Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Ali Ansari’

The English Job: Understanding Iran

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 9th November, 2020

The Labour politician Jack Straw first went to Iran in late September 2001, in the wake of 9/11. He had become Foreign Secretary earlier that year and had the delicate task of wooing Tehran in support of what would become known as the War against Terror. This proved less difficult than one might expect as the Islamic Republic understood the dangers posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and their hosting of Al Qaida. Similarly, they had little love for Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; memories of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, which cost hundreds of thousands of young Iranian lives, some from Saddam’s deployment of chemical weapons, were still raw. However, as Mr Straw explains in the new, updated edition of his book The English Job: Understanding Iran (Biteback, £12.99), Iranians’ collective memory goes much further back than the period since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Moreover, from an Iranian point of view, throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the country was repeatedly exploited and victimised by the British. Hence the title of his book.

Tea and sympathy

Perfidious Albion (in league with the United States, not for the first or last time) showed its claws notably in the removal of the founder of the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, and the installation of his ineffectual and luxury-loving son, Mohammad. London and Washington then schemed to overthrow the legitimate Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, whose crime in Western eyes was to nationalise the country’s oil. The company that would rebrand itself BP had meanwhile despicably sabotaged much of the plant at Abadan as the expat employees were pulled out. With Mohammad Reza Shah firmly back in charge, the British turned a blind eye to the brutal excesses of his secret police and intelligence services, Savak. The Shah was a valued customer of British arms (in fact, £400 million of Iranian money is still being sat on in London, payment in advance for tanks that were never delivered because of the 1979 Revolution). No wonder Iranians popularly refer to Britain as “the cunning old fox”.

Tehran Bazaar

Over the two decades since his first visit to Tehran, Jack Straw has returned many times, developing a deep affection for the people of Iran and an appreciation for their rich history and culture. These visits have not always been easy, notably in 2015, when a holiday there with his wife and two friends turned into a nightmare as they were hounded and harassed by the Basij, the thuggish paramilitary force that is a law unto itself. The Basij even delivered a charge sheet to the Straws, outlining the crimes against Iran committed by Britain through the ages; the author is man enough to admit that they had a point. Fortunately, he had many other, more positive encounters with Iranians, including Ministers and clerics, many of whom were Western-educated, urbane and nothing like the caricatures in the minds of the Trump administration or Binyamin Netanyahu. Mr Straw has also sought expert advice from experts such as Ali Ansari and Michael Axworthy, which means that his analysis of events in Iran past and present, as well as his prognosis of what happens next, is based on sound sources. What I found particularly illuminating, however, were the accounts of his own Persian encounters and the warmth with which he approaches the many contradictions and paradoxes of contemporary Iranian society.

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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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