Forty years ago the Islamic Republic of Iran admitted that it had executed my great-uncle. He was 65 years old. Mehdi Amin-Amin was survived by his wife, daughter, two grandsons and three siblings, including my grandmother. If I’d known him, I would have called him Mehdai-joon, a contraction of Mehdi and the Persian words dai (‘maternal uncle’) and joon (‘dear’). He was arrested and killed because he was a Baha’i: a member of Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. More than two hundred were executed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today Baha’is suffer discrimination in every part of their lives.
Laurel and Hardy reruns often played on Iranian television when I visited as a child. Wholesome, black-and-white slapstick didn’t need to be censored. In the Kurdish version, Oliver Hardy’s voice was dubbed by my uncle, Hashim Shahvisi, who was for decades a popular radio presenter. A year ago, he was in hospital in Tehran with an unspecified illness. My father spoke to relatives every day without getting any closer to finding out what was wrong.
By killing Soleimani, Trump has not only supplied the Islamic Republic with a powerful casus belli, he has also reinforced its longstanding narrative of martyrdom at the hands of the Great Satan, and may well help to strengthen the supreme leader’s hand at the very moment that the regime is facing popular anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and reeling from a series of revolts at home in which hundreds of Iranians were killed by security forces. Not for the first time, the American government has proved an objective ally of Iran’s hardliners.
In May, the leading British general in the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq disputed White House claims of an increased Iranian threat. But the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, sided with Washington against his own military officer on the ground. Unlike its European partners, Britain joined the US in swiftly blaming Iran for the subsequent attacks on Gulf shipping. And when Washington urged London to seize an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar this month, the British obliged.
Over the last seven weeks more than 230 undocumented migrants have crossed the English Channel, with forty completing the journey on Christmas Day alone. In the first ten months of 2018, only 220 people made it. The recent spike coincides with increasing numbers of Iranians arriving in Calais. According to one estimate, 40 per cent of the 500 refugees who sleep rough in the town come from Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu first met Donald Trump in 1986, when they were introduced by Ronald Lauder, the heir of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune and a Republican donor. They became friendly, but Netanyahu, who was Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, doubted that the real-estate entrepreneur would be very useful to his future political aspirations. He added Trump to his handwritten list of millionaires to whom he might turn for favours, but ‘he was in the lowest category,’ Anshel Pfeffer writes in his new biography of Netanyahu, ‘indicating that he was good for an occasional favour, but not much more.’[*] Like many people, Netanyahu underestimated his new friend.
‘Reason I canceled my trip to London,’ Donald Trump tweeted last month, ‘is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!’ The only fact he didn’t get wrong was the cost of the new US Embassy in Nine Elms. It looks like a billion dollars, too. From Vauxhall, the shiny green cube brings to mind an enormous pallet of dollars from a movie, but with a seemly swathe of translucent plastic skin on three sides. Up close, though, the skin stretches away from the glass uncomfortably, and the effect is more reminiscent of the piratical accountants’ building at the beginning of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
I first met Omid (not his real name) 15 years ago, when I was conducting field research on Muslim migration. He was born in eastern Tehran in 1973, during the final years of the monarchy. He was a child when his neighbours joined the revolution against the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini called it a revolt of the ‘barefoot’ masses for bread, freedom and an Islamic Republic, but the bread and freedom didn’t come to Omid’s neighbourhood.
The unrest in Iran is in several ways unprecedented. Until last week, all the nationwide protests since the revolution either began in Tehran before spreading to other cities, or erupted simultaneously in Tehran and elsewhere. Events in the capital were the driving force in political upheavals. This time, however, people in small towns took to the streets before Tehranis. The front lines are far from the capital, university hubs and other sites of political or economic power. The protests were started by the most marginalised Iranians.
The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.
‘The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement,’ Donald Trump said last week. ‘For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water.’ In 1931, the American physical chemist Harold Urey discovered deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in its nucleus along with a proton. He manufactured some ‘heavy water’ (D2O) and, I think, drank some. Heavy water remained an interesting laboratory phenomenon until the Second World War, when it took on new importance since it plays a role in the production of plutonium, which does not exist naturally on earth.
‘And by the way,’ Donald Trump said to Hillary Clinton in last night’s debate, ‘another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.’ His view on the Iranian nuclear deal, and the nuclear weapons situation in general, hasn’t changed much since he spoke with two New York Times reporters in March. Not surprisingly he revealed an abominable ignorance of the subject.
In June, I received an invitation to the Second International Congress of 17,000 Iranian Terror Victims, to be held in Tehran at the beginning of September. The email was addressed to General Mirza Aslam Beg, the former head of the Pakistani army. I wrote back to say that, although in no way affiliated with the armed forces of Pakistan, I’d like to come. Four days later I got my own invitation and a promise to arrange my visa.
A few years ago, an Israeli F16 fighter pilot I know went on a training exercise for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear reactors. When he got back I asked him if such an operation could actually succeed. He said he thought Israel had the capacity to carry it out, but the military leadership was against it. When I asked him why, he explained that even if an airstrike were completely successful, the Iranians would be able to rebuild their reactors within two years. The operation, he said, would only work if sanctions were intensified immediately after the attack, and most sanctioning countries would be unlikely to agree to that.
