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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.