The Times’s Michael Binyon says that former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s new book might be the key to working out the enigma that is Iran
Britain’s foreign secretaries have turned out recently to be talented historians. William Hague wrote two acclaimed biographies of William Pitt the Younger and the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Boris Johnson, before taking office, turned out a quick life of Churchill. And Jack Straw, for five years Labour foreign secretary in the Blair government, has now written a timely and comprehensive history of Iran, explaining the country’s almost obsessive distrust of Britain as well as its current byzantine politics.
More than any other Western statesman, Straw has been at the heart of international attempts to bring Iranin from the cold, end its isolation and nudge it towards signing the deal, now virtually defunct, to prevent its development of nuclear weapons. He was the first British foreign secretary to visit Iran after the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamists to power. He spent hours in negotiations with Iran’s former foreign ministers and presidents. And he has continued to argue for a balanced approach towards the country, despite what he sees as its “diversion of substantial resources into foreign adventures in its neighbourhood, by its endemic corruption, and by its refusal to allow Iranians the freedom they crave to live their lives as they wish.”
So fascinated was Straw with this ancient, complex society, that when he retired from Parliament in 2015, he went on a private visit with his wife and another couple to see Persepolis and the other ancient glories of the country. Word soon got around. The Basij – the young hardline Islamist thugs who, together with the Revolutionary Guard, go around harassing reformists – turned up at the places they wanted to visit, trailing them, organising demonstrations and pelting their car with tomatoes. Eventually the regular police intervened and effectively kidnapped them, sending them to a remote hotel for their own safety. They had become targets for the hardliners expressing a deep-seated suspicion and hatred of the British, still seen in Iran as the country’s traditional enemy. It was no fun – Straw cut short the holiday and they flew home.
But the Basij had passed him a leaflet in English and Persian that explained why they were “annoyed and hurt” by his visit. It declared that “the blood of the young Shia is boiling” and listed a series of unequal treaties, perceived slights and economic exploitation by British governments and traders for more than a century. They accused Britain of masterminding the coup that ousted the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, of abetting the repression of the Shah and of arming and encouraging Saddam Hussein in his long and bloody eight-year war of attrition against Iran in the 1980s.
“It’s because of these dark historical plots that Iranians have given Britain the nickname of ‘the old colonial fox’ and will never have a good feeling about the presence and appearance of the English in their country,” the leaflet said.
The charge was a challenge. Was it true? Straw’s book is the answer. Yes indeed, he concluded, Iran has had the worst of both worlds over the past two centuries: neither a colony – that would have given it at least some investment and infrastructure – nor independent, but continually occupied or manipulated by Russia, its northern neighbour, and Britain, the ruler of neighbouring Indiaand leading colonial power. Little wonder that in Persian there is now the phrase “the job is always an English one,” meaning that something has been botched and mishandled. His book is therefore called The English Job.
In the nineteenth century Iran has the misfortune to be ruled by a series of weak, venal and corrupt shahs, who were easily persuaded to grant what Straw calls “the most extraordinary and rapacious business concessions.” These included a monopoly granted to Julius Reuter, founder of the famous news agency, to run all the telegraph connections and postal systems across Iran, said by Viscount Curzon to be “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of.” British bankers also scooped up the issuing of bank notes and control over monetary policy, and most controversially, a monopoly was given to a well-connected Briton over the production, distribution, sale and export of tobacco.
It was this tobacco monopoly that had the most immediate impact on ordinary people. Protests raged around the country in the early 1890s, largely supported by the clergy – marking a significant and lasting involvement of the powerful Shia clerics in Iran’s chaotic politics. They produced what the British reluctantly admitted was a “masterstroke” – a fatwa declaring that the use of tobacco in any form was against Islam. Overnight, the tobacco monopoly was worthless. The furious British put pressure on the shah who did something that set a pattern for a century of confrontation between Iran’s rulers and its clergy – he ordered the chief cleric to set an example and start smoking or go into exile. The cleric refused. Bloodshed and turmoil followed, but a year later the fatwa was withdrawn. The shah and foreign interests had won – but the clerics had tasted real power, something Iran was to see 90 years later when they led the struggle against the new dynasty of Shah Mohammad Pahlavi.
Straw is good on the details of the labyrinthine politics of Iran since the 1979 revolution. Almost from the start there have been two separate states: one run by the civil servants, ministers and officials focused on stability, economic development and pragmatic ways of safeguarding the revolution. The other, more powerful, ‘deep state’ is controlled by the Supreme Leader and his henchmen – the Revolutionary Guard, the 90,000-strong Basij (with 300,000 reservists), and the hardline conservatives who dominate the press and the Guardian Council, which effectively blocks any real reformers from contesting any important elections.
This deep state is deeply suspicious of any opening to the West – largely because it would then lose its monopoly of power and often corrupt political influence, and because it reflects the real sense of resentment that the West does not respect Iran. This deep state is deeply insecure and terrified of “Westoxification” which it fears – rightly – will prove popular with Iran’s disaffected youth and will undermine the revolutionary fervour of the Islamists. The deep state is often at war with the pragmatists, sabotaging decisions made by the President and pragmatists and making diplomacy with Iran all but impossible without constant zig-zags and setbacks. But the huge element of hypocrisy among the hardliners (often engaged in quasi-criminal activities) makes it hard to counter their influence.
Straw gives details of his own frustrating efforts to get Iran to embrace the chance for better relations offered at times by the West. He was impressed especially by the suave and thoughtful former President Khatami and also by today’s leader, President Rouhani, but knew all along that they never had the final say. Inevitably Iran’s backtracking, lies, obfuscation and the self-defeating denunciations of Israelstrengthened those in the West, especially the US, who have never come to terms with the Islamists and really only want regime change.
Straw regrets – though understands – Trump’s latest moves against Iran and his wrecking tactics to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal patiently negotiated by Obama to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity. He is sombre and sad about the future outlook. But his affection for the country shines through. His mastery of historical detail gives weight to what he says, while the lively style of writing, with flashes of humour, makes this book obligatory reading for anyone trying to puzzle out the enigma that is today’s Iran.
THE ENGLISH JOB, BITEBACK PUBLISHING, £20