Reviewed: Revolutionary Iran - a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

Parallel lines.

Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic
Michael Axworthy
Allen Lane, 528pp, £25

As they travel down a road in the scrublands of south-western Iran, a group of soldiers hear noises from a nearby trench. It is the height of war with Iraq, which lasted from 1980 until 1988. They scramble into position and start firing at their half-hidden enemies:

We were exchanging fire and launching RPG-7s at each other . . . We could hear the others, opposite us, who were attacking us, shouting “Allahu Akbar” . . . [A]s we listened to them . . . we realised that they were speaking Persian . . . We had been fighting with another group of Iranian forces.

Stories such as this one, recorded by Michael Axworthy for his new history of revolutionary Iran, are not unusual in war. Yet while there may be chaos and confusion at the front, there is usually cohesion at home. Though most Iranians were united in the face of a foreign enemy, they were also battling one another in a separate, hardly less significant struggle – for the soul of their revolution.

The stakes in that fight were high: it was for the nature of the state and the ability of the people to determine their own futures. By the time war broke out in September 1980, a referendum had resoundingly endorsed an Islamic republic in Iran; an interim government had come and gone; a bitter row over a new constitution had resulted in an unexpectedly conservative document and the hostage crisis had shattered relations with the US. A controversial new principle setting out the political authority of the chief religious scholar was embedding itself in the machinery of government.

As this book shows, the effect was polarising. The revolution didn’t simply get rid of the shah and his cronies. It comprehensively reallocated power: better-off, better-educated, anti-monarchist liberals found themselves excluded. The poor, devout and provincial were elevated, in some cases to dizzying heights. In the scramble to wrest advantages from a system in flux, the winners were those prepared to be nimble, ruthless, often violent. Sadegh Khalkhali, Ayatollah Khomeini’s avenging angel, travelled the country executing enemies of the revolution. Some of those enemies refused to go quietly: in June 1981, 70 leading members of the Islamic Republican Party were blown up by oppositionists. Two months later, a suitcase bomb killed the president and prime minister. Consolidation was not going to be easy.

This is a story with plenty of historical echoes. When thousands of political prisoners were executed in 1988, commentators invoked the French Revolution’s reign of terror. And the transformation of revolutionaries into authoritarian rulers is a pattern familiar from Cromwell onwards. There are modern parallels, too: the controversy over the drafting of Iran’s Islamist constitution brings to mind arguments now raging in Egypt.

Axworthy is good at placing Iran into context in this way, which is important as it’s too often seen as exceptional. The revolution’s religious underpinning is hard for the secular west to comprehend. Islam is the wild card that puts Iran’s predicament beyond conventional analysis. Some claim that there is a tinge of irrationality in its decisionmaking that makes it impossible to engage with in the usual way.

This line of argument leads not only to calls for pre-emptive strikes but to terrible wasted opportunities. The “grand bargain” – a settlement with the US that would have seen Iran stop funding anti-Israel groups in return for an end to isolation and sanctions – was vetoed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney on the grounds that: “We don’t speak to evil.” Yet Iran’s domestic and foreign policies (including its stance on nuclear technology) are perfectly intelligible in terms of a desire to maintain cultural and political independence. The conservative establishment is right, Axworthy points out, in believing that if it relaxes its grip on freedom of expression, the culture it believes it has a duty to defend will be eroded. Iranians’ long history of exploitation by superpowers makes some loath to co-operate with an “international community” dominated by western interests.

Iran’s relations with the rest of the world are a reflection of who has the upper hand at home. Over the past three decades, that contest has been brutal. The reformists, always at a disadvantage because they want the state to relinquish some of its power, remain at a low ebb. Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections this summer, we must hope that the friendly fire that still characterises Iranian politics will one day stop.

Because of that election, Revolutionary Iran, which takes the reader up to the end of 2012, is particularly well timed. It will be invaluable for those hoping to make sense of the coverage. With it, Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment.

 

An Iranian flag fluttering at an undisclosed location in the Islamic republic next to a surface-to-surface Qiam-1 (Rising) missile. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit