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JACK STRAW: Iran – a country at war with itself

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of detained Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, outside the Iranian Embassy in Knightsbridge, London. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In an exclusive extract from his new book about Iran, former foreign secretary JACK STRAW explores the country’s doomed dynamics, which are pulling the regime in a different way to the people.

Campaigners stand beside lit candles on a birthday cake outside the Iranian embassy whilst calling upon Iran to release jailed British grandfather, Kamal Foroughi in 2017. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Iran is a most curious country. Its people, with few exceptions, are delightful. They are possessed of the greatest of gifts, of imagination, inventiveness, a great sense of their literature and culture, a passion for poetry. Yet they are trapped in their history.

The story of Iran today is about the struggle taking place within its society, as some want to break free from its history and others want to use that history to keep their power.

Of course, every country is defined by its past. What is different about Iran is the way its history weighs it down, how it is used by part of the governing elite to justify repression and intolerance into Iran’s future.

Iranians have good reasons for feeling sensitive about the way they have been treated by other, more powerful, nations in the past, including by the British. There’s no collective memory in the UK about our actions towards Iran over the whole of the 19th and most of the 20th century, including during the Iran-Iraq War, which ended only three decades ago. There is in Iran.

But there’s a wide spectrum of opinion in the country about where Iran should go next, how Iranians should live their lives.

In the narrative of the American right, and some of the Iranian diaspora in the West, there is no difference between the elected and appointed elements of the Iranian state. They are one homogenous whole. The elected officials are under the thumb of the theocracy, the judiciary, and its coercive force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its powerful, shadowy militia, the Basij; worse, the likes of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are sedulous, credible spokesmen (and they are all men) apologising and covering up for the repression which takes place under their noses. This is not a view I share.

A striking feature of the Iranian system is its heterogeneity. Parts of the system are almost literally out of control. It’s thus that we can have the hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, impotent in the face of an embarrassing invasion of the British embassy in 2011, with the intelligence agents who might well have been behind the original idea of an unpleasant demonstration against the British having ‘panic in their eyes’ when matters get out of hand.

When elections have been allowed to take place in Iran with relative freedom, the results have led to clear differences in the policy of successive Iranian governments. President Mohammad Khatami’s successful proposition in 2001 to the United Nations General Assembly for a ‘dialogue of civilisations’, and his successor Ahmadinejad’s address to the General Assembly just four years later of belligerent venom about the ‘Zionist entity’, sandwiched between messianic promises of the second coming of the occulted 12th imam, came from men on different planets. The difference was not only rhetorical.

Elected officials do not have the final say over much domestic and foreign policy, but they do have some power of initiative, the power to try to set the agenda, and to challenge Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and his cohorts not to block them. Sometimes they win; more they often lose.

Khatami tried hard for a nuclear deal. Ahmadinejad wilfully wrecked any chance of a deal; worse, he so undermined Iran’s national interests that he achieved what I never thought was possible: abandonment by Iran’s allies, unanimity in the UN Security Council to pass ever-tighter resolutions against Iran. It took Rouhani’s election in 2013 for there to be any prospect of Iran extracting itself from the pit into which Ahmadinejad had propelled his country.

Two years later, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed. If, in late 2016, a Democrat had been elected to the White House, the deal would have stuck.

A further irony of Donald Trump’s attitude is that it is greatly strengthening China’s influence over Iran, with its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative to create a Chinese hegemony over most of Asia to its west. China also has a natural affinity for Iran because of its ancient culture. Iranians to whom I have spoken are deeply uncomfortable about China’s growing role. They are resigned to it, however, so long as the US continues to be so hostile and actively seeks to undermine Europe’s efforts in support of the JCPOA and the economic benefits its full implementation could bring.

Equally, it’s important not to allow the current policy of the US government to divert attention from the fact that in large part Iran’s economic and social difficulties have been created by the regime itself, by its diversion of substantial resources into foreign adventures in its neighbourhood, by its endemic corruption, and by its refusal to allow Iranians the freedom they crave to live their lives as they wish.

In Khatami’s first term [which began in 1997], there was some liberalisation of the media. The Iranian film industry flowered; the free press grew. Predictably, because the deep state is so threatened by fresh ideas, constraints were soon reimposed.

