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How Iran’s rise is remaking the Middle East

Led by its ruthless Revolutionary Guards, Iran will do whatever it takes to defend and preserve the Islamic Republic.

On 10 February, Israel announced that an Iranian drone had been shot down in western Syria. Later, an Israeli F-16 crashed after being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire over the north of Israel. Both Iran and Israel claimed provocation by the other. Whatever the truth of the matter (the drone allegation was not fully convincing), it is clear that after nearly seven years of war in Syria, Shia Iran’s presence in that blighted country is stronger than ever. In fact, what we mean when we speak of Iran in Syria is the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the influence of which has grown over the last ten years. Where did the Revolutionary Guards come from? How powerful are they, and does their greater influence signify an expansionist Iran and even more trouble in the Middle East?

When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile on 1 February 1979, he was greeted by an enormous crowd (estimates of its size have run up to three million, but no one really knows). For ten days or so after Khomeini’s return, the country had two prime ministers: Mehdi Bazargan, a liberal non-cleric appointed by Khomeini; and Shapur Bakhtiar, appointed by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the last days before he left Iran in mid-January.

The situation in Tehran and across large parts of the country was chaotic. The police were scarcely to be seen, and some of their responsibilities, such as traffic control, were taken on by armed revolutionaries – students and others who had taken weapons from ransacked police stations and military bases. Some of those armed paramilitaries were associated with revolutionary committees called Komiteh, rather like the Soviets in Russia in 1917-21.

The Komiteh were mostly based in mosques, from which they distributed food and fuel oil for heating and cooking (normal retail distribution had largely broken down). Other armed groups were connected with political movements – leftists, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation (MKO), a Marxist-Islamic outfit that had carried out terrorist attacks against the Shah’s regime (and some US nationals) over the previous decade. These movements had been persecuted almost to annihilation by the Shah’s secret police, but had expanded again as the revolution gathered pace.

The final showdown came between 10-12 February 1979. Some air force technicians who had previously declared for Khomeini were confronted by members of the old Imperial Guard at the Doshan Tappeh base in the east of Tehran. Exchanges of slogans and abuse were followed by exchanges of gunfire. Crowds and armed paramilitaries converged on the area and some joined in the fighting (including MKO members).

The military, still loyal to Bakhtiar, sent armoured columns through the city to restore order and relieve the pro-Shah troops, but crowds surrounded the tanks and stopped them getting through. Finally, on the morning of 12 February, the military commanders met, acknowledged the hopelessness of the situation, announced on the radio their (so-called) neutrality and ordered all troops to return to their barracks. Bakhtiar gave up in disgust and went into hiding, leaving the country a few weeks later.

Khomeini’s supremacy was complete. But there was still a dangerous vacuum of authority in the country, which persisted for several months in 1979. It was this chaotic situation that led to the formation of the Revolutionary Guards – or to give them their full title, the Guards Corps of the Islamic Revolution (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami). They are usually referred to as the Sepah by Iranians. Khomeini’s overwhelming popularity as leader of the revolution was undisputed, but a variety of groups were hoping to take advantage of his supposed naivety, advanced age and political ignorance to win control for themselves – by violence if necessary.


In April 1979, one of Khomeini’s closest followers, Morteza Motahhari, was assassinated by an obscure extremist group, the Forqan. In previous periods of political crisis in the 20th century and earlier, many Iranians had turned to the clergy for leadership. But the clergy, as a class, had often been uncertain about what to do with the leadership they had been given. Traditionally, most of them disdained and avoided politics. At different stages, the more politically-minded clerics allied themselves with secular liberals or with reaction and the monarchy. 

In the first Iranian revolution of the 20th century, 1906-11, one leading cleric, Fazlollah Nuri, was executed by resurgent revolutionaries after he sided with the monarchy in a coup. In 1953, the defection from the coalition behind prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq of another cleric, Ayatollah Kashani, weakened Mosaddeq and prepared the way for a British- and US-planned coup. The first coup attempt failed but led eventually, after a confused period, to Mosaddeq’s fall from power and the restoration, until 1979, of the rule of the Shah in more autocratic form.

Familiar with this history, Khomeini was determined that, having achieved success in the 1979 revolution, the clergy would not again be pushed aside or exploited by more secularised, leftist or pro-Western elements in the country. He understood the essentials of power in Iran and was determined ruthlessly to stay in control. It was important for him to demonstrate full popular support for the revolution (a referendum held at the end of March 1979 showed 98.2 per cent in favour of an Islamic republic), and to institute a new, Islamic constitution.

