In this week's New Statesman: The A-Z of Iran

Everything you need to know about the world's most controversial country.

The magazine is now available on newsstands around the country, and domestic/overseas purchasers can order a single issue copy here.

The A-Z of Iran

In this week’s cover story, the New Statesman offers an A-Z guide to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The topics span the nation’s complex history, culture, economics and politics, and range from Cinema and Khomeini/Khamenei to Nose Jobs and Diaspora.

In the article “E for Embassy”, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, traces US-Iran relations from before the 1979 siege of the US embassy in Tehran to the present day. Following George W Bush‘s eight years of failed foreign policy, writes Parsi, Barack Obama in 2008 did what no one before him had done and made diplomacy with Iran “a central theme of his foreign-policy platform”. Since then, however, the US president has abandoned this pursuit:

[B]y the time the Iranians were ready to broker a deal in May 2010, when Turkey and Brazil’s mediation secured Tehran’s agreement to a fuel swap built on the benchmarks of a US proposal from only six months earlier, US politics had taken its toll on Obama. With congressional midterm elections only months away, he had to choose between the breakthrough produced by Turkey and Brazil and sanctions at the UN Security Council. He chose the latter.

More than three decades on from the embassy siege, US-Iranian relations are still hostage to the fear and mistrust perpetuated by America, and to Iran’s missteps of yesteryear and today.

Writing about “G for Green Movement”, the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari recalls being imprisoned in June 2009 for peacefully demonstrating against the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

My interrogators seemed literally to believe that such mass demonstrations against a “holy regime” could not happen without the help of evil western governments, especially the United States, and the financial help of the rich Zionists who run the western media. As a reporter for Newsweek magazine in Iran, I was, in effect, representing evil Zionists.

Bahari writes that nowadays he is often asked if the Green Movement is dead. He answers with a resounding “no”:

The protests in the streets of Tehran and many other Iranian cities in 2009 were manifestations of a civil rights movement through which people peacefully demanded their rights as citizens. Those who expected the Green Movement to topple [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei’s despotic regime and bring a western-style democracy to power were wrong. The Green Movement is a collective cry for a normal life.

Possibly the most topical piece, “U for Uranium”, is written by Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and now leader of the international diplomatic partnership ADRg Ambassadors. Jenkins slams the west for its “legacy of countless misunderstandings and historic clashes” with Iran, a distrust that affected the IAEA’s assessment in 2003 of the nation’s enrichment facility at Natanz. Jenkins describes how western governments, in their attempts to eliminate all enrichment of uranium in Iran, have used persuasion, coercion and, eventually, “the threat of (illegal) military action”.

Jenkins argues that resolution will come when the west recognises that Iranian leaders – as various US assessments have found – “are rational actors whose decisions are based on classic cost/benefit calculations”, and that there is an “absence of hard evidence that Iran has breached the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Threaty (NPT)”. He then explains how the west can change tack:

Instead of trying to stamp out enrichment, it can revert to treating Iran like other NPT parties. It can negotiate, agreeing to tolerate low-risk enrichment activities in return for Tehran offering the best possible guarantees that all its nuclear materials will remain in non-military use.

Ian Blair: police independence is under threat

In the NS Essay, “Regression to the mean”, the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Ian Blair warns that the coalition government’s keenness to pursue a tough line on law and order – exemplified by four wide-ranging policy changes on policing – undermines the authority of the police and risks destroying the great institution created by Robert Peel.

[Police commissioners] will be elected on tribal lines and, seeking re-election, they will put continual pressure on the police to deal with matters of concern to their supporters, irrespective of where crime is occurring. How many times will a chief constable, with now almost no security of tenure, stand up to that pressure or insist on dealing with matters such as organised crime or forced marriage, about which the commissioners’ electorates do not care? . . .

In policing, we are about to regress to the mean. It is particularly ironic that Peel’s own party is involved in driving the partial destruction of his greatest legacy.

Elsewhere in the New Statseman

  • The actress Romola Garai reports on the women fleeing eastern Congo for the relative safety of refugee camps in Burundi.
  • In the Critics, Leo Robson takes the measure of Martin Amis's new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England.
  • Ryan Gilbey assesses the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder 30 years after the German director's death.
  • David Owen on Britain and its place in the eurozone.
  • John Burnside reflects in the Nature column on roadkill, feeling for our fellow creatures and country road mayhem.

The magazine is now available on newsstands around the country, and domestic/overseas purchasers can order a single issue copy here.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.