Destroyed: ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, blown up by the Taliban in 2001. Photo: Salim Saheb Ettaba/AFP/Getty
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Darius Guppy: the US condemns Iran but allies itself with the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia

Iran does has grave problems but family life is of a quality that has largely disappeared in the west and privacy is respected. Nor is there any sense of the oppression one finds in Wahhabi societies.

America and its lackeys, describing themselves as “the international community”, are bullies and the Persians have never liked bullies. The Achaemenid kings drew up the world’s first charter of human rights and created a template for tolerant, civilised governance that has been the model for nations ever since. Iran has suffered wave after wave of invasion by various, and culturally inferior, powers over the centuries. As a result, identification with the oppressed is deeply rooted in the nation’s psyche, the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn at the hands of a cruel tyrant on the battlefield of Karbala providing the passion for Iran’s Shiaism.

Writing recently in the Daily Mail, Max Hastings acknowledged the west’s bullying of the Islamic world and its role in setting alight the Middle East, but he also argued that Muslims must shoulder at least some of the responsibility. However, he made two errors common in liberal commentary when he hypothesised that while the Christian world has adapted to modernity, Islam’s misfortune has been its failure to do so.

First, Christianity did not “adapt” to modernity. It capitulated. The Church was defeated by the state with the advent of the Enlightenment and the triumph of secularism. Second is the smug assumption that this capitulation by the Church represents a salutary outcome and that if only Islam had done likewise the world would be a better place. That is the whole point; Muslims do not buy into this narrative.

The American dream is failing in America, never mind the rest of the world, and the greatest threat to humanity is the propagation of a system that wreaks environmental havoc and creates extreme social inequality – not, as we are told, a bunch of plotters in some cave in Waziristan, nor even Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

With God’s dethronement in the west, a civilisational crisis was unleashed and three secular responses were proposed: fascism, communismand capitalism. The first two have been defeated; the third is entering its endgame.

Imam Khomeini posited a fourth response with his 1979 Islamic Revolution. It has been the west’s ambition ever since for that response to fail, because its success would represent an affront to its perceived interests. Khomeini’s followers and large parts of the Sunni world have grasped, correctly, that neoliberalism and neocolonialism are the same. The key is not to modernise, as Max Hastings puts it, but to modernise without westernising.

Now, however, conflict in Syria and Iraq threatens to embroil the entire region in a “Sunni-Shia” civil war, as it is mistakenly being called. In fact, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others have lived here in harmony for most of Islam’s existence and the horrific internecine conflicts that punctuated Christendom have been largely absent from the Muslim world until recently. What is viewed as a “Sunni-Shia” divide is largely a “Wahhabi-Shia” divide.

Wahhabism is a Saudi-funded and Saudi-propagated heresy that has nothing to do with mainstream Islam. Dark and intolerant, it contradicts the Quran, which emphasises God’s love of beauty. Wahhabism has not produced a single line of verse, nor any magnificent buildings, nor even a handsome artefact. Its greatest technological achievement has been the explosive vest. The Taliban’s dynamiting of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan in March 2001 epitomises the Wahhabi misunderstanding of the Prophet’s message. No previous Islamic power in the region had done such a thing. Nor did Muslim conquerors destroy Greek temples in Asia Minor, the pyramids in Egypt, Persepolis in Iran or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Little wonder that, next to Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism’s other great sponsor should be the United States of America.

The same cannot be said for Iran, whose cultural output has had few rivals – nor for genuine Sunni Islam, which has produced some equally wonderful civilisations.

Despite there being no evidence that Iran wishes to acquire nuclear technology for reasons other than peaceful use, vicious sanctions imposed by the bullies have made life very difficult for ordinary Iranians: from the absence of everyday goods to the fettering of the country’s banking system.

Iran has grave problems, such as drug addiction, but family life is of a quality that has largely disappeared in the west and privacy is respected. Nor is there any sense of the oppression and chauvinism one finds in Wahhabi societies. As anyone who knows Iranian women will attest, it is hard to imagine a less downtrodden type. Indeed, the joke goes that Iranians are so civilised they even allow men to drive.

The sponsors of Wahhabism fear Iran precisely because of its potential to threaten their monopoly of power and privilege. Too naive to know it, young European-based “jihadists” in Syria and Iraq sacrifice their lives for their enemies, who exult in Whitehall, Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv every time one of their acts of destruction dishonours their religion, divides the bona fide resistance and gives one more excuse for enacting yet further Orwellian legislation.

I visit the Middle East often and Iran strikes me as the most rational player in the region. While virtually the entire Muslim world, or its “elites”, have collaborated with the west, the same could not be said of Iran. Britain is about to reopen its embassy in Tehran but this won’t make any difference because, on the critical issue, things could not be simpler: either Iran acquires nuclear technology for civil purposes, in which case it wins, or it doesn’t, in which case the west wins. President Rowhani has impeccable revolutionary credentials and I suspect Iran’s diplomats will continue to run rings round their western counterparts. If they had longer legs, and were called Angelina, it would be a lot easier, though.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.