Rouhani (in office since 2013) though less liberal than Khatami, has tried to introduce other reforms. These include changes to Iran’s banking and financial systems to bring them into line with international norms. But the difficulty Rouhani has had in securing these measures of financial reform is a small illustration of a fundamental problem about the way in which Iran works. There are four linked bills.

All have passed the majlis, the Iranian parliament. In any normal system, subject to any presidential veto, these bills would become law. Even where a president is able to veto legislation, normal constitutions provide the legislature with an override. Not so in Iran. Two of the bills are currently blocked in the expediency council, at Khamenei’s behest.

The Majlis is called, in the constitution, the ‘Iranian consultative assembly’. It is subordinate to the guardian council. This council is the creature of the supreme leader, and the agency by which he day by day sets the parameters for the role of the republican institutions of the state.

It determines who can run in any election, routinely sifts out thousands of mainly reformist candidates, and vetoes legislation on the grounds either that it is contrary to the constitution or that it is incompatible ‘with the commands of Islam’; in this latter case, only the six clerics have a vote. Where there is a disagreement between the Majlis and the guardian council, the matter goes to the expediency council to be resolved. This body is entirely appointed by the supreme leader.

There is at times a greater degree of pluralism in the Iranian system, and a wider choice offered to electors, than may be expected; even so, the intermediation of the guardian council is wholly incompatible with a properly functioning democracy.

The singular feature of the Iranian system is the position of Khamenei, the supreme leader. Every one of the coercive powers of the state – the police, the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, the army, the Basij and the IRGC – is vested in him.

Elected ministers have no role. Thus, two loyal servants of the revolution, and candidates in the 2009 election – Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – have been under house arrest since 2011; some reactionary MPs have even called for their execution. Their ‘crimes’? Campaigning for a more liberal Iran. Former president Khatami has been declared a kind of ‘non-person’. He cannot travel abroad, and the Tehran prosecutor has prohibited the media from reporting his words or publishing his photograph because of his support for Mousavi and Karroubi.

When he was first elected, Rouhani indicated that he would help secure Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s release. Six years later, they remain under arrest. Rouhani can plead with Khamenei, and those running the judiciary, for clemency. In response, Khamenei and the deep state can ignore such pleas, as they routinely do.

It’s the same story with a dual British-Iranian national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iranian jails since April 2016 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for allegedly plotting against the regime.

She was on a family visit at the time.British ministers and diplomats have tried hard to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, but they can talk only to officials within the elected Rouhani government.

All properly functioning democracies have a judicial system which is at arm’s length from the executive. But, at the same time, these systems all derive their powers from an elected legislature, and elected ministers have reserve powers to intervene.

Such control is wholly absent in Iran. The rule of law there is a flexible, fungible concept, and not that different from how the system operated under the Shahs.

In consequence, the real president of the Islamic Republic is not Rouhani, who can serve for only two consecutive terms, but Khamenei, effectively president for life. He formally derives his authority from his status as the guardian of the occulted 12th imam, awaiting his return. But with the passage of time that theological justification has worn thin. He has never been a jurist of the highest order.

Much more than Khomeini ever did, he has simply behaved like any other working politician – but one with more power than anyone else, above all through his direct control of the IRGC, the Basij and the courts.

On the surface, in Tehran and other cities of Iran, all may appear calm, orderly and devout. Women all wear their headscarves, as required by law; the devout turn up in their thousands to religious ceremonies.

Just below the surface, Iran is far from calm. The regime is going one way; the majority of the population the other. Iran is full of paradoxes, a mass of contradictions; some Iranians say that they have to live their lives by masking its reality from the deep state, shrouding it in lies.

Walk round any Tehran or any big city and for sure most women will be routinely be wearing their headscarves. But observe more closely. The headscarves on many women, middle-aged as well as young, are pushed back as far as possible, in insolent defiance to the old men who lay down how women should dress. The women’s eyes and 
faces are heavily made-up. Under a 
loose coat they may be wearing the tightest of tight jeans.

Iranian women have among the highest use of cosmetics in the world, per head of population. As Misagh Parsa, an Iranian-American commentator, points out, “Makeup professionals estimated that Iranian women bought one tube of mascara every month, in contrast with one in every four months purchased by French women. In a population that ranked 17th in the world, Iran’s consumption of makeup was seventh”.

