Iran General NewsNational Archives: British ambassador to Iran failed to predict...

National Archives: British ambassador to Iran failed to predict downfall of Shah


ImageDaily Telegraph: The British ambassador to Iran failed to predict the downfall of the Shah until just days before his overthrow, official papers have revealed.

The Daily Telegraph

The British ambassador to Iran failed to predict the downfall of the Shah until just days before his overthrow, official papers have revealed.

By Neil Tweedie

Sir Anthony Parsons

Sir Anthony Parsons

Sir Anthony Parsons continued to urge Whitehall to back Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, right up until the eve of the Iranian Revolution in 1978, after failing to appreciate the significance of building tensions.

Parsons was one of the most articulate and elegant ambassadors produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, as Britain's representative at the United Nations during the Falklands War, one of the most effective.

But newly released National Archive files showed his judgement failed him when it came to the future of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Parsons was ambassador to Tehran from 1974 until the fall of the Peacock Throne in January 1979. It was his job to keep the Callaghan government informed as the Shah, regarded by Britain and the United States as the key western ally in the Persian Gulf, struggled for survival against a tide of radical and religious dissent.

The last year of the Shah's rule began in January 1978 with rioting in the religious centre of Qom, when religious leaders called for the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Yet in a review of the situation sent to David Owen, the foreign secretary, on 31 January, Parsons was broadly optimistic.

Warning about the brutal tactics of Savak, the Shah's feared internal security service, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the government's failure to meet the rising expectations of the population, Parsons observed: "The Shah remains in complete control of the country and of the government. The security forces remain effective and, I believe, loyal to the Shah.

"I do not foresee any serious trouble in the near future. There will be ups and downs, but in the short term I think the Shah will not be forced to make any radical alterations to his policies and will be able to govern, as he is at present, without any genuinely dangerous opposition from any quarter."

Parsons remained upbeat in May, even as rioting continued in the streets of Tehran, writing: "My honest opinion is that the Pahlavis, father and son, have a good chance and my guess is that they will make it."

But even as the gravity of the situation began to hit home by October 9, Parsons concluded Britain had to stick by the Gulf's bulwark against communism.

"If we are thought to be re-insuring with the opposition, this could lead others – significant personalities in the army, the bureaucracy or the business world, perhaps – to abandon the ship while it can still be saved. I believe it is right for us to continue to support the Shah."

Owen recommended his ambassador's analysis to James Callaghan. The prime minister, son of a humble Royal Navy chief petty officer, may not have enjoyed Parsons' polished education, but he proved a more canny observer of events, scribbling on the Parsons briefing: "On the basis of this I wouldn't give much for the Shah's chances. I think Dr Owen should start re-insuring!"

That was on 30 October. One week later a mob torched the British Embassy.

On December 30, the FCO informed a now seriously alarmed Callaghan that plans were in place for the RAF to evacuate the remaining British nationals in Iran to Cyprus. Parsons, however, seemed reluctant to accept that it was all over.

The FCO told Callaghan: "At present the ambassador does not consider the situation warrants a recommendation that the community should leave under their own steam, although the embassy will not try to dissuade anyone who wishes to leave from doing so."

On January 16 the Shah left Iran forever, toppled by revolution. The age of Islamic radicalism had begun.

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