On 29 January 2002, George W. Bush designated Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, despite Iranian co-operation in Afghanistan the previous year. In summer 2002, the US told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that two nuclear sites were under construction in Iran, at Natanz and Arak, neither of which had been declared to the IAEA as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran was a signatory. To defuse the situation, President Khatami offered to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme with the EU3 (France, Germany and the UK). Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and Dominique de Villepin visited Tehran in October 2003. Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, agreed to suspend the enrichment facility at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak, and to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides for more intrusive inspections of nuclear sites than the NPT does.
At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.
The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.
In perhaps the least surprising news of the year, Iran and the P5+1 failed to reach an agreement in Vienna on Monday. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activities; Iran wants sanctions to be lifted.
The Iraq war is not over; it never really ended. It just spilled into a new war, the war in Syria. We may one day speak of Iraq-Syria the way that we speak now of 'Af-Pak'.
In response to a wave of attacks by the al-Qaida group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States is supplying Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's embattled government with Hellfire missiles and drones. The Obama administration also wants congressional approval to lease (and eventually sell) six Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqis, a plan held up by lawmakers who fear they will be used against Maliki's political opponents.
As reported by the New York Times, the arming of the Iraqi government is a story about instability inside Iraq, counter-terrorism and the effectiveness of drones. But the regional implications are much larger.
Several years ago in Vienna, a senior Iranian diplomat made clear to me the mixture of pride and fear that drives Iran’s nuclear programme. Angry at the ‘insults’ of Western powers, he said that the programme’s success proved Iran was an ‘intelligent’ nation that would never ‘bow’ to pressure. ‘But that’s not to say a deal can’t be done,’ he added. 'Though it won’t be easy.’ He wasn't wrong. A deal has, after more than ten years of negotiations, been agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany) in Geneva. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it has been coming at least since Hassan Rouhani became president in June.
Last week, just as the latest round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 were about to begin, I was talking on the phone to a friend in Tehran about Hassan Rouhani. ‘Now we will see if he’s serious,’ my friend said, ‘or if he’s just another Khatami. Another one of him we don’t need.’ Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997 on a far more reformist platform than Rouhani, only to find himself, and his attempts at change, blocked by hardliners throughout his presidency. So last week’s nuclear talks were the first test: of both Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to get things done. Before the negotiations began, the Iranians promised to present a proposal that had the ‘capacity to make a breakthrough’.
Hassan Rouhani, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last week, warned against extremism and miscalculation, stressed the importance of prudence and ‘moderation’, reaffirmed that Iran’s nuclear programme had purely peaceful purposes, dismissed the notion that his country posed a threat to the Middle East, argued that politics was not a zero-sum game and that negotiations could settle differences, and denounced all uses of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical ones. He concluded with citations from the Psalms, the Torah and the Persian epic poet Ferdowsi.
Uri Avnery’s latest column: Rouhani is the very opposite of his predecessor. If the Mossad had been asked to sketch the worst possible Iranian leader Israel could imagine, they would have come up with someone like him.
Hassan Rohani’s election victory took many commentators by surprise. But the call for a move towards the centre, for e‛tedal (‘moderation’), has been in the air in Iran for a couple of years. In fact, all but one of the six candidates on the ballot on election day would one way or another have tried to pull the country away from the highly polarising politics that have dominated since Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, and the protests and harsh crackdown that followed. Still, there was nothing inevitable about the way Rohani was elected.
More than 600 people have signed up to be candidates in Iran’s presidential elections on 14 June. The Guardian Council will now strike most of them off the list as unsuitable. One man, however, will not be so easy to deal with: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997, is one of the three most important men in the history of the Islamic Republic, along with Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. He was Khomeini’s right-hand man and largely responsible for Khamenei’s succession.
The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany) held on Friday and Saturday in Almaty promised much. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had described the previous meeting (in February) as a ‘turning point’ and the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, had said negotiations were ‘on the right track and moving in the right direction’. Western diplomats, too, had expressed quiet confidence. Which was perhaps foolish. We have been here many, many times during the eleven years that this saga has rumbled on, and, sure enough, the latest round of talks broke down with each side blaming the other for the lack of progress. No common ground was reached; there wasn’t even an agreement to meet again for more talks.
In September 1995, at a conference commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a senior Iranian arms control adviser, Hassan Mashadi, told reporters that Iran was ‘keeping its nuclear options open’. The country’s tough security environment, the threat it felt from the United States and Israel, were all reasons, he argued, that it should pursue nuclear research. The extent of this research was made clear ten years ago, on 14 August 2002, when an Iranian opposition group revealed full details of Iran’s nuclear activities, precipitating the current crisis. The Mujahedin e Khalq claimed it received the information from contacts ‘inside Iran’; privately, diplomats have told me that ‘everyone knows’ the real source was Israel.
