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How Iran went nuclear

David Patrikarakos tells the remarkable story of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, which beg

In the beginning there was the atom bomb and the world-changing destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the atom was also a renewable energy source that could lift countries into modernity. It had to be harnessed, not simply abandoned. In the gloom of the postwar period, the world looked to Washington for guidance on how to recalibrate the global order. This duly came with President Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace programme – the first non-proliferation initiative. Atoms for Peace gave countries the equipment to start their own peaceful programmes regulated by an international agency devoted to the job (it became the IAEA). Washington became the source of all nuclear materials, and it found a willing recipient in Iran.

Akbar Etemad is a nuclear physicist in his seventies, long-faced, short-tempered, and of immeasurable importance to Iran’s nuclear history. In 1965 he returned home from studying in Paris with many qualifications but no job. According to the press, a five-megawatt research reactor – a gift from Atoms for Peace – sat in Tehran University,and sat. A lack of expertise had forced work to stop and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was angry. Etemad came to the shah’s attention and completed the reactor in 1967. “It was no big deal,” he told me one morning over coffee in London. “The nuclear programme at this stage was almost non-existent.”

After Etemad completed the reactor, he left to work in higher education for a few years. But it was not his last contact with nuclear power. Following the 1973 oil boom the shah called him back: full steam ahead was the order. Etemad told him that the programme needed something hitherto missing: a plan. With a limitless budget and the royal blessing, he created the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) in 1974. He was also made deputy prime minister. From that point until the revolution of 1979 the two met at least once a week. “No matter what he was doing, he still found time to discuss the programme,” Ete­mad says. “It was so close to his heart.”

Why? Officially, oil. During the 1970s Iran was the third-largest oil producer in the world. It was a valued but finite commodity on which to base a nation’s wealth. The shah was clear on this dilemma: petroleum and gas were simply too valuable to burn for fuel. This is important. First articulated more than 40 years ago, it remains the official line on atomic power under the Islamic Republic today. It has economic cogency – domestic use of fossil fuels drastically affects foreign exchange earnings, as every barrel burned is a barrel not sold. From the beginning, nuclear energy was seen as the replacement. “It is a shame to burn the noble product [oil] to run factories and light houses,” wrote the shah in 1961. “We plan to get, as soon as possible, 23,000MW [megawatts] from nuclear power stations.”

There was also an unspoken reason. Glory. Like all dead kings, even successful ones, the shah is condemned to dramatic irony. Ever since Nader Shah returned to Tehran with a stolen Mughal throne in 1739, the Peacock Throne has symbolised the royal house of Persia. For Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, royal glory was foreign policy, and he was determined to make the metaphor a reality: the great tail feathers would unfurl in all their Pahlavi splendour and the world, or, at any rate, the region, would marvel at the display.

The shah had named his country “the Empire of Iran” and “modernisation” was the path to its imperial reinvigoration. To Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, modernisation signified westernisation – and the two were insuperable, as well as inseparable. The means was technology, and especially nuclear technology, the vanguard of modernity. He saw a world where Britain and the US had assumed leadership in nuclear power. Technology brought prestige; it was a laurel for the royal breast, but one that could only be pinned there by a western hand.

Etemad remembers all this. At a general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the late 1970s he was called on to vote and called his king for instructions: “His Majesty said, ‘You should vote as the developed countries do,’” Etemad says. “We had to act like a western country. This was the point of the programme – to bolster us rapidly into a developed country, to get into the western world.”

And he wanted to do it fast. Despite Etemad’s best efforts to build up an Iranian scientific base, the shah wanted to increase western links. In March 1974 France ratified an agreement for five reactors, with a further two to be built under licence from the US firm Westinghouse. That year Etemad also signed a contract for two water reactors from the West German firm KWU for a proposed plant at Bushehr, to supply electricity to the south-western city of Shiraz. In 1975, Iran also acquired a 10 per cent stake in Eurodif, a uranium-enrichment venture involving France, Belgium and Spain. As his father, Reza Pahlavi, had done with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the shah bound Iran to the west with commercial ties. This time the prize was not oil, but nuclear energy. Such is the nature of progress.