But it was necessary also to establish an armed force that was unquestioningly loyal to Khomeini and to the principle of an Islamic republic. Hence the establishment of the Sepah in May 1979. There were other pro-Khomeini paramilitary groups that sometimes carried firearms, notably Hezbollah (the so-called party of God) and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, but almost from the start, the Sepah was pre-eminent and more disciplined.

The revolution had side-effects well beyond the jockeying for power that went on in Tehran throughout the rest of 1979. Komiteh formed throughout the country as the central authority of the Shah collapsed – including in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. In several cases, some among these minority groups saw the revolution and its rhetoric of liberation for the downtrodden as an invitation to fairer treatment, and the greater autonomy that they had failed to achieve under the Shah.

The Arabs of Khuzestan and the Kurds of the north-western provinces were two such ethnic groups, as were Baluchis in the south-east and Turkmen in the north-east. The Kurds and Arabs were wooed for a time by politicians from Tehran, but when discussions broke down there were renewed demonstrations, which were suppressed with force. In Khuzestan the disturbances died down fairly quickly, but in Iranian Kurdestan there was an armed insurrection by militant Kurds.

The conflict with the Kurds was carried out by the Sepah and some army units. It was often brutal, with many deaths. Villages were destroyed and many activists and others were arrested and thrown in prison. But the fight was also exploited by Khomeini to maintain an atmosphere of tension, danger and threat in Tehran, to help with his task of consolidating his hold and that of his supporters on the Islamic Republic.

Fighting the Kurdish revolt was an important factor in debates over the new constitution in the summer and early autumn of 1979. The conflict continued into 1980 and beyond, but Khomeini succeeded in securing a new, strongly Islamic constitution at the turn of the year – assisted by the US embassy hostage crisis, which he used to divide leftist and liberal opposition. The war in Kurdestan established the Sepah as the prime defenders of the Islamic Republic, given continuing doubts about the loyalty of the regular armed forces (in July 1980 some air force and army officers attempted a coup, centred on the Nozheh air base in western Iran; Sepah troops broke it up).


Part of the constitution that came into force in the winter of 1979-80 included a commitment to defend the rights of all Muslims (including those beyond Iran’s borders) and to support the oppressed “in every corner of the globe” – but with the ambiguous and perhaps contradictory caveat that this was “while scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations”.

Sometimes referred to as the justification for Iran to export revolution, these clauses became the basis for the unit of the Sepah known as the Qods (Jerusalem) Force. The name alone points to Israel, and although the exact origins of the Qods Force are uncertain (some say it came into existence with that name only after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, taking over from a previous Sepah entity), it seems to have originated around the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Sepah personnel went to Lebanon to help their fellow Shias.

Since then, the Qods Force has become notorious as the main instrument for Iran’s projection of military power in other countries, and for involvement in terrorism. Large numbers of Sepah troops flew to Lebanon early on, but within a short time, their ranks were slimmed down to something over a thousand. The group’s main activity was training Shia recruits in the Bekaa Valley, who came to form Lebanese Hezbollah. The Qods Force/Lebanese Hezbollah relationship in turn became the prime focus for Iran’s commitment to oppose the state of Israel. Iran has a similar position of support for the Palestinian group Hamas, but that relationship is less strong.

No one outside Iran has a clear idea of how many personnel belong to the Qods Force. Some wilder estimates have gone as high as 30,000 or even more; others, more sensibly, as low as 2,000.

The point is that the Qods Force does not act like a normal military unit. It liaises with military or paramilitary forces in other countries to stiffen their resolve and enhance their expertise, rather than fighting on the front line itself (one might compare this with “military advisers” that the US has deployed in various countries – notably, Vietnam before 1965). It does not need large numbers. Such activity can be deniable, avoiding the necessity for the regime to face that original constitutional ambiguity.


It has become a standard for the Trump administration to denounce Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. This is misleading at best, because it suggests that Iran is involved in a lot of terrorism – but it is not, at least not any more. Most Islamic terrorism in the last 20 years, overwhelmingly, has been carried out by Sunni extremists, not Shias or Iranians. During the early 1980s, in the midst of the Lebanese civil war, a group called Islamic Jihad (which seems to have been closely associated with Lebanese Hezbollah, if not part of it) carried out several attacks on US interests, with Iranian backing. These included attacks in 1983 on the US embassy in Beirut and US barracks, killing 63 and nearly 300 respectively. Islamic Jihad also took hostages from Western countries in Lebanon in the mid-1980s.

