Ahead of the paperback publication of his book The English Job, take a look at the holiday that inspired Jack Straw to write it...
22 OCTOBER 2015
‘Cross the dual carriageway at that gap,’ Mohammed, our interpreter, shouted to the driver, taking instructions from his phone, ‘and pull up behind that white car.’
In the dark, we (my wife and I and two friends) saw three large men in plain clothes get out of the white car as we braked behind it. One, shorter, was better-dressed than the other two. He was wearing an immaculately pressed suit, buttoned-up shirt, no tie, and had an enamel insignia in his lapel, with the Iranian emblem on it. He was obviously in charge.
He opened our driver’s door and shouted at him in Persian. The blood visibly drained from the driver’s face. He was bundled into the back of the unmarked white car. One of the other men got into our driver’s seat. Mohammed, who had got out to talk to the other officers, had to scramble back into the people carrier as it was about to drive off.
Our driver had quickly worked out who these men were and knew not to argue. I hoped that they were police officers of some kind, and on our side, but this was far from self-evident. Three decades before, there had been a hard stop in north Tehran on a British diplomat, Edward Chaplin, driving with his wife and young child, with Edward bundled handcuffed and hooded into another car and driven off. I decided not to share this information with the rest of our party. They were already fearing that this was a kidnap.
We sped along the Shiraz ring road again. We had been round and round this road system, which circles the great city, at least three times already and were now very familiar with it. Close to the Botanic Gardens, we abruptly turned into a dimly lit side street to pull up behind another people carrier, identical in make and model to ours. The only differences were that this one had different plates and smoked-glass windows. We were told to be very quick, to transfer all our luggage and ourselves into the new vehicle. A third officer joined us in the back seats, this one carrying an unconcealed pistol.
Off we drove again at high speed for yet another scenic tour of Shiraz’s ring road. As we approached one roundabout, a uniformed police motorcyclist, with a plain-clothes pillion passenger carrying a large sub-machine gun that looked like a Heckler & Koch MP5, drew alongside and had a conversation with the senior official.
We finally arrived not at our booked hotel but at the brash, five-star Shiraz Hotel, which commands a high position on the northern hills overlooking the city. We were put into rooms at the end of the ninth floor, told to lock them and open them to no one. It was then that we learnt that the well-dressed man was an official of the Fars province, and that the others were police officers of varying ranks.
By now, I was assuming that these officers were indeed on our side, and that we were not under house arrest. But could I be certain? As for my emotions, I was doing my best not to have any, though in truth I was in a great muddle about them. I’d had 24-hour police protection throughout my thirteen years in Cabinet, and I kept telling myself that these men were not that different from the British police officers who had kept me safe. On the other hand, I knew enough about Iran, and its competing organs of government, to know that it could be dangerous and unpredictable. I also felt a strong sense of responsibility for the anxiety that had so plainly been caused to the other members of the party. It was I who had prompted the trip, and organised it.
Later, we were let out of our rooms for dinner. In the hotel restaurant, the lugubrious owner of the hotel, who spoke perfect American English, introduced himself and told us how happy he was to have us as unexpected guests. On the way back to our rooms, we were told to stay in them until instructed otherwise. We noticed that the complement of police officers had meanwhile grown to eight.
This was day seven of our Iranian holiday.
If you're interested in reading the rest, The English Job: Understanding Iran is out in paperback on 25th July. Take a look here!