Sunday Times Review:

The English Job by Jack Straw


Jack Straw, the first British foreign secretary to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution, experienced this at first hand in 2015 while travelling there with his wife and two friends. What had been intended as a cultural adventure swiftly became a “forced conscription into a thriller”, as they faced menace, intimidation and hostility from gangs of Basij goons, the shadowy militia of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Visiting a famous tree supposedly planted by Noah’s son Japheth several thousand years ago, Straw was formally presented with a two-page leaflet detailing why he was not welcome in Iran.

Cover jjjjjThis consisted of a long charge sheet of national humiliations, from the 1857 Paris Treaty and the Reuters and tobacco monopolies of 1872 and 1890 to “the stealing and looting of Iran’s oil” from 1901, the British-led coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and the support given to Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–88.

To take just one of these grievances, the Reuters concession gave the German-born British entrepreneur Baron Julius de Reuter the monopoly right to build railways, canals, irrigation systems and mines, and develop all future industries, for 70 years. Not a bad return on the bribes totalling £200,000 (£23m today) that Reuter paid the key players in Tehran. It was, said the future foreign secretary Lord Curzon, “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamt of”.

The English Job takes its title from an old Iranian expression that continues to see a British hand behind everything. As a longstanding Foreign Office joke goes: “Iran is the only country in the world that still thinks the UK is a superpower.”

Being bundled in and out of cars and dodging aggressive rent-a-mobs would put many visitors off Iran for life, but Straw is made of more resilient stuff. He admits he has succumbed to the Iran “bug” and can’t get enough of the place. One might contrast his evident affection for the country with the astringent criticism from the conservative commentator Melanie Phillips, who has publicly asked, “Why does Jack Straw shill for Iran?”

While that lurid accusation is completely overdone, there is a potential danger in all this admiration for Iran’s rich cultural hinterland that, when combined with self-flagellation for Britain’s colonial-era exploitation, lets the revolutionary regime in Tehran off the hook. This, after all, is a country second only to China in the world league of executioners. “Failing on all fronts” is the title of Amnesty International’s latest report on Iran, but Straw has little to say about Iran’s egregious human-rights record.

He is clear-sighted and lucid, however, in his analysis of Iran’s self-destructive obsession with Israel, be it the routine threats to wipe the country off the map, the “Death to Israel” slogans on its ballistic missiles, or the countdown timer showing the hours and minutes left until the destruction of the “Zionist regime”. This morbid fixation with Israel is as much a barrier to the country’s return to the community of nations and an end of its international isolation as the occasional rampage by regime thugs against foreign diplomatic compounds. If you want to be treated with respect, it doesn’t matter how glorious your history might be, you just don’t do that.

Straw rightly laments Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal he and others laboured so long to bring about. He gives short shrift to President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a career advocate of regime change in Tehran and a man who has taken money for appearing on platforms supporting the Iranian opposition group MEK, previously banned by the US and UK as a terrorist group.

Those, such as Trump, Bolton and fellow hawks, who trash the deal need to answer the single most important question: why have you chosen to make Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons more, not less, likely? Unless the objective is all-out war, it makes no sense. Straw doesn’t say it, but one might add that for decades Saudi Arabia has been an infinitely more destructive funder of global Islamist terrorism than Iran.

Straw argues that there is no such thing as a single regime in Tehran. There are instead multiple, competing sources of power as hardliners do battle with reformists. That distinction is all very well for diplomats, but since each is ultimately subordinate to the octogenarian, anti-semitic, hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, mastermind of his country’s isolation since 1989, it doesn’t get you far. As Straw ruefully acknowledges, unless Tehran changes its ways, it will surely remain a pariah.