Islamic Revolution in Iran: Cultivating, then Arming the Ayatollah

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis


The regime of the shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, in Iran, installed in the Anglo–American coup in 1953, was a key Western ally and ‘policeman’ in the Middle East. It sent forces to bolster the British-backed regime of Sultan Qaboos in Oman, acted as a counterweight to nationalist Iraq, promoted pro-Western economic policies and bought Western arms. Britain consistently backed the shah’s authoritarian rule, helping to train its brutal security force, SAVAK, and otherwise acting as a public apologist for the regime’s increasing human rights abuses. In April 1978, then Conservative opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher, visited Tehran, and gave a speech to the Iran–British chamber of commerce. She said of the shah:

“Surely he must be one of the world’s most far-sighted statesmen whose experience is unrivalled. No other leader has given his country more dynamic leadership. He is leading Iran through a twentieth century renaissance”.

Iran, Thatcher added, was Britain’s largest market in the Middle East, and its arms purchases ‘provide many thousands of jobs’ in Britain. Indeed, by late 1978 British companies had outstanding orders from the shah’s regime to build over 1,500 tanks worth £1.2 billion. British oil company, BP, was leading a consortium of oil companies which produced and purchased the bulk of Iran’s crude oil and was engaged in renegotiating its agreement with Iran signed in 1973. In July 1978, six months before the Islamic revolution overthrew the shah, James Callaghan’s Labour government secretly approved the supply of CS gas to Iran to help the regime control the increasing demonstrations against it, following a request from the shah.

Iran’s Islamic revolution and the emergence to power of Ayatollah Khomeini came to pose the biggest challenge to British and US power in the oil-rich Gulf region and wider Middle East since the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s. But the record shows that Britain dropped its support for the shah before the revolution and sought to insure itself with the Iranian opposition, led by Khomeini. Once the latter was in power, Whitehall initially sought good relations with the Islamic regime, and connived with it, seeing it as a counter to the Soviet Union.

Callaghan’s foreign secretary, David Owen, writes in his memoirs that throughout late 1978 Britain was still backing the shah to restore order, but ideally hoped to replace him with a military or other figure: ‘We needed someone with charisma who would only be in post for a few years, brave enough to make enemies, and ready later to step aside for the shah’s son as a constitutional monarch.’ According to Owen, Britain also made contact with one senior religious figure, apparently to try to uphold the authority of the shah. On 29 September the British ambassador, Anthony Parsons, met the shah and urged him to promise that elections would take place.

At this point, the British embassy in Tehran contacted Ayatollah Shariatmadari – one of Iran’s leading clerics, whom Owen describes as ‘less radical than Khomeini’, and who was known for his more liberal views – ‘informing him that the British government still supported the shah’. Shariatmadari was in contact with the shah during most of 1978 through his private financial adviser; it appears that the British thought he would have some influence over the shah. Owen also notes that ‘we arranged for a British expert in riot control to visit Tehran but decided against having contact with Sadeq Qotbzadeh, one of Khomeini’s entourage in Paris’, where he was in exile. Qotbzadeh was not a cleric but a member of the revolutionary Liberation Movement of Iran then allied with the religious forces in their task of overthrowing the shah. Thus British officials considered making contact with Khomeini’s entourage but were overruled by Owen, his account suggests.

On 10 October, Anthony Parsons had another long audience with the shah, emphasising British support for his regime, saying: ‘I made clear that, so far as the British were concerned, he need not have any worry that we were messing around with the opposition or that we were thinking of ratting’. By now, however, popular opposition to the regime was mounting, involving various nationalist and communist groups but whose most powerful element was the Islamic clergy. After a dispatch from Parsons in late October describing the unrest in Tehran, James Callaghan wrote: ‘I would not give much for the shah’s chances. I think Dr Owen should start thinking about reinsuring!’ This message, imploring the foreign secretary to ‘insure’ Britain with Iran’s likely future leaders, shows that the government was already thinking of switching its allegiance. A little over a week later, however, Owen told a Cabinet meeting: ‘Whatever his faults, it was still in our interests that the shah should remain in power. A military government without him would be no improvement and a government under the anti-British Ayatollah Khomeini would be far worse’.