Ardeshir Zahedi, holding a pen in one hand and a tightly bound five-page document in the other, sat behind a desk at the Foreign Office in London between three civil servants who stood looking at him expectantly. It was 1 July 1968, Zahedi was foreign minister of Iran, and he had just signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). “It was a historic moment,” he says from his home in Montreux. “I telephoned His Majesty in Tehran and told him it was done. He was very pleased. We had signed it the day it opened for signature. He was determined to show that we were an honourable country.” As far back as 1968, the seeds of today’s impasse between Iran and the US and other western nations were sown. It’s there in all the details.

“We should never have signed it,” complains Etemad. “It was not a fair treaty. I never would have allowed it. Only small countries joined – Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, the Fiji Islands. The countries that actually had a chance of getting nuclear power – India, Pakistan, Israel – they stayed out. Only we signed.”

One evening in late 1976, Akbar Etemad was having an argument with the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had come to Tehran to promote a plan for US regional nuclear fuel centres in the Middle East, intended to reduce the need for other nations to develop their own sources. Etemad repeated the reasons for his refusal: national sovereignty, the right to pursue indigenous enrichment under the NPT, arguments that would reappear 30 years later. It didn’t seem to be working.

He tried a different tack. “I said, ‘Mr Kissinger, I’m going to talk to you now as a Harvard professor. Regardless of anything else, can you imagine Iran sitting around a table with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and agreeing on anything – let alone nuclear fuel?’ Kissinger leaned back in his chair; he thought, and he said: ‘You’re quite right, it is impossible.’”

Matters only got worse with the arrival of Jimmy Carter and the tightening of US exports of nuclear materials. “This man, Carter!” became shorthand for the new president. “The shah never really liked Democrats,” says Etemad. “He much preferred Nixon.”

And nuclear weapons? In public, the shah rejected them. “The idea that I want nuclear weapons is ridiculous; only a few silly fools believe it,” he said in 1976. As an NPT signatory, he could not say anything else. More pertinently, infrastructure was so basic that any bomb would have taken years. Until then, why rock the boat?

But self-interest played a part, too. In the years after 1973, as money, hubris and repression increased in equal measure, so did the shah’s need for a powerful military. By the end of the 1970s, Iran was what he wanted it to be: a Gulf superpower. “He always said we didn’t need nuclear weapons because of our military strength. Nuclear weapons might actually force others to go nuclear and wipe out our conventional arms advantage,” says Etemad. “But he also said if things ever changed – if our security was threatened – he would give the order. I’ve no doubt that were he here today he would say, ‘Go’; and I would.”

The Iranian psyche is cleaved, bloated with a sense of the country’s historical importance but scarred by the humiliations of the not-so-distant past. The division of Iran into spheres of influence by the British and the Russians during the Great Game, the overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadeq in a British and American coup in 1953, the constant meddling of foreign powers – all burned into the popular imagination. The shah believed he was a “western” ruler, but his story is that of modern Iran itself: the desire to escape from the “colonial” father and strike out in the world. His means was to imitate his western role models. The nuclear programme rested on this vision, an empyrean charge into modernity.

But a vision is just that. It will always contract in the face of reality. In the end, royal profligacy and repression – reality – were too much; and the people, radicalised by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, revolted. In the end, as the regime crumbled, it retreated on many of its policies, including the nuclear programme – now nothing more than the vulgar toy of a hated ruler.

In 1979 the revolution changed everything. Iran was tranformed from an autocratic and pro-western monarchy into an isolationist and populist Islamic republic under the clerical rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini brought a new day with a new system of government, and a deep mistrust of the international community. The new path lay not just in 7th-century Islamic history, but 19th- and 20th-century Iranian history. During the revolution crowds marched through the streets holding banners adorned with pictures of Mossadeq and denounced the shah as Washington’s puppet. Iran would no longer be “enslaved” by “imperial” powers, dependent neither on “the godless east nor the tyrannic [sic] blasphemous west”. And it would be self-sufficient.

With the nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic had inherited a symptom of Pahlavi excess. The new government, led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and desperate to distance itself from the shah’s unpopular measures, installed the excitable Fereydun Sahabi as head of the AEOI in April 1979. He immediately announced that the programme was seriously over budget. The Bushehr reactors in particular had almost doubled in cost to $7bn. They had also created “a consumer market for the industrial products of other countries”. Sahabi declared that a “vicious” reliance on foreign manpower would end.