Binyamin Netanyahu recently paid for advertising space on Facebook: Dear citizen: In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, but our enemies will fail. I invite you to join my Facebook page. Happy Passover. After this campaign, Netanyahu's page boasted ten times as many ‘Likes’ as that of Sheli Yechimovich, the leader of the Labor Party. But her staff revealed that only 17 per cent of them were from Israelis. More than half were from Americans, and 5000 were from admirers in Indonesia.
Three weeks ago, Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to insist once again that Israel would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran; and neither, he intimated, should the United States. Mitt Romney, to gain a few votes in Florida, promised that under any administration of his, the US would deal with Iran once and for all. Iran, as well as the American electorate, is listening. If you want to convince the mullahs to accelerate a drive towards the bomb come November, that’s the way to do it.
As assassinations go, last Wednesday’s killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist was unusually competent. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who worked at Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, was blown up when a passing motorcyclist slapped a magnetic bomb onto his car that killed everyone inside but left the area around the vehicle unscathed. It was the fourth killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in the last two years. An explosion at a missile base near Tehran on 12 November 2011 killed 18 people including Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddam, the architect of Iran’s missile programme. Take into account the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked the centrifuge system at Natanz, not to mention several defections of key scientific personnel, and it is clear that ‘non-diplomatic’ solutions to the Iranian impasse have become the norm.
Among the evidence for ‘possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme’ in the new Report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is that a foreign expert... who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career... in the nuclear weapon programme of his country of origin... was in Iran from about 1996 to 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds, where he lectured also on explosion physics and its applications.
The story so far, in case you missed it, is that US authorities have announced that an Iranian-American car salesman, Manssor Arbabsiar, tried to enlist a DEA informant to commit mass murder in the mistaken belief that he was a hitman working for a Mexican drug cartel. One of the crimes Arbabsiar is alleged to have had in mind was the murder of the Saudi envoy in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir.
The CIA announced yesterday that it has set up a task force with a rude acronym to assess the damage caused by WikiLeaks. So far, more trouble seems to have been caused by the bare fact of the leak, and the sheer scale of it, than by the content of any of the published cables.
For the most part we see able, professional diplomats doing their best to understand and report on the places where they’re stationed, as anyone familiar with the State Department would expect. Those I have looked at (mostly from or concerning the Middle East) are classified up to ‘secret’, which is supposed to mean the information in them would cause ‘grave damage’ to national security if made public. One lesson is that over-classification, which is a form of bad security, is even more prevalent in the State Department today than it was in the British diplomatic service when I served in it.
The Lebanese braced themselves – some in excitement, others in dread – when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit was announced. Since the early 1980s, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard helped to set up Hizbullah, Lebanon has been ‘the lung through which Iran breathes’ in the Arab world, as the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, an early mentor to Hizbullah, famously put it. That lung has developed into a mini-regional power – the only Arab army to have forced Israel to withdraw from Arab land, as Hizbullah often brags – and a major player in Lebanon’s highly sectarian, highly volatile political system, adored by its Shia followers and resented by many Sunnis and Christians.
On 9 June a letter appeared on the internet purportedly written by Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. It warned of a coup within the Saudi armed forces and said that if the royal family does not step down soon they risk ending up like Nicolae Ceauşescu or the Shah of Iran. The note had no letterhead, was unsigned and there was no accompanying press release. But it quickly spread across the internet, and is the subject of much discussion on Facebook and other sites.">http://www.wagze.com/talik3.html" target="_blank">a letter appeared on the internet purportedly written by Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. It warned of a coup within the Saudi armed forces and said that if the royal family does not step down soon they risk ending up like Nicolae Ceauşescu or the Shah of Iran. The note had no letterhead, was unsigned and there was no accompanying press release. But it quickly spread across the internet, and is the subject of much discussion on Facebook and other sites.
It's one of those ironies of history: a by-product of the clerical revolution in Iran was the emergence of a new wave of Iranian cinema. Kiarostami became the most celebrated auteur in the west, but he was part of a much larger creative and critical community. They view each other’s work at rough-cut stage, they comment on scripts, they suggest actors: there is a strong sense of solidarity. The cinematic language is varied, the interior destiny of each filmmaker is different, but even the self-contained Makhmalbaf family benefits from being part of a larger group. Watching their work one can see the influences that stretch from Rossellini, Fellini and Godard to Kurosawa, Ray and Hou Hsia-hsien. I’ve always regarded one of this group, Jafar Panahi, as the country’s most fearless filmmaker.
Any self-respecting electorate in an EU member-state prefers a presidential to a European parliamentary. In France, enthusiasm and interest were at fever pitch. The challenger to the incumbent looked impressive. According to Le Figaro, he was a winner with younger voters, and an instinctive liberal in ways that matter – an aerosol solution to the fug in the country's political institutions and the clammy hold of the Republic on the lives of its citizens. His wife was said to be 'a star' in the political firmament. If the French had been eligible to vote in Iran, they'd have turned out in force for Hossein Mousavi and his non-singing, non-dancing not Carla Bruni. And they'd have wanted to be on the streets of Tehran denouncing the rigged results.