Steve Bell runs a critical eye over former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s rough guide to Iran

Steve Bell


Poor Jack Straw – in October 2015, he, his wife and two friends went on holiday in Iran.  Wherever he went, he encountered demonstrations against his presence, and had to abandon the vacation.  Undaunted, he bounces back by publishing a book which seeks not just to defend his right to party in Iran.  No, it aims to provide us with, in the words of the secondary title “Understanding Iran – and why it distrusts Britain”.  Sounds great, but it isn’t.

Behind the curtain there’s always an Englishman (colloquial saying in Iran)

The first problem is that Straw refuses to characterize British policy. Iranian history is full of brutal interventions by British governments, business and armed forces.  So easy for him to explain why there is distrust. He documents such events as unfortunate, indefensible or both. Yet we never learn why there has been systematic bad faith.

He begins with a pedestrian stroll through earlier points of Iranian history, material available in any standard history.  His real concern is modern Iran, which for him begins with the establishment of the East India Company concession at the end of the eighteenth century:

“Initially, the interests of the Company were commercial.  But as the Company strengthened its hegemony over India, against both local rulers and the French, so its interests in Iran became political as well.  The Afghans, the French and the Russians all viewed Iran as the back door to India. Keeping these three out of Iran then became a strategic imperative which dominated Britain’s approach to Iran throughout the nineteenth century.

When, in 1798, the Afghans first tested this imperative, the die was cast. Britain’s and Iran’s interest had become indissolubly linked.  They were to remain entwined for most of the next two centuries”. (p.40)

This is history written by the victors.  Iran’s “interest” has never been “indissolubly linked” to British colonialism, or imperialism.  It has a tragic history that is “indissolubly linked”. But that history is also a two hundred year refusal to accept the imposed link.  For the Iranians, their country was never a backdoor.

The nineteenth century, as Straw recognizes, was dominated by the conflict between British colonialism and Russian Czarism to control, and open up, Iran.  The Iranian state was weakened by wars of intervention, and unequal treaties which wrecked traditional industries and agriculture. He also recognizes that the Qajar Shah’s were supported in power because they were powerless to stop the foreign usurpers.  Despite all this, he makes no overall critique of British policy.

Even the traditional, ‘But the colonialists developed the infrastructure’ isn’t available to him:

“But, other than a six mile track from Tehran to a shrine, Iran had no railways until the First World War, because of an arrangement between Russia and the UK which gave each power a veto over railway development in Iran.” (p.48).

Britain against Iranian democracy  

Yet writing of Iran at the start of the twentieth century, he suggests:

“For very clear strategic reasons, we wanted an independent and stable Iran.  The Qajar dynasty had increasingly shown itself incompetent to deliver that objective” (p.71)

The incompetence of Iranian politicians is a recurrent theme for Straw. More importantly, he offers no evidence of these “strategic reasons”.  Iran was never a formal colony, nor a protectorate. But its “independence and stability” was barely perceptible under the military and diplomatic weight of the British/Russian interventions.  Because Britain could not oust Russia entirely from Iran, it settled for influence and access. British policy was to turn a necessity into a virtue. It is cant to suggest British policy was for Iranian independence.

Certainly, the immediate working out of history clarified what Straw cannot.  The Constitutional Revolution erupted in 1905 seeking a constitutional government and independence.  The response of the Russian and British governments was to co-ordinate their opposition, formally in the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement which made explicit their spheres of influence.  This was followed practically by military action which, aided the most reactionary Iranian forces, brought an end to constitutional government and opened a period of disintegration from 1909 to 1921.

Straw recognizes these events, but he baulks at the systematic character of British policy, otherwise he could not write of “strategic reasons” for supporting Iranian independence, when Britain acted against the latter.

Iran’s oil or oil for the Empire?

In 1901 a concession was granted by the Shah to a British subject, William Knox D’Arcy, on the exploitation of oil in the central and southern provinces. In 1908 oil was found in the south west.  The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded in 1909, and the British government bought a majority of company shares in 1914. This ‘nationalisation’ of Iranian oil by a British government and company followed the conversion of the British navy from coal to oil in 1912.  Britain effectively held a monopoly on the exploitation of Iranian oil until 1951.