By December, however, officials were saying that the survival of the shah was unlikely and that Iran seemed on the verge of a revolution. On 4 December, Anthony Parsons – who had told the shah that Britain would never ‘rat’ on him – informed the shah of Britain’s contacts with opposition politicians, though the declassified files give no details on which figures. Later that month, Foreign Office officials went further in arguing for Britain to switch its support to the Iranian opposition. Owen writes that he told a Foreign Office meeting on December 20 that the shah was in a ‘hopeless’ position, but that a ‘severe crackdown… might work in Iran where, given the absence of an alternative and the threat of chaos, there could be greater acceptance of the ruthless exercise of power than we in the West could not easily imagine, let alone support’. Owen’s account implies that some officials argued to drop the shah and support the opposition, saying that he told the meeting that ‘we would get the worst of all possible worlds if we shifted policies now’. But Owen concluded that Britain should not ‘advocate or be thought to be advocating solutions, nor should we become involved in advising the shah or others about what they should do’ – a comment which implies that, in a concession to the officials’ arguments, Britain would adopt a middle way and allow matters to take their course, meaning that the shah would fall, and that Britain would not be seen to be supporting him. Thus the British removed their support for the regime they had placed in power in 1953. On December 29, Foreign Office officials further proposed that Owen ask the Americans to press the shah not to impose a military crack down in the country which, Owen says, he refused – a further sign that officials, at least, were no longer prepared to back the shah.

Finally, Owen notes that ‘as for the BBC Persian Service, it was a liability in some ways but also a form of insurance with the internal opposition. I had taken a firm decision months earlier not to interfere with the BBC and was happy with this and felt we had this problem in its proper perspective.’ This comment is highly revealing; at the time, the BBC was widely known in Tehran as ‘Ayatollah BBC’ for its critical reports of the shah, leading many to speculate that the British were tacitly promoting the ayatollah’s Islamists.

The shah fled Tehran on 16 January, and on 1 February Khomeini returned from exile to Iran. Now, the British tried to ‘insure’ themselves further with the new Islamic regime by avoiding any association with the shah. Along with the Americans, London refused to allow its onetime placeman political asylum in Britain. ‘There was no honour in my decision’, Owen notes, ‘just the cold calculation of national interest’, adding that he considered it ‘a despicable act’. Callaghan wrote in justifying the decision that the shah ‘is an immensely controversial figure in Iran and we must consider our future with that country’.

Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan, a scholar jailed by the shah and the leader of the secular Liberation Movement of Iran, as prime minister in an interim government, but real power was concentrated in the Islamic Revolutionary Council dominated by fundamentalists loyal to Khomeini. Callaghan told parliament on 12 February that his government was that day recognising the Bazargan government and ‘look forward to establishing good relations’ with it. Opposition leader Margaret Thatcher made clear that her priorities were ensuring that arms exports ordered by the shah, notably the tank deal, would be honoured, along with ‘oil, trade and other interests’. However, that month the new Iranian government cancelled some of the arms orders. But this did not stop the British from seeking to curry favour with the new regime. On 20 March, Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt wrote to the prime minister saying that ‘in winding up the contracts, we should not give the impression that we are turning our backs on Iran’. Rather, he suggested that ‘we should let the Iranians know that we are ready, if they wish, to resume the supply of routine items such as ammunition and spare parts which are essential to the basic functions of their armed forces’, and that ‘we should lose no opportunity to foster our relationship with the new government’. The following month, an Islamic Republic was declared with a new constitution reflecting the ideals of the theocracy.

After Margaret Thatcher won the May 1979 election, she accepted Anthony Parsons’s objection to granting the shah asylum in Britain, consistent with the previous government. Thatcher sent the former ambassador to Iran, Sir Denis Wright, to the Bahamas to meet the shah in exile and tell him of Britain’s decision. Wright travelled under a false name to avoid any British public association with the deposed leader. Members of the shah’s family were also deterred from entering Britain in case London became a centre of opposition to the new Islamic regime. For his part, the shah later wrote in his autobiography: ‘I have a long-standing suspicion of British intent and British policy which I have never found reason to alter.’

Bazargan and his Cabinet resigned in November after militant pro-Khomeini students seized the US embassy in Tehran, taking over sixty Americans hostage, in response to the shah’s visit to the US seeking medical care. Britain vehemently protested against the embassy seizure, but two weeks into the crisis, when Thatcher was asked in parliament whether she would congratulate Egyptian President Sadat on offering the shah asylum, the prime minister failed to respond. When the shah died in Cairo in July 1980, the US sent former President Richard Nixon and France its ambassador to the funeral, whereas Britain sent only its chargé d’affaires; David Owen implies in his memoir that this also sent an important signal to the Islamic regime.

Moreover, Britain continued to arm and train the new Iranian regime: Thatcher told a press conference in Washington in December 1979 that Britain was still supplying arms to Iran, being careful to note, however, that ‘we have sent virtually no arms since the hostages were taken’, though she contradicted herself the following April in saying that no arms had been exported since the beginning of the hostage crisis. In January 1980, she informed parliament that ‘fewer than 30’ Iranian military officers were being trained in Britain; by April 1980 ‘about 28 or 30’ were still being trained.

On 28 January 1980, with the Soviets having invaded Afghanistan a month before, Thatcher told the House of Commons that ‘we face a grave development in East–West relations’. Moscow might take advantage of the unrest and ‘feeling for ethnic autonomy’ in the region caused by the Iranian revolution. ‘The temptation to the Russians is apparent’, she noted, but ‘there are signs that the Iranians themselves are increasingly aware of the danger.’ She continued by stating that:

“We in this country respect the right of peoples to choose their own regimes and governments. We wish the Iranians well in their search for the political system best suited to their needs. We hope that they will emerge from their present difficulties united”.

The following April she added that ‘the future internal government of Iran is a matter for the Iranian people’, and continued to raise the ‘danger of secession of some of the Iranian peoples’ which ‘would be contrary to the interests of the West’. Thatcher was here upholding the Iranian theocracy as a counter to Soviet expansion and saw a ‘united’ Iran as a deterrent to it. By this time, it should be said, the nature of the Iranian regime was already apparent, not only in the taking of American hostages, but also in the numerous executions that were now taking place. Britain also saw radical Islam as a counter to the Soviets in Afghanistan, and British covert action against the Russian occupation had already been launched, as we see in the next chapter.

Thatcher’s thinking appeared to mirror that of President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Amidst the upheaval in Iran towards the end of 1978, Brzezinski had begun to press the idea in Washington that the region from northeast Africa through the Gulf to central Asia was an ‘arc of crisis’, and to argue for what he called ‘a new “security framework” to reassert US power and influence in the region’. Brzezinski envisaged deepening US military ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey and other Muslim countries near the southern borders of the Soviet Union and in the Gulf region, and mobilising Islamic forces to contain the Soviet Union. Once the shah had gone, this thinking took on even greater importance, and by the summer of 1979, Brzezinski wanted a ‘de facto alliance with the forces of Islamic resurgence and with the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran’, in the words of Richard Cottam, the CIA officer who had played a key role in the 1953 Iran coup. Brzezinski met Prime Minister Bazargan in Algiers a few months later to advance the policy, but it was completely halted once the hostage crisis began in November. Thatcher, however, continued to evoke the idea of Islamic Iran being a counter to the Soviets after the hostage crisis had begun.

Britain’s de facto support for the Iranian Islamists was, however, not merely passive and rhetorical. In 1982, when Khomeini’s regime had stepped up its repression and executions of political opponents, Britain engaged in an extraordinary act of connivance with it, by helping it nearly destroy the communist Tudeh Party, the main leftist organisation in the country. After initially collaborating with the Islamic regime, Tudeh withdrew its support in 1982, criticising it for continuing the war with Iraq, which had begun in 1980. The regime then sought to suppress the Tudeh, imprisoning its leaders. When Vladimir Kuzichkin, a major in the Soviet KGB, defected to Britain in 1982, he passed on to MI6 a list of Soviet agents operating in Iran, following which MI6 allowed Kuzichkin to visit the CIA and also give it the list. In October, MI6 and the CIA jointly decided to pass this list to the Iranians, in order to curry favour with the Iranian regime and reduce Soviet influence in a strategically important country. Dozens of alleged agents were subsequently executed and more than a thousand members of the Tudeh arrested, while the party was banned. In December one hundred members of the party’s military organisation were put on trial, drawing substantially on the information supplied by Britain; several were sentenced to death. The Tudeh was effectively crushed, though later managed to reconstitute itself and operate as an underground movement.

This episode showed that Britain was prepared to secretly collaborate with a ruthless Shia Islamist regime in pursuit of specific common interests – the repression of the Left – even though Iran was by now considered a strategic threat and overall anti-Western force. This was also in line with long-standing British policy, reflecting British collaboration with Ayatollah Kashani in the coup planning against Musaddiq thirty years before. Soon, Britain even re-started the export of major weapons to the Khomeini regime.