In future, the programme would “enhance the country’s knowledge of nuclear energy with a view to achieving self-sufficiency”. But this was not enough. On 17 June 1980, officials confirmed the suspension of Bushehr, announcing on Iranian radio that “the construction of these reactors, started by the former regime on the basis of colonialist and imposed treaties . . . was a cause of greater dependence on imperialist countries”.

No longer a banner of Iranian internationalism, the nuclear programme was now viewed as the continuation of colonialism by other means. The atom was not merely too expensive, it was ideologically unclean. In late 1979 the government announced the unilateral abrogation of contracts with KWU and the French company Framatome. Naturally, this did little to improve the country’s foreign relations. Both sued.

Nuclear power is always a statement of identity. In rejecting the programme, the revolutionary government rejected what it symbolised politically: Pahlavi ambition. It rejected a particular form of statehood. The shah had been a western poodle. Now defiant and self-sufficient, the Islamic Republic had found a new means by which to make its way in the world.

But God, alas, does not supply electricity or pay wages, at least not directly. Power shortages and an idling AEOI made energy once again a high priority for the government. In early 1980 Sahabi was dismissed and Reza Amrollahi – a somewhat more reasonable man – replaced him. The decision was taken to start the programme again and, in early 1982, legal disputes with KWU reached a preliminary agreement at arbitration. Agreement with Framatome followed. Tehran was willing to reconcile and beginning to understand that theology wasn’t enough.

In June 1982, KWU agreed to complete at least one of the two reactors at Bushehr and the engineers returned to the site that year. Officially ideology still ruled, however, and the government justified this U-turn with the need for “native expertise”. Through rhetorical sleight, indigenous capability and self-reliance now justified not the abandonment of the programme, but its restart.

The moves came to nothing. KWU was reluctant to work on Bushehr while the Iran-Iraq War – which had begun in September 1980 – was still raging. In May 1984 it said that it would complete the project only when the war ended. The Iraqis had struck the Bushehr reactor, and were to do so a further seven times before the 1988 ceasefire. KWU declined repeated requests to resume construction of the plant, which lay dormant until the Russians signed an agreement in 1995 for its completion. Western co-operation had ended.

The Islamic Republic, however, had bigger problems. It had raised its flag with the disgraceful kidnapping of diplomats at the US embassy in Tehran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis – an act that alienated the onlooking world, including a United States desperate to keep the friendship of its Persian ally. Outraged, President Carter had imposed an array of economic and military sanctions on Iran as well as tacitly supporting Iraq in the war. After the decision to restart the nuclear programme, agreement had been sought not only with contractors but also the IAEA, which agreed to help with a proposed reactor at Isfahan’s nuclear technology centre. But US pressure forced it to back out. In response, Iran turned to the developing world for assistance – Pakistan, China and South America were the destinations. Iran was now doubly damned, first by its own revolutionary self and then by association.

The Islamic Republic was now poorer and weaker and, crucially, alone; it had more humiliation, more rage, and more God. Both the invasion by Iraq and the Iraqis’ subsequent use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers had been met with exuberant inactivity by the UN and the international community in general. In turn, all institutions were now seen as tools of the west. Khomeini had been right.

Cherchez l’Amérique – if there is one lesson from postwar international politics, it is this. Washington had been of central importance to the shah’s programme. It was to be so again, but for different reasons. Necessity had restarted nuclear power under the Islamic Republic. Pride was now to resurface. But it was an altered pride. However much the world “persecuted” Iran, it would not win. “Despite the problems resulting from America’s unfair victimisation of the Islamic Republic and the world’s blindness in the face of repeated violations by the Ba’athist regime,” said a sombre Amrollahi in 1987, “there have been remarkable improvements in the scientific and industrial fields in our country.”

The nuclear programme had become symbolic once more – this time not because it was something a developed, western country had because it was developed and western, but something a developing country had because it was palpably non-western and defiant. Like the soldiers on the Iraqi battlefields, the Iranian nuclear programme embodied a nation’s refusal to be cowed.

Officially, the Islamic Republic rejected nuclear weapons. It went further – it urged disarmament. For Iran’s representative to the UN in October 1986, nuclear weapons created a world where “each day the big powers become increasingly dominant at the expense of the oppressed nations”. They were synonymous with colonisation, the pri­meval impulse of strong against weak.

Iran, however, was also at odds with the world’s superpower and at war with Iraq, which, under Saddam Hussein, had been building its own nuclear capability until the 1981 Israeli attack on its nuclear reactor at Osirak. It had good reason to develop weapons and it is inconceivable that the mullahs did not consider the option.

