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Thatcher wanted UK to offer Iran’s shah sanctuary

Last Updated: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - 19:09

London: Britain was desperate for the shah of Iran not to move near London after the 1979 revolution despite previously supporting him, even planning a cloak-and-dagger mission to the Bahamas to put him off.

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher was "deeply unhappy" that Britain could not offer sanctuary to a "firm and helpful friend".

But her predecessor James Callaghan and officials had already decided before she was elected in May 1979 that the shah`s would pose a huge security risk and damage relations with the new regime, secret files released Wednesday showed.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran on January 16, 1979 and in February, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in France and became supreme leader of the Islamic republic.

Meanwhile, the shah moved between a series of countries including the Bahamas while desperately trying to persuade someone to give him a permanent home.

On February 9 1979, a freelance journalist close to the shah called Alan Hart contacted Downing Street to say the deposed royal was interested in living full-time at his lavish estate in Surrey, southwest of London.

Hart said "he had been asked by the Shah... to make an informal approach to the British authorities to sound out their reaction to the possibility that he might seek to come to the UK to settle more or less permanently," according to a letter from Downing Street to the Foreign Office.

In response, a senior Foreign Office official wrote to Downing Street that any such move "would be bound to complicate and very likely damage our relations with any successor government", plus "saddle us with an enormous security problem".

Callaghan, who was still in office before being ousted by Thatcher later that year, echoed this analysis.

"He is an intensely controversial figure in Iran and we must consider our future with that country," Callaghan wrote in a note on the situation on February 19. "He will need to make interim arrangements."

Within a few months, though, Thatcher was in Downing Street and voicing discontent about the situation.

"The prime minister made it clear that she was deeply unhappy about the government`s inability to offer sanctuary to a ruler who had, in her view, been a firm and helpful friend to the UK," a letter from Downing Street to the Foreign Office revealed on May 14.

In the meantime, officials were plotting to send an emissary, the former ambassador to Iran Sir Denis Wright, under an alias to the Bahamas to discourage the shah.

"His cover will be breaking a business trip to spend a weekend with an old friend -- yourself. Your old friend`s name is Edward Wilson!" another former ambassador, Anthony Parsons, telegrammed to Britain`s high commissioner in the Bahamas on May 16.

After travelling between countries including Egypt and Morocco, the shah headed to the US for cancer treatment.

Once he arrived, Iranian students took 63 hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, demanding that the Shah return to Iran to face trial in the 444 day-long Iran hostage crisis. He died in Cairo in 1980.

Other previously secret files reveal Parsons` assessment of the shah as "the wrong man for the job" in his valedictory dispatch from Tehran on January 18.

Although "he would have made a first class senior civil servant or head of a public corporation in a Western country", his regime was guilty of "arrogance, meretricious glitter, touchiness and pretentiousness... which Western diplomats found hard to stomach," Parsons said.

Reports that the shah`s brother Gholam Reza Pahlavi was plotting in London against the new regime were dismissed by Parsons in April, who wrote that Gholam was "incapable of plotting his way out of a bucket of used Kleenex."

Officials were also dismissive of Khomeini`s regime -- "the court surrounding Khomeini is like an oriental bazaar", said a telegram from the Tehran embassy back to London on February 15.

The documents were released by the National Archives in London under laws which allow classified information to be made public after 30 years.

Bureau Report

First Published: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - 19:09
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