After the Iran-Iraq War, there were several assassinations that also might be regarded as score-settling by Iran: the Iranian-Kurdish leader Abdol Rahman Qasemlu was killed in Vienna in 1989, former prime minister Shapur Bakhtiar was murdered in Paris in 1991, and three more Iranian-Kurdish politicians were killed with their translator in Berlin in 1992.

There were also two bombings in Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994, aimed at the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre respectively, that together killed more than 100. Lebanese Hezbollah claimed the first as being carried out in revenge for the killing of one of its members by the Israelis – but it appeared that there was Iranian involvement in both.

There is good reason to believe there was a central decision to end this kind of terrorist activity at some point during the Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani presidency of Iran (1989-1997). Since then, senior Shia clerics have denounced suicide bombing in principle. In 2012, there were incidents aimed at Israeli diplomats involving Iranians in Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok; the attacks seem to have been intended as retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, which were attributed to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

Four people were injured in the Delhi incident, but the other attacks failed. It is unclear whether the Sepah was involved or not. The US has accused Iran of involvement in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, but at various times the Saudis blamed al-Qaeda for that attack, and the evidence implicating Iran was based on interrogation by Saudi torturers. 

At one time, it was thought that Iran instigated the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, and some doubt remains. But Muammar Gaddafi of Libya accepted responsibility in 2003, and a Libyan was later tried and convicted as the perpetrator. Nonetheless, Iran has continued to deny the right of Israel to exist as a state, and still supports Lebanese Hezbollah’s use of all methods, including violence, against Israel.


The Iran-Iraq War, which began in September 1980 when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded western Iran, was the most important formative experience in the early years of the Sepah (for a time, in 1981, it was fighting not just the Iraqis but an insurrection by the MKO in Tehran).  Thousands of volunteers came forward, and initially many went to the front with little training. The Sepah expanded hugely, to at least its present-day size of more than 100,000 men, but even estimated numbers are hard to determine. Volunteers outside the usual military age parameters went into the Basij militia, which has perhaps the same number again or a little less. The Basij, which became notorious internationally for accepting boys in their early teens or even younger, was subordinated to Sepah command in 1981.

The regime always emphasised the role of the Sepah in the fighting and gave it credit for victories in wartime propaganda, sometimes at the expense of regular army, air force and gendarmerie units. But the Sepah was undoubtedly of central importance in the Iranian war effort, which was ultimately successful despite horrendous losses.

The Karbala-4 offensive began on 24 December 1986 with an attack by specialist Sepah frogmen, who crossed the Shatt al-Arab in the darkness. But it seems the Iraqis were warned of the Iranian troop build-up by US satellite intelligence. The attackers were illuminated by searchlights and raked with machine gun fire, but managed nonetheless to overwhelm the defences on the far side of the Shatt before getting pinned down among the remains of date palm groves, minefields and barbed wire. 

At dawn they were shot at by everything the Iraqis could bring to bear – machine guns, mortars, artillery and helicopter gunships. Reinforcements sent to help them suffered the same fate. The attacking troops gained no further ground and those who were not killed or captured escaped back over the Shatt al-Arab by nightfall on 25 December. The Iranians had lost an estimated 10,000 men, for no gain. Estimates of the total casualties suffered by Iran in the war range up to one million, but that would include many whose injuries later permitted something like a full recovery. In a statement in 2001, Rahim Safavi, then the commander of the Sepah, said that 213,000 had been killed and 320,000 left permanently disabled. The latter figure included tens of thousands still suffering the effects of chemical weapons used by Hussein.

The war allowed the Sepah to expand and develop from a militia into a full-blown military force, armed with the full panoply of heavy weapons and with its own air and naval components. But the conflict was important for the Sepah in other ways, too. Throughout the war, and since, it has retained its character as a citizen force in line with its revolutionary militia origins. Although the Sepah has a long-service senior officer cadre, it has never become a force of predominantly professional career soldiers. This has deepened its influence in Iranian society, as large numbers of citizens have rotated through the Basij and the Sepah for their obligatory military service. This, in turn, contributes to the role of the Sepah in what one might call the national myth of the Islamic Republic. Some Iranians are committed ideological supporters of the regime. But a larger number have a split or ambiguous attitude. They might resent the economic failures, the rule of the clerics, the lack of full democracy or political freedoms, or all of these things, but still approve the independent position that the Islamic Republic has achieved for Iran.