Straw knows this history.  But he still prickles that the leaflets used by demonstrators against him in 2015 raised this issue:

“The 2015 Yazd Basij leaflet had charged that ‘for years you had your tentacles engaged in Iran’s natural resources, in particular stealing and looting Iran’s oil’.  Whether Britain’s investment in exploiting Iran’s oil reserves was ‘stealing and looting’ depends on one’s standpoint. I certainly understand why this view is so strongly held in Iran.  British exploitation of Iran’s natural resources, and the concomitant political influence which Britain believed it had to exercise to protect its interests, came to strike deeply at Iranians‘ sense of national pride.” (p.81)

Iranian Prime Minister Mussadeq told the UN that the renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) received annual profits of more than 62 million pounds, out of which Iran received 9 million pounds. In addition the AIOC had a contract to provide the Royal Navy with fuel below the market rate.  Company turnover also produced notable tax revenues for the British exchequer.

The oil concession, and the British “investment”, were a product of the unequal relations between the two nations.  When the Iranian population was able to express itself, it did so by enthusiastically supporting Mussadeq’s nationalization of Iranian oil.  From their “standpoint” Britain had been robbing and looting Iran. This was not just because it struck “deeply at Iranians’ sense of national pride”.  It was also in Iran’s interest to control its natural resources and utilize them, not for London shareholders, but for the Iranian people. The robber and robbed definitely have different standpoints.  Jack Straw can understand both viewpoints, but will not come to a judgement against British imperialism.

The observer with no interest?

From the endnotes, we learn that Straw references 16 books by Iranians.  In comparison, he references 38 books by Western authors. On top of that, the vast bulk of references to media, government reports, archives and diplomatic sources are Western ones.  It means sometimes the book offers insight to Western policy. Yet, this book primarily relies upon the West to explain Iran.

Straw strives to be objective.  As noted above, his inability to characterize Britain’s intervention in Iran creates distortions and blind spots in his view.  So too his assumption of the pose as a neutral observer clouds his perception of events. This, after all, is Britain’s former Foreign Secretary from 2001-6.  Neither a simple tourist, nor an innocent bystander, in some small, definite manner he has helped shape the history of Iran and its neighbours.

In 1951, the crisis for the British government policy created by Iran’s nationalization of AIOC was coming to a head.  Clem Attlee’s Labour government was determined to support the company against the Iranian people. Straw writes:

“In these dying days of the Labour government vacillation was the order of the day.  Troops were put on three hours’ notice, then stood down. There were serious arguments between government lawyers as to the legal basis for any invasion – for such it would be – of Iran’s sovereign territory; and a resentful appreciation prevailed that, whether technically lawful or not, Britain would find itself isolated in the United Nations.” (p.126)

Even with the obvious difference that the US played the lead role in Iraq, there is an uncanny feeling of parallel events in Iran 1951-3 and Iraq 2002-3.  Yet the Foreign Secretary of the latter period passes this in silence.

He is not always shy about his role.  We learn that the official British government position was to neither confirm nor deny the role of British intelligence in the 1953 coup.  Boldly he broke this convention, telling the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in February 2006 that “…elements of British intelligence and the CIA stopped(forced) a perfectly democratic Prime Minister, Mossadegh, from office.” (p.145)

This says much and too little.  He should have said that this process was begun by Attlee’s government, who blocked the sale of Iranian oil, and completed under the Tory government who carried through the coup in tandem with the US government in 1953.  Intelligence serves government, not vice-versa.

Destabilising Iran’s neighbours

Sometimes, the former Foreign Secretary doesn’t mention his role, but preens in the achievement:

“In Afghanistan, an International Stabilisation Force had been established by the UN, with an extensive US presence and large contingent from the UK along with many other nations.  It is one of the many ironies of this period of US led foreign policy that thanks to the US’s military might (with help from others, the UK included) Iran had been rid of the threatening, sectarian Taliban government in its eastern neighbor.” (p.248)

Straw was in post and supported the beginning of the calamity for the people of Afghanistan.  Time may have stood still in his eyes. In 2019, as he writes this glib paragraph, the war is continuing with record levels of civilian casualties marked in 2018.  Iran is currently hosting around 3 million refugees from the NATO war. Straw is oblivious to obvious failure. But worse is to come:

“Baghdad fell on 9 April 2003.  Three weeks later, President Bush declared the formal end of major combat operations.  The Americans and their allies had achieved in a few weeks that which had eluded the Iranians in eight grueling years of the war with Iraq.” (p.252)

It is astonishing how ugly this is.  “Major conflict” operations continued under other names whilst the Iraqi people rejected the US occupation.  The occupation wrecked the infrastructure and economy. Around 4 to 5 million were displaced or forced abroad.  Exact death tolls are unclear but generally regarded as several hundred thousand to more than a million. Far from stabilizing the region, the intervention created forces which have wrought havoc – not least of which has been ISIS, formed from cadres who were in US jails in Iraq.