All this might appear as something of a game, like teenage schoolgirls in the UK constantly challenging their school’s uniform policy by raising the hems of their skirts. But in Iran this defiance can have serious consequences. It can bring these women into conflict with the official ‘Morality Police’, a force to ensure compliance with the rules. In three months in 2014, for example, 220,000 women were taken to a police station to sign statements promising the proper use of the headscarf, and 8,269 women were detained for this offence, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Television and radio in Iran are strictly controlled. Though there is some plurality in the print media, with hardline and moderate newspapers, there’s much self-censorship to avoid the peremptory closure of titles. A reformist paper was shut down in February 2019 by the regime for using the title ‘Unwanted guest’ on a front cover that showed a picture of Khamenei with the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The state devotes significant resources to filtering the internet and at times blocking social media sites like Facebook and Twitter – not that this has stopped the supreme leader himself from occasionally using his own Twitter account. Foreign television channels, including BBC Persian, are periodically jammed.

Despite the risks they may run, millions of Iranians use their ingenuity to get round this censorship. More open access to the internet is secured through virtual private networks (VPNs); fly over any city or town and see the roofs festooned with (illegal) satellite dishes. BBC Persian plays cat and mouse by switching satellites.

One way or another, 11 million or so watch BBC Persian, and millions more watch a wide range of other foreign TV channels, many from Turkey. The state claimed that they had confiscated 270,000 satellite dishes in 2015. But foreign broadcasters still enjoy large audiences. The deep state is losing the battle to stop people from watching or listening to what they want.

There is, however, one group in Iran who do not have to go to these lengths to evade the rigid codes of the Islamic Republic. These are families of the elite which runs the country. They are known, sarcastically, as the aghazadeh, or ‘noble born’. One of the charges against the rule of the Shahs was that the country was run by a thousand families who enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. Khomeini insisted that all should lead modest lives. Now, however, the thousand families close to the royal households have been replaced by those families close to the power centres of the Islamic Republic.

There are incessant reports of these families openly flaunting their wealth and their luxurious lifestyles – whilst living standards for the majority go downhill fast. The examples are endless, not least because these aghazadeh have little shame about posting photographs of themselves on Instagram.

Thus, the son of retired General Saeed Tolouei of the IRGC is shown posing with a pet tiger, driving a Cadillac and throwing a lavish party for his two-year-old daughter. Even Khomeini’s family itself has shown no respect for the memory of the Grand Ayatollah. During a recent visit to London, Khomeini’s great-granddaughter Yasaman Eshraghi published on Instagram a picture of herself with a $3,800 Dolce & Gabbana handbag, alongside an expensive BMW. Khomeini’s great-grandson Ahmad Khomeini, a 21-year-old cleric, was shown in a photograph at an equestrian club wearing fashionable imported gear, standing next to a young woman in a riding helmet. The post caused outrage, but this did little to stem the lifestyles of this elite.

Other ‘sons of notables’ display their contempt for the average Iranian even more openly. The Arab Weekly carried a report that Mohammad-Reza Sobhani, the son of a former Iranian ambassador to Venezuela, systematically uploads photos of himself enjoying champagne at the pool, occasionally with naked women in the background. Other photos show him driving a Bugatti and lighting his cigarettes with dollar bills. In a video on Instagram, he urged people not to be so nosy about his lavish lifestyle: “Instead of envying me, go make some money. If you can’t make money and you can’t make a living, die. Full Stop!”

No one in Iran believes that all this wealth could have been acquired lawfully; the salaries of Iranian officials, whether diplomats or in the IRGC, are wholly insufficient for that. Rather, these illustrations are an indication not just of the pervasive financial corruption of the system but of its moral corruption, which is eating away at the legitimacy of the regime from the inside.

The abuse by the elite is not confined to conservatives but extends to reformers as well; one more reason why the alienation of the ordinary public from the whole of the elite is so strong, and cynicism about them so powerful.

A British diplomat with years of experience of serving in Iran, as well as elsewhere in the region, told me, “Iran is the most secular country in the Middle East”. There’s a reason for this – the pull of Iranian culture, with both its strong secular elements and its still-surviving Zoroastrian traditions. There’s been a worrying decline for the elite in the numbers attending mosques regularly. “People laugh at all the nonsense the mullahs are telling them,” says Darioush Bayandor, a former Iranian diplomat.