But the programme was a shambles, the Bushehr reactors stood uncompleted, and the war was draining the country’s resources. There was simply no chance of getting them.

The truth was, as far as the world was concerned, it didn’t matter. In the mid-1980s the US urged a worldwide ban on the sale of nuclear materials to the Islamic Republic. In a declassified report of April 1984, the state department outlined its refusal to “consent to the transfer of US-origin nuclear equipment, material or technology to Iran”. But, in the very same document, it conceded that “the reactors at Bushehr . . . are not particularly well-suited for a weapons programme . . . we [also] have no evidence of Iranian construction of other facilities that would be necessary to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel”. The state department admitted that it was denying technology to a state that could not pose a genuine threat.

The US, scarred by the hostage crisis and later the Iran-Contra affair, now could not view Iran rationally. In 1984, a US senator from Ohio, John Glenn, called for a ban on the export of all nuclear materials to certain countries. With no evidence of wrongdoing, he merely invited all to “imagine a world in which the Ayatollah Khomeini can have nuclear weapons and we face . . . state-supported nuclear terrorism”.

To the Iranian people, fed by government propaganda, the US is denying them their “rights” in the best tradition of imperialism. They have come to see their programme as a totem of their country’s independence. In the words of the former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, the people are united in “wanting nuclear technology because the US says we can’t have it”. The Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric, by stirring the nationalist impulse, served only to push a young and vibrant population yearning for social freedom into the arms of a moribund regime fearful of its own country’s demographics. The Iranian people have become reluctant spear-carriers for a regime they dislike, based on theological ideals they distrust, herding them into a future they dread.

The Islamic Republic is a dismal and brutal regime, but it is not stupid. That much is clear from the past seven years. Compared to the meanderings of the western coalition, its diplomacy has been balletic. It has exploited differences between a hawkish Washington and a more conciliatory EU, played on its relationship with the Chinese and the Russians, and always expressed a willingness to negotiate – even if only as a stalling tactic. And all the while it has continued enriching. On 11 April 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced completion of the nuclear fuel cycle on a laboratory scale by successfully enriching uranium to a level suitable for civilian purposes (3.5 per cent). A year later Iran had enriched uranium on an industrial scale. It has mastered the fuel cycle.

As Iran continues onwards, tensions have increased, seemingly in line with Ahmadinejad’s unpredictability. The president has been a gift to those in Washington who urge military strikes. From the mercantile pragmatism of the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the eloquence of Mohammad Khatami, the variegated friezes of Iranian diplomacy have taken firm shape in the blacksmith’s son from Aradan. He is the hawk’s dream, with his lick of black hair, his beard and bewildering rhetoric.

Tehran has been dishonest about its programme. It has repeatedly hidden the scope and nature of its activities, and although it has not violated the NPT according to the letter of the law, its co-operation has been reactive not proactive, and consistently in bad faith. Yet it is its rhetoric more than anything else that has been used to support the notion that the Islamic Republic is a “rogue” nation. It continues to be seen as merely the sum of its words – and no state is more open to damaging quotation.

The north Tehran skyline is jagged with the steel cages of half-finished buildings. Frozen cranes dot the horizon, a dumbshow of overreaching. As with everything in modern Iran there are huge anomalies with the nuclear programme – the Bushehr reactor, when it comes online, after 30 years and billions of dollars, will supply only about 10 per cent of Iran’s electricity needs. In many ways, it is almost a parody of an efficient, financially viable programme. This strengthens the belief among many that it is a cover for weapons, but the truth is more complex – and more prosaic.

In 1989, reflecting on the Iran-Iraq War, Rafsanjani declared that “the world does not respect its own resolutions and closes its eyes to the violations and all the aggressions committed in the battlefield”. The lesson was stark: Iran could trust only Iran. “We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons,” he continued. The war is over. But as with Mossadeq, as with the Great Game, it is clear that Iran has internalised these feelings of abandonment and mistrust. Never again will foreigners dictate to Iran; never again will it accept restrictions on its behaviour – certainly not on its “legitimate right” to enrich uranium; never again will it be weak.