Arming the ayatollah

In the 1980s, while both sets of Al-Yamamah arms negotiations were taking place with Saudi Arabia, Britain was covertly helping to arm the Saudis’ main rival – revolutionary Iran, which was now vigorously instituting a brutal Shia theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini – for supremacy in the Muslim world. At the same time, in flagrant contravention of a UN embargo on supplying either side, Britain was also arming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had invaded Iran in September 1980; the ensuing eight-year long conflict would cost over a million lives. Whitehall was clearly arming all sides against each other, another long-standing feature of policy in the region.

British policy towards the Iran–Iraq War may have been guided by the same reasoning as outlined in a 1984 US State Department memo, which noted that ‘victory by either side would have far-reaching consequences’ on the balance of power in the region – Britain, together with the US, aimed to hold that balance of power. British officials proceeded to help bolster Saddam’s regime by secretly relaxing the restrictive arms exports ‘guidelines’ announced in parliament and allowing the supply of a range of military equipment by some private companies, along with export credits. Following a familiar pattern, a private security firm also provided ‘ex-SAS’ members to train Saddam Hussein’s bodyguard.

Similarly, Britain used various means to arm the ayatollah’s Iran. From the very first day of the Iran–Iraq War, Britain sent millions of pounds worth of tank barrels and tank engines to Iran, calling them ‘non-lethal’ equipment, which helped to maintain the 890 Chieftain tanks and 250 Scorpion tanks the British had delivered to the shah during the 1970s. Further exports of hundreds of Land Rovers and six air defence radars followed. Other back channels were used. One scheme involved Whitehall’s connivance with a company called Allivane International to secretly ship arms to Iran in the mid to late 1980s; another enabled the British company BMARC to export naval guns, spares and ammunition to Iran via Singapore in 1986. Around the same time Royal Ordnance, a government-owned company, exported five shipments of tetryl chemicals, a compound used to make explosives, and explosive powder to Iran, in the process breaking both the UN embargo and Britain’s own export guidelines.

Moreover, London was a major centre through which Iran’s multi-billion worldwide arms orders flowed. The Iranians used the offices of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) as a front organisation for their arms procurement effort; it acted as a base to buy the spare parts for their British-supplied tanks and to take advantage of London’s banking and shipping facilities. This arms procurement effort in London was an open secret; NIOC’s offices were located on Victoria Street, a brief walk from the Department for Trade and Industry and Scotland Yard. Yet it was not until September 1987, seven years into the Iran–Iraq War, that Britain announced its intention to close the NIOC down; even after this there was still no crack down on British traders and companies selling weapons and equipment to Iran.

Britain was also intimately involved in US covert operations towards Iran during a wave of hostage-taking in Lebanon in which dozens of foreigners, principally Americans, were seized in the course of the 1980s. These kidnappings were principally undertaken by groups with links to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) organisation, which was established in Lebanon in 1982 when Iranian Revolutionary Guards were deployed to the Beqaa Valley following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that year. The kidnappings were, to an extent, Tehran’s retaliation for Western support of Iraq in the war against Iran and US support of Israel in the invasion of Lebanon. The challenge to US power in the region was compounded when, in October 1983, a massive truck bomb at the barracks of US peacekeepers in Beirut killed 241 servicemen; the perpetrator was the Islamic Jihad Organisation, which was inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran and also behind many kidnappings.

In the course of 1983, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, and the British agent Leslie Aspin, who was now working as an arms supplier to the Lebanese Christian militia, had several meetings to discuss options against terrorists operating in Lebanon. Buckley apparently wanted to form a special Lebanese mercenary unit to kidnap terrorists or their relatives until Hezbollah released its own hostages. But in March 1984, Buckley himself was kidnapped in Beirut, and Vice President George Bush and CIA Director William Casey called on the British for help in securing his release; by now, a familiar pattern of the US imploring the British for help in specialist covert action. The issue of paying a ransom was put on the table.

The US and Britain had already taken to paying ransom for hostages – during the 1979–81 US embassy hostage crisis in Iran, for example, the Carter administration had secretly released funds frozen in the US at the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution and most of the $3.5 billion in property held by the shah in the US. In 1980–81 the British also paid a ransom for the release of two Britons held by Hezbollah in Lebanon; Aspin arranged for machine guns to be shipped to the Iranians, who promptly released the British captives. The intermediary role was played by the Syrian arms trafficker, Monzer al-Kassar, who deposited the money from the Iranians into Aspin’s account at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) – the bank that, it would be revealed in the 1990s, was being used by numerous drugs and arms traffickers around the world. It was a deal that set the precedent for the Iran-Contra Affair that was to follow.

