The Iranian Connection
Taken from the New Statesman archive, 10 December 1976.
This is Robin Co
Last month, I participated in a spirited exchange with a member of the Defence Sales Office over supplying internal security systems to repressive regimes. Surely, I finally demanded, they could not really like the Shah of Iran. "Ah," came the answer, "I am afraid I just don't know enough about Iran to make a judgement."
This convenient ignorance strikes me as curious. In the first place, there is adequate evidence of repression within Iran. For instance, in recent years the Shah has established a censorship which reduced the number of books published in his country from 4,200 in 1971 to 1,200 in 1974. Last year an entire theatre company was arrested for rehearsing Gorky's Lower Depths and a similar fate awaits anyone sufficiently rash to attempt Hamlet, Macbeth or Richard III, all prohibited lest they encourage regicide.
Even the Shah's solitary book has now been banned. In it he had written: "If I were a dictator rather than a constitutional monarch, then I might be tempted to sponsor a single dominant party such as Hitler organised." This was found too embarrassing after he declared Iran a one-party state, adding that any citizens who refused to join were "traitors who must either go to prison or leave the country".
Certainly if accused by Savak, the Shah's Gestapo, they run a high probability of disappearing into one of his 6,000 prisons, as no political defendant has ever been known to be acquitted. All political trials are held before military courts, usually in camera, and the sole evidence which the courts consider is Savak's deposition, which normally contains a "confession". Amnesty has confirmed the torture employed in the process, including beating and whipping, extraction of nails and teeth, electric shocks to the sexual organs, boiling water pumped into the rectum, and, most notorious of all, roasting on a bedframe which has been converted as an electric toaster.
Yet the west has slavishly courted this latter-day Caligula by pouring out a cornucopia of arms before his throne, which is the second reason why the professed ignorance of the Defence Sales Office is startling, for Iran is their biggest client-state.
As a result of current orders from the US and UK alone, by the early Eighties Iran will have more tanks, warplanes, or helicopters than any state in the world excepting the two superpowers. This avalanche of sophisticated weaponry into a country, three-quarters of whose population is illiterate, is likely to create acute indigestion, and for the foreseeable future this formidable war machine is going to be dependent on an army of foreign technicians and instructors.
Congress has estimated that by 1980 up to 60,000 US personnel will be stationed in Iran on defence contracts and while, typically, there are no available British figures, it is believed that Iran contains 80 per cent of the overseas operatives of Millbank Technical Services, a branch of the Crown Agents which provides support services to the Defence Sales Office. We are both sitting on top of a potential Vietnam.
Why, you may ask, does the Shah wish to arm his nation to their back teeth with weapons they do not know how to maintain? He would probably begin by referring to the 1,200 miles of border he shares with the Soviet Union; but in fact over the past decade his relations with Moscow have been good. His second line of justification would be that British withdrawal from the Gulf has created a vacuum which nature designed him to fill. This is even more specious. What has changed is not that Britain has withdrawn, but that the revenue from oil has gone through the roof, enabling the Light of the Aryans to indulge his expensive whims.
In so far as there is a genuine rationale for the Shah's arms build-up, it is internal. In so far as there is a real possibility that any of his tanks and gunships will actually be used, it is most likely to be against domestic insurgence by either socialists or separatists. Both are ruthlessly suppressed.
The internal function of the military is betrayed by their lavish purchase of surveillance equipment. In the heart of the country, the US is building a powerful electronics facility which will enable the Iranians - and the Americans - to eavesdrop on military signals from Europe to India, but will also enable the Shah to intercept all internal communications. In Britain the Millbank agency is reportedly arranging with Racal and Cable & Wireless to bid to supply Savak with a communications system, including discreet surveillance in their prisons. As one British executive crowed, "surveillance is one of the big growth areas in Iran".
Socialists can only hope that, despite the efforts of our arms exporters, a more democratic regime will succeed in sweeping aside Reza Shah, and reopen the contracts for hospitals, roads and housing now being sacrificed to maintain the momentum of arms purchases. However, it is certain that they will not concede any such contracts to the Anglo-Saxon world, whom they will never forgive for providing the Shah with the means of repression. We are putting an enormous investment in one man who is making himself an awful lot of enemies.