“The job is always an English job” goes the Iranian phrase that Jack Straw has borrowed for the title of his new book. It reflects, he says, the widespread Iranian suspicion that “we are some unseen, all-pervasive influence on life and events in Iran”. You can’t help thinking that the serendipitous timing of the book’s publication, just as another Iranian crisis is brewing, will only fuel this paranoia.
Straw described his own role as foreign secretary in the abortive Iran negotiations of 2003-06, in his 2012 memoir, Last Man Standing, where he also declared his on-going fascination with the country. In 2015, after Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, but before the deal, known as the JCPOA, came into force, he, his wife and two friends decided to holiday there. In his time as foreign secretary (2001-2006), he had only really seen Tehran.
Initially Straw was flattered to find that he was almost as familiar to ordinary Iranians as he had been as an MP in Blackburn. But not everyone was pleased to see him. In the south-west of the country, he was accosted by a group of black-clad youths who presented him with a letter listing Britain’s historic “crimes” against the Iranian people. “To be honest with you,” it read, “we are not at all happy with your presence in our town.”
These men were from the Basij, the militia set up in 1980 that provided thousands of child soldiers (who received plastic keys they were told would open the gates of heaven) to fight Iraq. Together with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij is part of a security apparatus that has profited from sanctions-busting smuggling, and that forms a state within the Iranian state. It takes its orders not from the elected government, but direct from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
With the help of their guide and the local police, the Straws played cat and mouse with Basij demonstrators from then on, and cut short their break. Since the JCPOA had still not come into force, Straw kept quiet about what had happened, fearing that the opponents of an agreement he supported might publicise his treatment in a last-minute effort to sabotage the deal. Only now, when the deal looks beleaguered, has he gone public with the story.
Straw’s purpose in The English Job is two-fold. By recounting his negotiating experience and what happened on his 2015 trip – and in particular, how the Iranian police tried to protect him from the Basij – he wants to undermine the idea, put about by American and Israeli supporters of regime change in Iran, that there is no real difference between the theocratic and democratic elements of the Iranian state. He also explores the basis for the grievances put to him by the Basij: as the book’s subtitle puts it, his aim is “understanding Iran – and why it distrusts Britain”.
Iran’s problems with the British stem from its strategic location between London and Delhi, and its desire to catch up with its wealthier neighbours. Having invaded India, the British encouraged Iranian claims to western Afghanistan, hoping that by doing so they could deter the Afghans from invading the Punjab. The Iranians saw Britain as a useful counterweight to Russia, but this was confounded by periodic rapprochements between London and St Petersburg (and later Moscow).
One of these led to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, whereby Russia forced Iran to cede most of the southern Caucasus. When the British and Russians went to war over the Crimea, the Iranians reckoned, understandably, that they could have another crack at Afghanistan.
By then, however, the British had reappraised Afghanistan and now saw it as a useful buffer state. In the 1857 Treaty of Paris they obliged the Iranians to foreswear their eastward ambitions and to give the British commercial and legal concessions in Iran, of the sort that the Russians already enjoyed. The Basij said that they had “not forgotten” the Paris Treaty in their letter to Straw. I would bet only a handful of Britons ever knew of it.
British businessmen took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the treaty and the shah’s thirst for foreign investment. In 1872 the German-born British entrepreneur (and founder of the Reuters News Agency) Baron Julius de Reuter made a deal with the shah: Lord Curzon called it “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of”.
The British government’s interest in Iran grew after 1914, when it took a controlling stake in the Anglo-Persian (later Anglo-Iranian) Oil Company, which acquired the oil concession in the country. Through tax and dividends it earned nearly double what the Iranians got out of the company, which also secretly sold oil to the Royal Navy at a third of the market rate. For the British, the stakes justified their occupation of southern Iran during the Second World War and deep interference in domestic politics.
Fed up, the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalised the Iranian operations of the company in 1951. British complaints looked hypocritical. “We are doing the same thing here with our power in the shape of coal, electricity, railways, transport and steel,” admitted the then foreign secretary Ernest Bevin.
Straw thinks that Bevin might have engineered a way out of the crisis had he not been forced to resign by terminal ill-health. The reality was that the British government was too dependent on the money it earned from oil to address Iranian anger at the unequal terms of the concession until it was too late. The British got revenge by convincing the CIA to oust Mosaddegh, by a coup. They and the Americans were tarred by their association with the shah, whose excess (roast peacock stuffed with foie gras, anyone?) made him an easy target for Ayatollah Khomeini.
The remaining complaints the Basij levelled at Straw concerned British support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and for Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic since Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, as well as for the sanctions which followed when Iran proved unwilling to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Here the grounds for grievance are thinner. Britain’s assistance to Iraq during the war was insignificant. Straw himself banned the anti-Khomeini MEK as a terrorist group when he was home secretary.
Straw’s account of his role in the nuclear negotiations closely follows his 2012 version, with one intriguing exception. In early May 20o5, Straw reveals, the British learned that “it was Khamenei himself who had ordered an immediate resumption of [uranium] enrichment,” just before Straw and his European counterparts were due to meet. The interpretation was that Khamenei did so not because he wanted to develop a nuclear bomb, but because he knew being so provocative would help a hard-line candidate win that summer’s presidential election. Footnoted as “Author’s notes”, this insight sounds like it may have come from secret intelligence.
Iran’s aggressive threats to wipe Israel from the face of the Earth and its tactic of hostage-taking hardly help its cause. But this timely book explains how the Iranian regime justifies its antagonism by playing on the country’s unhappy modern history.
James Barr’s books include “Lords of the Desert” (Simon & Schuster)
The English Job: Understanding Iran – and Why It Distrusts Britain
Biteback, 400pp, £20