By mid-March 1984 the British were recommending that they try to pay a ransom for Buckley by offering arms to Iran, and Aspin was chosen to coordinate the deal. Aspin later recounted his involvement in the affair in an affidavit submitted to his solicitors, stating that he had been contacted by William Casey in June 1984, and that Casey had asked him:

“to assist in the sale of [arms] to Iran in exchange for hostages. These hostages were being held in Lebanon, so in June 1984 I started [attending] a series of meetings in London, one of them being at the US embassy … During these meetings, it was discussed as to how one could get the hostages released, ways of doing it, some of them improper, some proper”.

Iran’s payments for the arms were controlled by Marine Colonel Oliver North, working at the US National Security Council, who used them to covertly fund the US-backed Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, thus bypassing the US Congress.

Aspin obtained access to Downing Street, later claiming that Ian Gow, Margaret Thatcher’s personal secretary, was his point of contact for the Iran ransom negotiations. Thatcher and her senior officials were in constant contact, by cable and in person, with the secret White House hostage team and there is evidence that they began facilitating Aspin’s attempts to ransom Buckley in March 1984, a week after his capture. Later that month, Aspin placed a $40 million order for American cannon shells to be dispatched to Iran. In May, Oliver North met secretly with Andrew Green, a British intelligence officer working as a counsellor in the Washington embassy (who would go on to become Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia), to discuss the hostage rescue. North also got on with purchasing weapons from the Soviet bloc for onward shipment to Iran and the Contras.

In the summer and winter of 1984, the arms procured by North were shipped to the Iranians. Further deals involving missiles and radars were made in 1985, followed by others between 1986 and 1 January 1988, when the last arms deal with Iran was signed. Aspin laundered the payments received – some $42 million – through a series of British and European banks. The deals may have helped the Contras pursue their dirty war in Nicaragua but they did not secure the release of William Buckley, who was never released but hideously tortured and killed. One of the ironies of the British ransom and arms dealing efforts, Loftus and Aarons point out, was that while the purpose was to influence Tehran, as the assumed controllers of Hezbollah, it was actually the Syrian government that was paying the kidnappers’ bills and controlled them, unbeknown to the US and British secret services.

Some of the arms bound for Iran and the Contras were sourced by Monzer al-Kassar’s network. In another remarkable twist, however, it turned out that although the British believed he was working for them, al-Kassar was actually a double agent also working for the Soviet Union. The British had been willing to put the Americans in contact with al-Kassar’s network in return for information from the CIA on IRA fundraising in the US. A decade later in the British parliament, MP Tam Dalyell asked Foreign Minister Douglas Hogg ‘if it was with his authority that Monzer el-Kassar was authorised in June 1984 to ship arms to Iran.’ Hogg replied emphatically no.

While al-Kassar was being trusted by the British to act as their agent in this covert arms ring, he was also continuing to supply arms to a wide variety of terrorist operations, from assassinations in Spain to an attack in Paris’s Jewish quarter, and the notorious hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 in which one man was murdered; according to Loftus and Aarons, it was al-Kassar who smuggled the killers to safety. For years, however, al-Kassar was able to travel in and out of Britain with impunity to report to his handlers at MI6. Loftus and Aarons also note that MI6 ‘had known all about al-Kassar’s role in terror bombing since 1981’, thanks to Leslie Aspin, but he remained its ‘top informant’. Al-Kassar was of vital importance to the British in convincing groups such as the PLO and the Palestinian Abu Nidal’s terrorist organisation to keep their deposit accounts at the BCCI bank, which the British had infiltrated and were monitoring. Every time a sheikh deposited money there, the British could trace the distribution of funds through al-Kassar to terrorist groups in the Middle East. MI6 kept the fact of al-Kassar’s recruitment unknown to Thatcher and even MI5. Al-Kassar is currently the subject of a US court indictment for weapons trafficking and money laundering; no such action against him has ever been taken by the British government.