Even many of the millions of Iranians who have gone into exile share that view. National independence is one of the few things that a large majority of Iranians would agree upon as a valuable achievement of the Islamic regime (universal education is perhaps another).

To appreciate the importance of that, it is necessary to have a sense of the humiliation felt in the decades and centuries before 1979, when Iran was manipulated by foreign powers, often with the connivance of some Iranians. The revolution enabled Iran to break free at last, and whatever the errors and the sufferings of the Iran-Iraq War, successful resistance and defence set the seal on that independence.

The Sepah has a central place in this story, and so the attitude towards it is often split, too. The Sepah and the Basij are resented as corrupt bullies, brutally crushing dissent and enjoying privilege in return. But they are also respected by many for their past and present role as the cornerstone of the country’s self-defence and self-determination.

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the position and influence of the Sepah in the life of Iran has grown and grown. It has taken a greater role in intelligence, with its own organisation for gathering information.

In the summer of 2006, the assistance it gave to Lebanese Hezbollah against a second Israeli invasion of Lebanon was widely considered a success; the Israelis found resistance unexpectedly robust, augmented by electronic warfare capability. Yet, more obviously, the Sepah has taken an ever-greater role in the economy of Iran. Some estimate that it controls 15 per cent of the economy; others put it higher. 


The Sepah has major interests in construction and civil engineering (notably through the Khatam al-Anbia organisation), in the oil industry and in telecommunications. The extent of its economic involvement is hard to assess because the full ramifications are unclear. In particular, the Sepah has close relations with several Bonyads – tax-exempt charitable foundations – the most important of which is the Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan (Foundation for the Oppressed and War Veterans). This is involved in a wide range of sectors, from shipping to chemicals, retail and tourism.

Despite Khomeini’s view that the Sepah should not interfere in politics, it has become inexorably more involved. In 1999, several Sepah chiefs warned President Mohammad Khatami that if he did not act to stop student demonstrations in Tehran, the force would be obliged to intervene. In 2009, more serious demonstrations erupted in the capital and in regional centres after a disputed election that the regime declared to have been won by the sitting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (himself ex-Sepah, and strongly pro-Sepah in his policies).

The Sepah masterminded the suppression of the demonstrations, which continued on and off into the following year, using young Basij volunteers on the streets for the most part, along with riot police. (In the protests that broke out all over Iran most recently, at the end of December 2017, the suppression by the regime and the Sepah followed a similar pattern.)

Before the June 2009 election, demonstrations had generally refrained from attacking Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Yet Khamenei himself departed from previous practice by giving forthright support for Ahmadinejad – both before the election and after the declared result. Shortly before his death at the end of 2009, the dissident cleric Hossein-Ali Montazeri said that the Islamic Republic had become a military republic.

When criticised internationally for their support for Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, and their complicity in the actions of those militias, including atrocities, Iranian politicians cite the example of the Sepah and the Basij. They say that the Iraqi and other militias formed out of necessity, in self-defence, because Shias were being attacked; just as Iranians had flocked to join the Sepah and the Basij after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980.

When Mosul fell to Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, Iran had been heavily involved in both Iraq and Syria for a long time. Qasem Soleimani, the legendary commander of the Qods Force, was the leading figure in that involvement. Before the fall of Hussein in 2003, Iran had supported Shia opposition group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in exile in Iran in 1982. After 2003, Iran supported SCIRI, its associated militia the Badr Brigade, and Nouri al-Maliki, who emerged from SCIRI to become Iraqi prime minister in 2006. Iran has supported other militias in Iraq, too, through the Qods Force, but Badr has always been its preferred partner. The US and most other Western countries also supported Maliki, who had been democratically elected. But his government proved aggressively sectarian in office. It permitted attacks and massacres against Sunnis by Shia militias, and was widely seen to have facilitated the rise of IS by alienating Iraqi Sunnis.


Meanwhile, Soleimani had been engaged in Syria against the opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad since the Arab Spring revolt in 2011. The alliance between the Iranian regime and the Assads was established during the Iran-Iraq War and had endured since. Syria had been Iran’s only reliable foreign ally; they both supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also shared a principle of resistance to Israel and the US.