Iran faces practical dangers, too. The US has maintained a large military presence in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1991. Saudi Arabia and the UAE house numerous US bases, all within easy striking distance of Tehran. In 2001, for Operation Enduring Freedom, thousands of US troops gathered in Afghanistan on the country’s eastern border. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 removed a danger but led to yet more US troops massing, this time to the west. Now add the presence of US soldiers in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan: encirclement. There is a joke that has done the rounds in Tehran for some time. It goes like this: “There are just two countries in the world that have only the US as their neighbour: the other one is Canada.”

Surrounded by a self-declared enemy that has labelled it “evil” and supports “regime change”, what is Iran to do? It can never hope to compete with the US in conventional warfare – nuclear weapons might be the only credible alternative. In 2001, Iran, through back channels, helped the US in its war in Afghanistan, providing intelligence and offering to search for US pilots shot down over its airspace. The reward was a place in the “Axis of Evil”. Meanwhile, Pakistan harboured the Taliban for years only to be saluted by Colin Powell as an ally in the global War on Terror. Many in Tehran have concluded that the White House treats nuclear states differently.

But whether this will translate into a bomb is still uncertain. In December 2007, the US National Security Council produced its annual intelligence estimate, in which it judged with “high confidence” that Iran had halted any possible weapons programme in 2003. Even the paranoid US security Establishment believed that the nuclear programme was a puny target for the US. This dampened Washington’s appetite for military strikes, but not Tel Aviv’s. “Israel views Iran as an existential threat,” a senior Israeli diplomat told me recently. “We are certain Tehran wants the bomb – this cannot happen.”

But might any military action not be a cause for war? “Israel is already fighting a war with Iran through Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. We seek a diplomatic solution; we are not trigger-happy. But, I repeat, Iran cannot get the bomb.”

Iran now has a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. To enrich this to weapons-grade capability it has to run it through its existing centrifuges until the appropriate levels (about 93 per cent) are reached, though this is not easy. In 1989, Rafsanjani might have wished for a nuclear deterrent, but it was impossible. Iran does not yet have the bomb. The country does not want the international isolation that would follow its attainment, but it could be pushed: military attack would accelerate a weapons drive from Tehran.

The Bush administration believed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions were a barrier to dialogue. They shouldn’t have been. The nuclear stand-0ff is not the cause, but the effect of a wider problem, and it is a political one. Barack Obama has made détente with the Islamic Republic his most audacious hope yet. However, to deal with Iran, we must first understand it. The nuclear programme offers us this chance.

The nuclear programme is many things to Iran but most of all it is the expression of a nation seeking a place in the modern world. It is an irony, and a peculiarly Iranian one, that it pursues the one thing that may bring its total isolation from what it wants above all else: acceptance – but on its own terms.

For 30 years Iran and the US have danced together out of step, always joined, never in time. America’s hand was rebuffed by Iran in 1979. In turn, America rejected Iran’s overtures in the 1980s and 1990s. The disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad has disappointed the hopes of many for change, yet things may not be so clear-cut. Earlier in the year Ahmadinejad appeared eager to take credit for the diplomatic opening with Washington, to appear more flexible. The IAEA’s February report judged that Iran’s rate of uranium enrichment had slowed, a possible sign that Tehran was open to negotiation. And there is the chance, however remote, that a second-term president might have learned something from the mistakes of his first.

So far, Washington, in the aftermath of the election, has expressed only tentative unease about the events unfolding in Iran. What is clear is that the White House has abandoned the aggressive rhetoric of the recent past. It is waiting to see what happens in that most unreliable of arenas: Tehran’s streets. Only the US can solve the Iran problem; it alone has the requisite economic and political capital. The next move from either side will be critical.

The wit and wisdom of President Ahmadinejad

On economic policy
There is an honourable butcher in our neighbourhood who knows all the economic problems of the people. I get my economic information from him.

On the Holocaust
They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets.

On the 9/11 attacks
Could it be planned and executed without co-ordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration? Of course, this is just an educated guess.

On nuclear negotiations
Do you think you are dealing with a four-year-old child to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold from him?

On homosexuality
In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you we have it.

On Israel and Zionism
The Imam [Khomeini] said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.

On the Hollywood blockbuster 300
Today they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran’s image look savage.

On his rivals’ campaign tactics
Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler’s methods.

On humour
Let me tell a joke here. I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, or testing them, making them, politically they are backward, retarded.

On Barack Obama’s election victory
I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile