TEHRAN (Reuters) - The hardline protesters who stormed the British embassy in Tehran hope the British never return so they can turn the compound into a “Museum of the Old Fox” -- a monument to what they see as the Britain’s historic evils.
While Britain’s global influence has waned in the century since it founded the oil industry that the Iranian economy is built on, it retains a popular image as a wily animal whose back-room dealings are behind many of Iran’s woes.
Announcing new sanctions on Iran ahead of its European Union partners last week, Britain put itself in the firing line for youths loyal to the clerical regime, spoiling for a fight with the West and the post-colonial power they call the “Little Satan” doing the bidding of “Big Satan,” the United States.
There has been no U.S. embassy in Tehran since it was sacked in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 by students who feared a repeat of a 1953 coup when the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
The U.S. hostage crisis lasted 444 days and Washington and Tehran have never resumed diplomatic relations, leaving Britain first in line for the anti-Western feelings of the hardliners who run the Islamic Republic and their supporters.
What the protesters may not have recalled as they were smashing the stone lion and unicorn on embassy gates, was the historic significance of the buildings, not just for Iran but, on at least one occasion, for the world.
The elegant ambassadorial residence was the venue, exactly 68 years before the incursion, of a dinner between Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- the first meeting between the leaders of Britain, Russia and the United States to discuss their strategy for winning World War Two.
A western diplomat told Reuters the residence, which houses valuable paintings and historic memorabilia, was “systematically destroyed” on Tuesday.
Calling Britain “one of the most hated countries in the world,” conservative daily Siayasat-e Ruz printed a front page photograph of a man perched on the compound wall waving an Iranian flag, and the headline: “Churchill’s check-mate on Iran’s soil.”
After he returned to power in the 1950s, Churchill was a main proponent of the overthrow of Mossadegh who had nationalized the Anglo-American Oil Company.
While most Iranians are exceptionally friendly to the few British people they meet in Iran, conservatives say London has used its influence to try to weaken the Islamic regime.
Britain spoke out against the violent crackdown on the huge protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election; Tehran accused the West of supporting a “sedition” movement aimed at toppling the government.
Tuesday’s demonstration was held on the first anniversary of the death of Majid Shahriyari, a nuclear scientist killed along with his wife by a car bomb that Tehran said was the work of Israel, the United States and Britain. London has denied any involvement.
Several miles to the north of the city centre embassy, protesters ransacked the ambassador’s former summer quarters where, in 1906, during the “constitutional revolution,” thousands of striking merchants took shelter from violent oppression by the king.
The compound garden in Qolhak, once a rural idyll but now well inside the smog and congestion of Tehran, housed 500 tents inhabited by protesters, Ervand Abrahamian writes in “A History of Modern Iran.”
The protesters forced Muzaffar ak-Din Shah to accept a new constitution and the creation of a parliament - a democratic leap with few parallels elsewhere in the Middle East of which many Iranians still speak with pride.
In recent weeks Qolhak has become the target of Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf - a former Revolutionary Guards commander and a past and possible future presidential candidate.
He accused the British of felling more than 300 trees in the sprawling grounds and urged the judiciary to pursue the matter.
Politicians and pundits have called for the compound, which is where most British diplomats lived until they were evacuated on Wednesday, to be expropriated.
The embassy denied its had destroyed the trees, saying extension works on Tehran’s metro had disrupted an underground water supply, causing 31 trees to die.
Iranian media compared Tuesday’s events to the 1979 raid on the U.S. embassy.
But parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who said countries have over-reacted, compared it to the 1980 six-day siege of the Iranian embassy in London.
In that incident six gunmen demanding the release of Arab prisoners in Iran held 26 hostages, including Iranian diplomats, visitors and a police officer. It ended when British special forces troops stormed the building, an act welcomed by the Islamic Republic at the time.
“The question is why the (U.N.) Security Council did not hold an emergency session and Britain was not condemned when some anti-revolutionary people raided Iran’s embassy in London,” Larijani said.
Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri and Ramin Mostafavi; Editing by Peter Graff