It is not necessary to recount here the crimes of the Assad regime, nor the suffering of the Syrians. The estimates, that approximately half a million have died since 2011, four times that number injured, 11 million or more displaced and perhaps four million forced out of the country as refugees, tell their own story. The Assads (and by extension, the Iranians and others who have backed them) are culpable for much of this suffering.

After IS broke out of its territory in Syria to take Mosul in Iraq, Soleimani was accused of having neglected the growth of the terror group in favour of defending the core territory of the Assads in Damascus and the west of Syria (with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah). The fall of Mosul was at least as much of an unpleasant shock to Iranians as it was to Europeans and Americans – Mosul is, after all, a good deal closer to Iran’s border.

IS made rapid gains; the Iraqi army fell apart, and before long the Assad regime appeared to be on the brink of collapse. That danger precipitated the greatly intensified intervention of the Russians in the autumn of 2015, through air power especially, to stabilise the Assad regime. The Iranians moved more forces into Iraq – in addition to the Qods Force members that were already there – including Sepah commando-type units and drones, and made their own air strikes. The wars in Iraq and Syria were complex but became, in effect, a single struggle. From then on, the combination of Russian air attacks and Iranian-backed militia on the ground, co-ordinated with Kurdish forces and reformed Iraqi military units (as well as US and other Western help) drove IS slowly back. In the process, Soleimani’s star rose again; he appeared everywhere, liaising with Iraqi Shias and Kurds (though some Kurds were hostile to the Iranians). IS resistance collapsed in Mosul in July 2017 and in the Syrian city of Raqqa in October, with all IS territory reoccupied by the end of the year. These were major victories for Iran and the Sepah, notwithstanding that they were achieved with help from others.

The Russians and Iranians are still helping the Assad regime against its other enemies in Syria; the killing continues. And, as the clash over the drone and F-16 fighter jet on 10 February showed, Iran’s confrontation with Israel has become closer and more dangerous.


So, what next? Iran has been accused of hegemonic ambitions. Others have countered that Iran’s actions are wholly explicable in terms of self-defence, national interest and the preservation of the Islamic Republic (the last being, of course, the core purpose and legitimising role of the Sepah). Iran’s actions in Iraq and Syria (and Afghanistan) have been aimed at preventing the rise of new powers that could threaten the Islamic Republic’s security, the defence of important strategic allies, and (to some extent, especially in Iraq) the protection of fellow Shias and important shrines.

Iran’s involvement in Bahrain and Yemen, by comparison, is of much lesser importance to the regime. The Iranians feel obliged to support the Shia in Bahrain, with rhetoric at least. Their religious connection with the Zaidi Houthis is much less strong, but they have sent weapons in response to Houthi requests (to call the Houthis Iranian proxies in Yemen would be an exaggeration), and to retaliate for Saudi interventions in what the Iranians regard as their sphere of influence. It is part of the ugly game of rivalry the Iranians and Saudis have been playing in the region.

There are many good reasons, I think, why Iran will not seek expansion and hegemony in the Middle East. One is that most Iranians know any such attempt would go down so badly with the majority of Arabs, including Shia Arabs, that it would be unfeasible.

Another is that Iran, with relatively low military spending ranging between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP for most of the last decade, is structurally not well-placed for militaristic expansion. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, to name just three, have consistently spent much more. 

A further reason is the protests in Iran that began at the end of last year. They were eventually crushed, and were not supported by all Iranians, but there are signs that the regime took them seriously, possibly even to the point of pursuing economic reforms that would curtail the Sepah’s commercial activities.

There were many reports that resentment of Iran’s military activities and spending in other countries featured in the protests (for example, payments by the Qods Force to the families of Shia militia killed or injured). As the central, driving idea for both Khamenei and the Sepah is the preservation of the Islamic Republic, they will not pursue adventures in other countries if these would increase the risk of losing power at home.

There is also the enduring importance of the Iran-Iraq War in the Iranian psyche and in the regime’s decision-making. One specific juncture may be particularly relevant; the decision in 1982 to refuse a ceasefire, and continue the war into Iraq after the Iranians had retaken most of the territory they lost to Saddam Hussein following the invasion of 1980. Today that decision is widely seen in Iran, both within the regime and outside, as probably the most damaging mistake made by the leaders of the Islamic Republic in its history. It brought not only six more years of war, but hundreds of thousands more casualties.

