or spy on colleagues. There's also evidence of how elderly parents of the journalists have been interrogated and questioned at night. The most common form of harassment involves the confiscation of passports on arrival, call for interrogation and then accusations and inflammatory fabricated stories in the hardline press.

It is clear that the staff of the BBC Persian are being punished for exposing inconvenient truths in Iran, where the repressive regime continues to stifle freedom of expression. Journalism is not a crime and the authorities in Iran should not use journalists as pawns to settle political scores against Britain.

Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh is a Research Associate at LSE, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.


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