No country, except perhaps North Korea in recent years has attracted so much adverse attention as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its theocratic regime is rightly charged with persecuting dissenters, forcing women to wear the veil and chawdor, bloodily suppressing the protests of hundreds of thousands of Teheranis who believed that its 2009 election was rigged in favour of President Ahmadinejad. Worse, in the eyes of the US and most (though not all) EU Governments, Iran is seen to be using its nuclear power programme covertly to develop atomic warheads for its missiles that could be used to carry out Ahmadinejad’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map”.
The trouble with this analysis is that like the curate’s egg, it is bad in parts. Born of fear and the same kind of flawed intelligence that plunged the US and Britain into Iraq and an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, it fails to take account of the ‘other Iran’ that I have come to know over a lifetime of interaction with the largest, most populous and in the long run, most potentially pro-Western nation in the Middle East.
We need to get back to basics if the Obama Administration in Washington and the new Con-Lib coalition in London are to pursue with any hope of success the “dialogue with Iran” that is the only sane alternative to a slide into bombing and war. So let’s start again – with the history, geography and culture that mean far more than the dithyrambics of the transitory regime of the Mullahs. Iran is big. Put one end on the Bristol Channel and the other would stretch eastwards from Istanbul. Iran is also rich, a reservoir of more oil and gas than anywhere except Saudi Arabia. Climatically it is hot and arid, yet in the turrets of the Zagros Mountains and in the snows of the 11,000 ft tall peaks where Iranians ski and from which streams gush down to the forested shores of the Caspian, it is not hard for the visitor to fall in love (as I did in my youth) with what one of my more distinguished Parliamentary colleagues described as “those plains of amber, those peaks of amethyst, the dignity of that silence of two thousand years”.
Lord Curzon, who was the British Viceroy of India when he said that, grasped the significance of the continuity over the millennia of Iranian culture. Most classical civilizations have seen their ancient history fade into the mists of time. Today’s Egypt, Greece and Italy cherish the memories but bear little contemporary resemblance to the glories of the Pharaohs, of Athens in the 5th Century BC or the Empire of Rome at its peak.
Not so Iran (and China). Visit Esfahan, Shiraz or Yazd and Iranians in three piece suits as well as gowns and turbans, will regale you with tales of Cyrus and Darius, their great emperors who carried the power and culture of Persia to Sudan in the south and Pakistan to the east.
Therein lies one of the keys to dealing with Iran. Far more important, because it is more deeply rooted than the Koran-thumping of the Ayatollahs – or the consumerism of the Americans – is the self-image of the Persians. Above all, they are proud. They too believe that – like the Brits – they are unique.
Personifying this critical quality of the Persian character is a wise old man living in Le Chateau des Roses, overlooking Lake Geneva in the Swiss city of Montreux. Meet Ardeshir Zahedi, son of the Persian general who restored the late Shah to the Peacock Throne in the long-ago 1950s. Foreign Minister of Iran, Ambassador to Britain and (twice) to America in the ‘80s, Zahedi has even more reason to be hostile to the current regime than other members of the Iranian diaspora. Its agents targeted him for assassination in the 90s. Nor has this muted his calls for an end to the Ayatollahs’ persecution of dissent, their mis-management and corruption of the Iranian economy, their support for terrorist causes among extremist elements of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Zahedi is broadly, though not uncritically, pro-British and pro-American. Above all else he incarnates the cultural characteristics of the Persian. In his youth he was passionate and playful. As an Ambassador he was generous to the point of extravagance in the parties he gave for Presidents and Prime Ministers. As Foreign Minister he could be prickly and sometimes profane in his pursuit of Iranian interests, for instance in his insistence that the Gulf must never be referred to as anything other than Persian, and that its islands must be Iranian.
Zahedi today is a pragmatist to whom increasing numbers of thoughtful Iranian exiles look for advice and guidance on how to interpret the cross currents of Iranian politics. Iran watchers at the UN Security Council and the EU Commission in Brussels – though not, alas, the know-it-alls of the State Department and Pentagon – study his occasional speeches and excerpts from his memoirs that appear in the Swiss-Iranian and Persian language journals of west coast America. But Zahedi’s advice is very different from that which might be expected from the ‘Bourbons’, the term traditionally used to describe exiles who ache to destroy the regimes that dispossessed them.
Consider just two examples:
“Bomb Iran to stop it making atomic bombs?”
“Madness,” says Zahedi. In addition to murdering the innocent, this would be more likely to consolidate support behind the regime that he, no less than the hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv, wants to displace.
“Tighten up sanctions to squeeze the Iranian economy and bring the regime to its knees.”
“It won’t work,” says Zahedi. Iran is self sufficient in food, energy and minerals. Unemployment is a major problem for the rapidly increasing numbers of school leavers in a country of 74 million, more than half of whom are under 20 – but as in Cuba and Myanmar, it is not hard for a regime that controls the press and TV to put the blame for the lack of jobs and declining living standards on “outside enemies” seeking to punish the Iranians for failing to bow to the “Great Satan” (as the Mullahs describe America).
Ardeshir Zahedi’s anaylsis, like mine, is that the dialogue with Iran that the Obama Administration in Washington now says it wants, will get nowhere if it is confined to the nuclear question. Between the US and Iran, there are other festering issues that cry out to be tackled.
For instance, compensation – to the Americans, for the 1979 seizure of their Embassy and incarceration of their diplomats; to the Iranians for the families of the 248 pilgrims killed in 1988 when the US cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner en route to Mecca. Both sides also accuse the other of aiding and abetting terrorism. Iran helps fund and arm extremist elements of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The CIA makes use of money appropriated by Congress to assist anti-Iranian forces not only among Kurds on the borders of Iraq and Turkey but inside Iran itself.
There are nevertheless broad interests that Iran and the West have in common. Trade is one example. As Britain and Europe strive to pull out of the global recession, Iran is too large a market to be left to the Russians and Chinese. And Iran could pay for its imports if only its oil and gas were allowed back onto world markets. Politically too, an Iran at peace with the West could help stabilize the Persian Gulf by removing the Arab fears of Iranian over-lordship after the Americans leave. It could also assist in resolving the Middle East’s most dangerous confrontation, between Israel and Palestine.
There are, as yet, few signs that the Mullahs will put aside their proclaimed intention to export the Islamic Revolution. But that is not the aim nor the wish of the “Other Iran” that constitutes the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people. For them the best way forward is to restore the links with the West that in Ardeshir Zahedi’s day (and mine) made Iran our closest friend and stoutest ally on the crucial land bridge that links greater Europe (including
Turkey) with the tomorrow-lands of Central Asia, India and China.
A pipedream? I do not think so. For the Mullahs are not forever. One way or another, they too will pass or be absorbed into the cultural fabric of historic Iran. With Ardeshir Zahedi, I cling to the belief expressed by a mutual friend, Houshang Navahandi, when he served as Rector of Shiraz University:
“Four thousand years of history with so many ups and downs have taught this to the Iranians: Iran has always survived, overcome its invaders… absorbed its occupiers. The Phoenix is always re-born from the Ashes.”