Some of the surviving politicians who were involved at the time have attempted subsequently to deny their involvement, or claimed that they argued against continuing the war into Iraq. The only ones who have been unable to avoid responsibility, because their advocacy was too well-known, were the Sepah commanders. There is evidence that Khomeini blamed them for the decision at the end of the war.

There could be no stronger lesson for Iran’s leaders today, nor for the Sepah, about the dangers of foreign adventures and strategic overreach.


Another question prompted by the growth and success of the Sepah is whether it might take a final step and assume full control of Iran, establishing a military government. This question becomes sharper as Khamenei gets older (he is 78, and Western intelligence services and the media have long speculated about his ill health).

The point, as we have seen (and as Afshon Ostovar argues in his excellent book, Vanguard of the Imam), is that the Sepah is heavily dependent on the supreme leader, just as he is on the Sepah. Its position in the system is not built on a history of intervention in politics (unlike the military in Egypt and, at least in the recent past, in Turkey). If anything, it is built on the opposite; a principle of non-intervention, or at any rate intervention only at the request of the supreme leader.

The Sepah’s power is bound up with, and conditional upon, the ideology and institutions of the Islamic Republic. To subvert them would be to subvert its own position. The Sepah will have an important voice in the selection of the next supreme leader. But it will not determine the decision alone, and Mohammad Ali Jafari (current overall commander of the Sepah) will not become supreme leader because he is not a cleric.

The Sepah is the military cutting edge of a regime that is relentless in its determination to stay in power – a state headed by Ali Khamenei, whose guiding principle is to maintain, at almost any cost, what he inherited from the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. The regime and the Sepah are not seeking dominance of the Middle East, but they are prepared to use ruthless methods to defend and preserve the Islamic Republic – whether that means acting within or beyond the borders of Iran.

Michael Axworthy is director of Exeter University’s Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies. His recent books include “Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know”(Oxford University Press) and “Revolutionary Iran” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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“I call him the Pope of Jamaica”: An encounter with Shaggy and Sting

Rock’s oddest couple on Trump, Brexit, privilege and the perils of the public laundromat.


Perhaps it is not as odd as it seems. For a start, they both have “ridiculous names”, says Sting, “which people no longer question”. Shaggy and Sting were born Orville and Gordon. Their nicknames arrived in their youth: Sting’s, from a black-and-yellow striped jumper he wore in his days as bass player in a Newcastle jazz band – even his mother called him Sting. Shaggy’s, from his resemblance, at the age of 12 when he was living in Jamaica, to the character from Scooby-Doo – his mother calls him Richard.

Richard?” says Sting, looking momentarily thrown. That is Shaggy’s middle name. His wife calls him Richard too. “Don’t think you can come in my house being Shaggy,” she warns him.

They sit in a boardroom overlooking Central Park. Sting wears a fashionably dishevelled pinstripe suit and traces the edge of the table with his finger. His hair is as bleached as it ever was and his expression bears decades of heavy thinking. Shaggy has a red shiny baseball jacket and a cap turned to the side, a bit like a cartoon rapper. His arms are thrown comfortably on either side of his chair. Through a mutual musical acquaintance, they met last year and jammed in a studio. The mysterious alchemy of collaboration ensued. The story is less how their new record came about, more the fact that it did at all – because, light and sunshiny as 44/876 may be (it is named after the British and Jamaican dialling codes), it is also very strange. Shaggy says this album will disrupt. Go against the status quo, and the grain.

Shaggy was delighted, visiting England around the time of his hits in the Nineties, to learn the ruder significance of his name. It allowed him to flesh out his “character”– for that is what Shaggy is to Orville R Burrell, who speaks in a New York accent. Shaggy is a wining, grinding, priapic reggae star, composer of baby-makin’ music, whom one journalist compared to a Jamaican Benny Hill. And he is developing. The mid-nineties Shaggy was Mr Boombastic (“Come lay down in me jacuzzi and get some bubble bath”). The millennial Shaggy was a wealthy Branson/Bond-villain figure, masterminding a younger man’s shagging via state-of-the-art surveillance in the video for the song “It Wasn’t Me”. Of that tuneful and explicit international hit, he tells me:

“It’s about three things: either you’re banging, or somebody’s banging, or you wish you were banging somebody. It’s something relatable in everyday life.”