The Abu Nidal organisation killed hundreds of people in over a dozen countries in the early 1970s and throughout the 1980s, its most notorious attacks being the indiscriminate killing of 18 people at Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985. Yet Nidal visited London in the mid-1980s, a fact which infuriated the Israelis whom Whitehall failed to inform. Furthermore, the British discovered in 1986 that Nidal was holding accounts worth $50 million at BCCI, and in July the following year MI5 and MI6 approached a bank employee and persuaded him to pass on information about the accounts’ activities. The British decision to monitor rather than freeze these accounts was criticised by the US, but Britain insisted on not intervening. The monitoring enabled the British to retrospectively link Syria, where Nidal was then based, to an attempted terrorist bombing at Heathrow Airport in 1986, which involved a Nidal agent receiving funds from the BCCI bank account of a Syrian intelligence officer. The British surveillance ended when Nidal’s organisation got wind of it; it is not clear exactly when this was, but evidence indicates that it was not until at least the end of 1989. During this period, Abu Nidal is believed to have been behind bomb attacks in Sudan, Cyprus and Greece, among others, but his most significant alleged role in a terrorist attack was on Pan Am flight 103 – the Lockerbie bomb which killed 270 people in December 1988. After Abu Nidal’s death in 2002, one of his former aides stated that Nidal had told him that he had been behind the bombing, a theory that some other informed commentators have long held in the face of the trial verdict that found two Libyans guilty.

The British secret service’s willingness to have such an agent effectively on their books follows an historical pattern, as we have seen, and is also instructive in light of the later apparent recruitment of Islamist terrorists, to which we come later. But Nidal may have served a purpose beyond enabling the British to monitor terrorist activities. A number of militant Palestinian groups were formed in the years following the Palestinians’ expulsion from Jordan in 1970–1; Abu Nidal’s group split from the Fatah faction of the PLO, led by Arafat, in 1974. These splits in the Palestinian movement, especially after its challenge to Jordan’s pro-Western regime in the 1970 crisis, would have been welcomed by planners in London and Washington. Furthermore, Nidal’s resort to grotesque acts of mass murder, as at Rome and Vienna, inflicted huge damage on the Palestinian cause generally, serving to conflate the Palestinian movement with terrorism in the eyes of the world’s public. The role played by Abu Nidal’s organisation fits with the long-standing British interest in keeping the Middle East divided and at war with itself; it can only be speculated whether this played a role in the British decision to allow Nidal to continue to operate.

The Aspin–al-Kassar networks were not the only ones used by MI6 to help arm revolutionary Iran. In the mid-1980s MI6 also worked with an Iranian-born arms dealer, Jamshed Hashemi, who had acted as a middle-man in the sale of missiles to Tehran in the Iran–Contra Affair. The purpose was to monitor Chinese arms shipments to Iran that might be used to threaten Western shipping in the Gulf during the Iran–Iraq War. MI6 funded Hashemi to arrange a false end-user certificate for the purchase of £350 million worth of Chinese Silkworm missiles destined for Iran. These were shipped in 1987, together with other deals for British-made armed motor boats and ammunition, also sanctioned by MI6, in violation of the government’s guidelines banning weapons exports to Iran; the motor boats, exported via Greece, were used against civilian shipping in the Gulf. Hashemi reported to MI6 on his involvement in these deals up until 1992; he also made several donations to the Conservative Party in the late 1980s and early 1990s and personally met Margaret Thatcher three times. During these meetings, he claimed that he passed on personal messages from Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a close relative, urging Britain to ease sanctions against Iran. In 1996, however, Hashemi was arrested by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office after allegations by a US company that he had defrauded it over a contract to supply satellite telephones to the Iranian Ministry of Defence. Hashemi said he had been betrayed by the British government, having supplied information to it for years. He was released from prison in 1999, following a deal which prevented MI6 operations from being disclosed in court.

Britain would continue its involvement in arming Iran into the 1990s. According to former MI6 officer, Richard Tomlinson, in 1995 MI6 became aware of a network involving the Israeli secret service that was organising a Chinese shipment of 60 tons of chemicals to Iran in order to help Israel secure the release of its pilot, Ron Arad, taken prisoner in Lebanon years before. Rather than try to halt the project, MI6 cooperated with it to gain intelligence on Iran’s military network, even though it risked giving Tehran a chemical weapons capability.

The policy of directly helping, and turning a blind eye to, the arming of the Islamic republic is especially instructive in light of the current demonisation of Iran over its apparent attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. What these episodes illustrate is not so much a double standard in British foreign policy, but expediency: the willingness to do whatever, with whomever, at the time to achieve short-term objectives irrespective of the long-terms costs and any moral calculation.