Yet for Straw the decisive issue appears to be that the US, and its UK sub-contractor, beat Saddam and Iran didn’t.  Perhaps he can never confront his role in creating the first great social catastrophe of the twenty first century. He should then have the restraint not to write of it.

Misreading yet another war

Presumably, this blind spot about the Iraq war helps explain his bizarre analysis of the Iran/Iraq war:

“In the years that followed, the Iranians (like the Iraqis) sustained the most terrible losses, never seen since the carnage of the First World War.  By the end of 1983 alone, an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed in battle.” (p.202)

Elsewhere, without citation, he suggests “millions” were killed in the war.  Most evidence suggests otherwise:

“Iran resorted to trench warfare and the strategy of full mobilization – reminiscent of World War 1.  At the time, it was thought that Iran suffered more than a million dead. But government spokespersons later gave the figure of 160,000 killed in battle.  Others add that another 30,000 died later from war related wounds, that 16,000 civilians were killed in the bombing of cities, and that more 39,000 suffered permanent injuries – many of them from gas and chemical attacks in the trenches.  It is estimated that another 23,000 suffered PTSD.” Ervand Abrahamian, “A History of Modern Iran”, (p.174)

In saying there has been no carnage like this since World War 1, Straw overlooks much. 27 million Soviet citizens died defeating the Nazis.  30 million Chinese died opposing Japanese militarism between 1931 and 1945. 2 single bombs instantly killed over 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On February 13th and February 14th 1945 between 18,000 and 25,000 civilians died from Allied bombing in Dresden.

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that Straw has displaced something of his Iraq syndrome by blaming Iran for the Iran/Iraq war.  In his view, Iran should have beaten Iraq or gotten out earlier – whatever suits the argument. Straw’s war defeated Saddam “in a few weeks”; again Iran should be grateful to the Western powers.  The boast ignores the obvious fact that Iraq was sustained in its war upon Iran by the US, UK, France, Germany and some of the Gulf states.

Just what is wrong with Iran then?

Straw has a real problem with Iran.  Despite his protestations about how wonderful the Iranian people are, he constantly expresses difficulties.  The whole premise of the book is to explain to the reader that Iranian distrust of Britain is based on real history. Yet he constantly refers to forms of paranoia, victimhood and irrationality in Iran.

These cover “many Iranians” (p.20); “the last Shah” (p.21); “key elements of Shi’ism” (p.41); “a country where dark conspiracy theories rapidly take hold” (p.83); “a powerful part of the Iranian psyche” (p.138); the general population (p.158); Mohammad Reza Shah (p.160); Khomeini (p.185); “hardliners” (p.238); Khamenei (p.266); “the upper reaches of the regime”(p.291); “ever –suspicious Iranians” (p.296); “The deep state” (p.309); “in the Iranian system” (p.337-8).

Nobody much escapes Doctor Jack’s analysis of Iranian psycho-pathology.  This gift has something of a tradition in British diplomatic and foreign policy circles concerned with Iran.  Sir Frances Shepherd, British Ambassador to Tehran at the time of the 1953 coup wrote:

“The fault could be laid at the door of one man – Dr Mussadiq.  Himself an honest if misguided and often purblind patriot, his instinct for demagogy, his single-minded obstinacy, and his total lack of constructive ideas have rendered impossible the development into a genuine national revival of the upsurge of national sentiment on which he rode to power. Unwilling ever to recognize a mistake or concede a point, Dr Mussadiq has fanned national pride into intolerance, religious revival into fanaticism and a desire for greater independence into stubborn isolationism and xenophobia.  The Persian people, who are accustomed to poverty, may in future be called upon to suffer much more.” Cited in Ervand Abrahamian “The Coup”, (pps.99-100)

The same “professional” hauteur permeates Straw’s views.  In a footnote on page 53, we are told that Mussadiq was “violently hostile to Britain”.  Written in 2019, not 1953, this is simply disgraceful. Mussadiq, after the coup, was under house arrest until his death in 1967.  His movement was rendered illegal, and his supporters repressed. Just who is the violent party in this relationship?

