“Death to Britain” and “Death to America”

By Lowri Pitcher

Although the contentious relationship between Iran and the Western world runs far deeper than the 1979 Iranian Revolution, this event which led to the collapse of Iran’s 2,500 year old monarchic regime marked a seismic shift in the political relationship between Iran and the West and we have seen no major changes to Iranian-Western relations as of yet.

One of the primary factors behind the 1979 revolution was the Iranian desire to move away from Western influence in Iran. Ruhollah Khomeini, who became the first Supreme Leader of Iran, definitively turned the country away from US influence, whilst demonising the West. For example, he popularised the anti-American slogan “Death to America” which is still being chanted four decades later. More recently, similar chants such as “Death to [Theresa] May”, “Death to Britain” and “Death to Israel” have also been chanted by Iranian protesters in Tehran.

Today the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still supports these slogans. He claims, “As long as America continues its wickedness, the Iranian nation will not abandon ‘Death to America.’” However, Khamenei confirmed that this comment was aimed at American leaders only and Iran holds nothing against the American people. Despite this, endorsing such anti-western rhetoric, which also includes state-sponsored graffiti and the burning of British and American flags, does little to improve diplomatic ties.

Donald Trump weakened the US-Iran relationship in 2018 by withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Signed by the US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany, the deal agreed to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for lifting UN, US and EU economic sanctions. However, during a recent public address to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, President Hassan Rouhani stated that “We [Iran] have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop different types of…missiles and will continue our path and our military power”. In response to the US withdrawal from the deal, the UK defended Iran, claiming that they had been compliant and that the UK would continue to support the accord.

Nevertheless, the UK also has a contentious relationship with Iran. In 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May urged Gulf leaders to “push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions” and Khamenei responded by claiming that the UK is the true “source of evil and misery” in the Middle East. Additionally, the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national citizen, also highlights the shortcomings of our diplomatic relationship with Iran. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in Iran for allegedly plotting to topple the Iranian government and was later imprisoned, an act which the UK government deemed was unjustified. Yet to this day, Iran has not allowed her to return to the UK.

Ultimately, despite the nuclear agreement and a limited number of other trade accords with Iran, the UK/US-Iran diplomatic relationship is unlikely to drastically improve due to one fundamental issue: In Middle Eastern conflict, such as the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars, the US and UK historically have, and continue to, side with Iran’s arch enemy in the region, Saudi Arabia. This historic rift is not likely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, and until then, Iranian relations with the West will likely continue to remain compromised and volatile.