Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

With Friends Like John Bolton…

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th August, 2019

John Bolton 2The hawkish US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is in London for a couple of days, schmoozing Boris Johnson’s Brexiteer government. Though he is dangling the prospect of a significant US-UK trade deal after 31 October — whose terms will doubtless be more beneficial to Washington — his real motive for being here is to try to turn the screws on Britain to stand up against Iran. So far the UK has remained firm in its determination to try to salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal, from which the United States withdrew, and is thus more closely aligned with its European partners, France and Germany, on this issue. But the failure of the Europeans to rally round in support of a British suggestion to put together a maritime presence to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz means that the Brits have had to join a US-led operation instead. John Bolton will be trying to persuade the Conservative government that it should go further and throw its whole weight behind the US strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Tehran, by strengthening sanctions. The Americans have even sanctioned the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has been an important figure in trying to calm tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West. The last Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, established a good working relationship with Mr Zarif, but it is doubtful that his successor, Dominic Raab, will do the same. So the risk of Britain’s being dragged into a new military conflict in the Gulf (remember the invasion of Iraq in 2003?) is very real. Meanwhile, Mr Johnson (at the behest of special adviser Dominic Cummings, one wonders?) has instructed British diplomats to start withdrawing from joint meetings and initiatives with our EU partners even though we are still officially a member state. This will inevitably push us further into the arms of the Trump administration. No wonder Donald Trump — a self-declared Boris Johnson fan — and John Bolton look so happy. But frankly, with friends like John Bolton, who needs enemies?

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Iran, Islam and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd April, 2019

Iran-Islam-and-Democracy--653x1024Contemporary Iran is much maligned and little understood in the West, especially in Washington, where the Trump administration (like several of its predecessors) views Iran as the devil incarnate. Of course, the Islamic Republic returns the compliment by frequently calling the United States the Great Satan. Each country has good reason to object to some aspects of the society and government found in the other. Yet international relations would be much smoother, and the world safer, if both made a greater effort to work out what makes the other tick. Hence the great value of Ali M. Ansari’s monumental Iran, Islam and Democracy (Gingko, £30/$44.95). Through his close examination of the leadership records of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani in particular, the author presents a penetrating view of the complexities and tensions within Iranian politics, far different from the two-dimensional picture proffered by Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very name “Islamic Republic” illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the system in Iran. Republics — particularly those influenced by French or indeed American revolutionary thought — are inherently bottom-up societies in the sense that ultimate authority derives from the people. But religious societies in contrast are usually top-down. For much of Iran’s history a patrimonial shah or king was in charge, with a firm hand on the driving wheel, and even after the last shah was overthrown in 1979, a new top-down type of authority was imposed, by the Ayatollah Khomeini and since his death, Ayatollah Khamenei. This new authority has the added status of being in principle God-given and it is significant that the spiritual Leader of Iran takes precedence over the elected President, even when the latter has clearly been the Leader’s intellectual superior (not something one could say about Ahmadinejad).

There is an ongoing dialectic between conservatives and reformists within Iranian society and one of the most stimulating parts of this significant book is an extended examination of the record of and expectations regarding the comparatively “liberal” Mohammad Khatami (previously published as a separate volume, now supplemented with additional and more recent texts). Just as conservatives in the country’s religious hierarchy sometimes exaggerate the “threat” of reformist politicians and intellectuals — periodically leading to the closure of allegedly offensive newspapers and magazines — so the West has often put undue faith in the ability of reformists and in particular the Green Movement to affect rapid change. Things move slowly in Iran, where the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 still rankles. But even revolutions evolve with time. And it seems clear that if the outside world wants Iran to become more “normal” in its internal and external behaviour, then engagement rather than confonrtation is likely to produce better results.

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3 Faces*****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 10th April, 2019

CC37924E-8CE2-4F3C-AE9B-D22A028A73CD.jpegI imagine it would come as quite a surprise to the current occupant of the White House to learn that Iran is producing some of the most interesting and challenging films around and has done so for many years. Cowboys and Injuns are probably more his style. But cinephiles have long been championing the work of Iranian directors, both those who continue to live in the country and those who decided (or had decided for them) that they could only be true to their art abroad. Among those directors who have received international recognition is Jafar Panahi, whose latest offering, 3 Faces (shot if Farsi and Azeri, in the wild mountain scenery of north-west Iran, not far from Azerbaijan) wowed critics at Cannes. The storyline is superficially simple: the director (playing himself) is persuaded by the renowned film actress Behnaz Jafari (again a self -portrait) to go in search of a country girl, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) who has managed to send indirectly to Ms Jafari a video of herself apparently committing suicide in a grotto because the actress has allegedly ignored her pleas to help her leave her isolated rural community to go to study drama in Tehran. The actress has no idea who the girl is nor whether the story is true, but walks out of her current film shoot in order to find out.