Opposing the independent Iranian state

This seems incidental, but is of a piece with Straw’s more systematic hostility to the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the state that issued from it.  Despite a long exploration of British/Iranian relations, Straw has not grasped what is the essential achievement of the 1979 revolution. That is, for the first time in modern history, the Iranian people have established a state and system of governance which is genuinely independent from colonialism and imperialism.

Straw, like many others in the west, objects to the supposed dual nature of state functioning – A Supreme Leader (Guardian of the Jurist) alongside an elected President – A Guardian Council alongside the parliamentary Majles – Regular armed forces alongside the Revolutionary Guards – A modern constitution framed by observance of the shariat.  This is unique to Iran, but then no other state has Shi’ism as its state religion. If the revolution was a genuinely popular revolution then it was bound to produce something which appears at odds with western preconceptions. After all, it has taken around two centuries to establish a system capable of resisting invasion, occupation, sanctions, and covert operations.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Iranian state, the only people fit to change it are the Iranians.  The least they now deserve is relief from war mongers, coup devisers, and regime changers.

The mote and the beam 

Thankfully, however the Iranian people develop their Republic; it is not going to look like the ramshackle compromise between the bigotry of feudal relics and bourgeois democracy that characterizes Straw’s home country.  Nor is anything going to be changed by Straw’s frequent attacks upon the involvement of the Shi’ia clergy in politics. He should better direct that energy towards the institutionalised discrimination of the United Kingdom’s Protestant state.  That would at least free him from the charge of hypocrisy. But he won’t.

The conventional hypocrisy of British foreign policy is in full bloom in his book.  Referring to the seizure of the US Embassy, and its staff, in 1979, Straw writes:

“The patent refusal of the Khomeini regime to follows the norms of international behavior, without which normal diplomacy was unworkable, led to the dismissal of the new Islamic Republic as one run by a group of religious bigots with whom no serious discourse was possible.” (p.216)

Earlier, Straw had himself written that Khomeini had had nothing directly to do with the seizure.  Straw also acknowledges that Khomeini’s suspicions about US intentions meant that he believed if the Embassy was shut down their ability to organize a coup would be disabled.  During revolution power is frequently consolidated by sharp actions from the revolutionary forces – failing these, the counter-revolutionaries will usurp the power. The taking of hostages is objectionable, but hardly the whole story.

Straw’s hauteur makes it opaque whether “the dismissal of the new Islamic republic” was only by others, or included him.  Yet he is clear that it is the regime which refused “to follow the norms of international behavior”. Least we harbor doubts that this imperative solely applied to the hostage crisis, earlier Straw writes “…if Iran wants the international respect it craves (and deserves), it has to follow agreed international norms of behavior.”(p.22)  So, it is apparently a general problem for the Iranians then.

Simultaneous to the publication of Straw’s book, the norms of international behavior has led to an international embargo, orchestrated by the US, on the purchase of Iranian oil, and trade on most goods with Iran.  Iran is being subjected to systematic primary and secondary sanctions. In June the US President came within a hair’s breadth of launching missiles against Iran. The EU and E3 Group (Britain, France and Germany) in particular, have collapsed their trade with Iran rather than confront the illegal US embargo upon Iran.  All this because Trump wants to shatter an international agreement, the terms of which the Iranians have adhered to.

Straw’s cant is marvelous to behold, not least because it is apparently bottomless:

“The overall consequence of the Trump sanctions has been a further serious deterioration in living standards and life chances for most Iranians.  However, much as the regime seeks to use the Trump measures as the reason for all Iran’s ills, the Iranian people know that the underlying causes have been domestic.” (p.335)

Straw ends up giving a free pass to Trump, but not the Iranian state.  At the end, there is no “Understanding Iran”, just more fodder for “maximum pressure” upon Iran.  Anti-war activists looking for a deeper understanding of Iranian/British relations are advised to seek out Iranian authors.  Leave the Straw Rough Guide on the shelf.

06 Sep 2019

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