Most ominous of all for the elite’s future, in my view, is the large number of educated Iranians who leave the country each year. The Economist suggested that this was at an annual rate of 150,000. Whether it is running at this level or some thousands fewer, it’s palpable how many highly qualified Iranians there are in a wide diaspora across the world, who could in better times be making a very important contribution to Iran’s development.

“Tehran today reminds me of Prague or Budapest in the 1980s,” one British diplomat who had served both in the Eastern Bloc and in Iran told me. “There’s an uneasiness; the conversations behind cupped hands; and the appreciation that something is going to have to give.” The question is, what will give first? The hardline elite in Iran today suffer from intense insecurity, personal and institutional.

It was exhibited in the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement; in the way that since the New Year of 2018 the authorities have been putting down protests and strikes; in their jailing of dual nationals like Zaghari-Ratcliffe; in the continued detention of a former prime minister and speaker of the Majlis, Mousavi and Karroubi; and their silencing of former president Khatami for speaking out against repression.

Central to the elite’s difficulties is that they have bought into the mythology of velayat-e faqih, the guardianship of the jurist. The form this notion took in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, of the secular guardianship of the whole of the state and its people, was literally invented by Khomeini.

Though the idea could be traced back to Plato (whom Khomeini studied), it has no serious provenance in Shi’a texts. It was contested at the time of the revolution by many other jurists and has been consistently rejected by the greatest of Shi’a jurists alive today, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, based in Najaf.

At least Khomeini had some idea of its limits. Khamenei has widened and widened the concept as justification for the coercive institutions of the state, particularly since 2009. The elite of the regime know they do not carry popular legitimacy. If they did, they would not be frightened by the prospect of a governmental system where there were free elections, and which controlled the whole of the state’s operations, as is normal.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 80. He is not in good health. He may try to hang on to power through his eighties and into his nineties, as Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe.

There have even been suggestions that he would like his second son, Mojtaba, to succeed him. But it is probable that in the next few years he will relinquish his post; many others of his generation, those who in their thirties and forties were active in the revolution and have been in control ever since, are now passing.

Whenever Khamenei ceases to be Supreme Leader, those around him, and those dependent on the Supreme Leader’s authority, particularly the IRGC, will strive hard to retain the enormous power they have, and the wealth which has gone with that power. What mocks the record of the Islamic Republic as much as anything else is that for all the rhetoric about the needs of ordinary Iranians, Iran has significantly greater levels of inequality than the United Kingdom – and our record is nothing of which to be proud.

For the future, we could see a continuation of more of the same; if there were serious unrest, always bubbling below the surface, there could be the institution of a military dictatorship cloaked by the ideology of velayat-e faqih. Were serious protests to occur, the reaction of the international community would be very important. The lesson of 2009 is that the regime will blame the US and the UK regardless of whether these two governments are silent or not; so better to be vocal in support of the Iranian people.

Alternatively, we could see Iran start down the road towards more open and democratic institutions. Some within 
the country have already been brave enough to call for such change. Reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front senior member Mostafa Tajzadeh (previously jailed for dissidence) has proposed that the post of president be merged with that of the Supreme Leader, who would then have to be elected to that office and would be allowed to serve no more than two terms.

Iran is a proud country and intensely nationalistic. It cries out for respect and recognition in the international community. For all the increasing secularity of much of its population, its Shi’ism is deeply rooted in its sense of what being an Iranian means.

Whilst Iran’s future is unclear, there is one thing of which I am certain.

What happens to Iran internally will in significant part be influenced by how Iran is treated by the outside world. This is more true for Iran than for any other country I know, for the reasons I have spelt out. The more that the reformists can point to the benefits to Iran of cooperating with the world outside, the more empowered they will be, and the less and less convincing will be the hardliners’ position to their own people.

There is a dynamic in play in Iran today that is profoundly unsettling to 
the regime. The international community can help or hinder that dynamic, not by the covert methods it resorted to in the past, with such disastrous consequences, but by understanding and honouring Iran and its people, working to end its isolation, and speaking out against the continuing excesses of the regime.

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