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BBC Persian correspondents are not spies

November 1, 2017 at 11:58 am

BBC TV newsroom [Stuart Pinfold/Flickr]

It has been alleged that there are 152 British spies operating in Iran. These men and women are not just shadowy attachés at the British Embassy in Tehran, or secretive returned émigrés, lurking in the shadows of Revolutionary Guard get-togethers. These people are journalists, and if they really are spies, then the Iranian government has just busted one of the largest spy-rings in any country, ever.

The Iranian security services are no doubt very capable, of course, but they haven’t busted twelve dozen spies all at once before. All of the criminal charges brought against these 152 journalists, which were complained about at the United Nations last week by the BBC, are false. These ordinary press-hounds are the unfortunate victims in an inter-state war that goes back to 2007, when Iran’s Press TV first began broadcasting from London. This is also a war which Iran started.

As in 2007, Press TV still plays the role that the BBC played for Britain during the Second World War and afterwards; an obvious propaganda wing pushing its own state’s interests. In that time, “the Beeb” freely offered British propaganda against the Nazis and then in favour of former Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran; of that there is no doubt.

While the BBC has moved on from that period and role, Press TV has not. It maintains its position as a state mouthpiece, while the BBC is largely independent of the British government.

Historically, the Islamists who rule Tehran today are being ungrateful. Were it not for the BBC standing up to the British government, their own 1979 revolution may never have taken place. In the closing months of 1978, the BBC came under pressure from the Foreign Office to stop airing interviews with Iranian revolutionaries, because it was feared that it would compromise Britain’s relationship with the Shah. Other international broadcasters caved-in to demands from their governments. BBC editors, who were journalists not spies, thought that the revolutionaries deserved a voice. Although Press TV would probably not act in a similar fashion today, they did not bow to the British government’s will.

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Fast forward to 2009, and the government of Iran believed that the only reason the BBC was covering protests was solely because the corporation was under orders from Whitehall. There was certainly reason to suspect that some Western companies were agitating against the Iranian regime. Twitter allowed itself to be manipulated by the US government during that period, for example.

The BBC, though, did not; it simply kept the cameras rolling, as it had done for decades before. It reported what was being seen. As it had done during the 1979 revolution, it gave a voice to the protesters.

Not long afterwards, Press TV was banned from broadcasting in the UK. Ostensibly, this was because it had allowed an interview obtained during a Tehran torture session to be aired. It was also because, as a Wikileaks cable foolishly quoted by Press TV’s defenders at the time made clear, the Iranian government had been jamming Voice of America and BBC Persian broadcasts to their own country. Other than during hard, bloody conflicts, the British government never jams broadcasts, while the Iranians were so paranoid about Western TV that they decided to break international law and start to jam incoming channels.

It is clear, therefore, that when it comes to satellite jamming the Iranians had “started it,” to use the playground analogy. To stretch this analogy further, the British government had “stopped it” in the 1970s, when it let the BBC do its own thing in promoting the revolutionary aims of the Islamic Republic, contrary to the aims of the British government.

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There is a lot to like about Iran. It would probably make a better ally for Britain in the region than Saudi Arabia. It is, if you look closely, moving towards a true vision of Islamic democracy, and it has shown that conservative evolution rather than radical revolution is often the better way forward.

Moreover, Tehran has extricated itself neatly from its nuclear weapons predicament, despite the hysterics from across the Atlantic, by speaking to cooler heads in Europe. These include Britain, which has been supportive of lifting sanctions against Iran.

Now the Brits are being repaid with a mass round-up of BBC Persian correspondents, conducted in the most appalling way. A six-year-old girl was called in for questioning by the Iranian authorities because her sister works for the corporation. A TV presenter’s sister was also jailed in order to blackmail her to leave her BBC job. These are low tactics from an aspiring regional superpower whose friends in northern Europe outnumber its friends in Washington.

A Parliamentary delegation from Britain is about to visit Iran. The trip is being organised by Alireza Rahimi, the head of the Iran-Britain “parliamentary friendship group”. Another delegation from the Foreign Office may also visit. These kind of trips are relatively rare. What must be done is clear; the case of the 152 BBC journalists facing charges should be raised forcefully with the government in Tehran. They are not spies, and should be released immediately.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.