215E2F05-DD9D-4DA3-BB2A-72C747825D0CUnlike most actor-directors, Jaffar Panahi does not thrust himself to the fore. On the contrary, for the first few minutes of the film one does not even see him, though one can hear his voice, as all the attention is focussed on a distressed Behnaz Jafari. Similarly, when the pair reach Marziyeh’s village Behnaz moves in a female domestic sphere, from which Jafar is excluded — symbolically so by having to spend a night sleeping in his car. But there is another  form of alienation which affects both of these sophisticated visitors when they are confronted with the conservative traditions and suspicions of a rural community that has not encountered modernity, even if they recognise Behnaz from film posters or the TV. There are wonderful vignettes of village life and traditional hospitality, not in the least condescending or judgmental. But there are also moments of delicious comedy, as when an old man presents his son’s foreskin (removed at his circumcision, and neatly preserved in a tiny blood red fabric bag) to Behnaz to pass on to some person who can influence his future. I also relished the in-joke about how two creative acquaintances of the two main protagonists wanted to meet, but couldn’t, because one was not allowed to leave Iran and the other was forbidden to return from exile. But best of all for me was the lyricism of this encounter between two contrasting words within one country, with a hesitance on both sides to learn some of the consequent lessons, all against the backdrop of an arid landscape and humble village dwellings.

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Iran Protests

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd January, 2018

8F9C6AB2-8F5A-439B-86AD-97F53DC39D7BOver the New Year holiday many of my thoughts have been with the people of Iran, where protest demonstrations have been taking place in many towns and cities, in some extreme cases descending into riots. I am all in favour of people taking to the streets to voice their grievances if they feel their views are not being heard through other channels, and indeed President Hassan Rouhani has endorsed that right of expression, even if some of the country’s religious leadership have been more condemnatory. It is sadly not surprising that some in the religious hierarchy have alleged that the protests have been orchestrated by Iran’s “enemies”, notably Saudi Arabia and the United States, though witnesses on the ground suggest rather that these have been spontaneous uprisings by predominantly young people (mainly but not exclusively young men), protesting about unemployment, high prices and the difficulties experienced by ordinary Iranians despite the country’s huge oil and gas wealth. Most of those youngsters would still have been schoolchildren when the (much larger) “Green” protests took place in 2009 following a widely contested election result. Unfortunately, it only nourishes the conspiracy theorists when Donald Trump and numerous Israelis (sic) tweet messages of support for the demonstrators. The actions of some militants, such as setting fire to police kiosks and even a bank) do nothing to help their cause, but similarly heavy-handed tactics by the security forces can only widen the breach between the representatives of authority and Iran’s young population. I love Iran and have travelled widely in the country, both before and since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The people are some of the most hospitable on earth, as well as among the most well-educated, rightly proud of their country’s long history and rich, diverse culture. So I sincerely hope that many of the young people protesting now get much of what they want, peacefully, and that the regime in Tehran opts for negotiation and not violent confrontation in the way it responds to what is going on.

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Re-engaging with Iran

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th January, 2015

IranIran UKIt is 35 years since the Iranian Revolution and the US hostage crisis, yet the rhetoric between Tehran and the “Great Satan” America hardly seems to have varied during that time. Attempts to bring about a rapprochement faltered when it was discovered that Iran had been secretly enriching uranium, sending alarm bells ringing that it was intent on becoming a nuclear power. Such fears still linger in the minds of many US Congressmen, not to mention the Netanyahu government in Israel, which has made it clear that it would launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it felt its security was at stake. Israel, of course, is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and is widely believed to have an impressive arsenal of nuclear warheads. Iran, meanwhile, has been hit hard by sanctions, particularly from the US but also from the EU, and that was the background to an interesting seminar on Re-engagement with Iran put on by the Global Diplomatic Forum in London today. Among the speakers arguing for greater engagement were the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord (Norman) Lamont, who declared that Margaret Thatcher would never have tolerated the way US pressure stops some British banks from dealing with Iran, and Lord (David) Hannay, a former UK Ambassador to the UN and a Farsi speaker. Great emphasis was put on seeing Iran not as a stereotype but as a diverse and culturally rich nation with a politically very alert population. Jeremy Corbyn MP highlighted human rights issues in Iran but also argued for the Middle East to become a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Britain and Iran are currently considering the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations, though progress on that has been slow. It could well be, however, that progress on other issues, such as a workable deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, would progress more smoothly if the UK were once again present at ambassadorial level in Tehran.

Posted in David Hannay, Global Diplomatic Forum, Iran, Israel, Jeremy Corbyn, Norman Lamont, Nuclear non-proliferation | Leave a Comment »