And the 2018 Shaggy is more politically correct. “I’m actually giving better advice than before,” he says. On the new album, he has a turn as moral arbiter. Sting wrote a cosmic courtroom drama called “Crooked Tree”, in which a man is sent down for a variety of sins including arson, murder, blackmail, grand larceny and human trafficking. Shaggy, Sting said, was to play the judge.

“It made me think of Jamaica,” says Shaggy. “We have the British legal system, with the high courts – all the weight, and the wig, but with these really thick Jamaican accents.” On the song, the “Honorable Judge Burrell” barks “guilty as chaaaaarged!” and convicts the defendant, played by Sting, with a seismic bang of his gavel.

Says Shaggy, “Here is this Englishman that comes to Jamaica to create a lot of felonies, and I’m just going to convict his ass!”

Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 1982 in Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye estate on Jamaica’s northern coastline, at the desk where Fleming had written his Bonds. He was 31, already hugely successful and hiding out after a scandalous divorce. Seventy miles down the road in Kingston town, the 14-year-old Shaggy was already enjoying the Police, who’d had six hits in the US by then, and more in the UK, and whom he describes as “the gateway band to a lot of reggae music”. Songs like “Roxanne” were huge in Jamaica: Sting’s voice was high and strange, Shaggy says, and he could hold long notes for a very long time – it got through to you. The Police’s punk-reggae “brought that art form to the mainstream masses”. They’d toured with Burning Spear and Aswad. The child Shaggy lived with his mother. He wore Jamaican punk garb – a tie, a collar and no shirt – to parties.

“Jamaica has influenced pop culture in such a huge way,” he says.

“Profoundly,” says Sting. “Profoundly,” says Shaggy.

Sting’s interest in reggae was both political and academic. “Rock music is a very reactionary form,” he tells me. As Gil Evans’s jazz arrangements appealed to him as a teenager, so did calypso and ska, “in the way that the drums were played, and the bass was brought out on top. I had an understanding of Caribbean music, so for me it was always a homage, and not cultural appropriation.” You feel a bit sorry that he felt he had to bring up the phrase, but Sting is a questioning person. His first band after the Police consisted of black jazz musicians, and he asked then, “Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice?”

Another point of similarity between these two surprising counterparts is that, in the collective consciousness at least, they are both very sexual. Shaggy and Sting are the twin poles of masculine libido – one pursuing bikinied booty on a beach like a sniffer dog; the other a paragon of psychosexual stamina, who’d mastered the practice of tantric yoga, which led to a joke boast in the early Nineties (five hours) that has followed him ever since, but which pointed to a certain spirituality in Sting that few people knew what to do with.

When they interviewed him back then, male music journalists couldn’t get thoughts of Sting and sex out of their heads. They all mentioned his muscle tone, his chest, chiselled bones and tantric life. I was almost afraid to be in the room with Shaggy and Sting together, thinking the sexuality might be overwhelming – but Sting looks studiously into the middle distance and Shaggy merely admires my leg warmers.

Their first single, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, is a classic shagging song – Sting is thoughtful: “I’m already sold on the idea of you and/Just tell me where I need to sign” and Shaggy is horny: “Come on, girl!”

“In this climate, you know, the song could be misconstrued,” muses Sting. “As married men, you learn about compromise, you learn about…”

“Patience,” says Shaggy.

“Patience, as a man,” agrees Sting. “It’s not a natural thing for us! So the song needs to reflect a more balanced view. I hope we achieved it. But of course, you know, we are keen, we are conditioned that way. But asking a woman what she wants is one of the most important things a man can learn.”

“We’re fans of women,” concludes Shaggy. A survey by his record label around the turn of the millennium revealed that women are fans of him too. Has Mr Boombastic found his feminine side?

“Have I?” he says, eyes wide. “Embrace it all, man, and live!”

A live performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys, in January, was met with some confusion, being the first that many people knew of the collaboration. It segued from Sting’s 1987 hit “Englishman in New York”, which was an interesting medley: that hymn to Quentin Crisp and the exceptional richness of what Jung, whom Sting studied in the Eighties, would call the hermaphroditic soul, followed by a classic banging song. Sting once said that the image of the hermaphrodite soul in art – Bowie, Boy George – was an ideal we all strive for. Crisp, “a singular man, a very brave man”, was one of the older figures he befriended in the Eighties; Crisp actually said those words to him – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”.

Sting performed the song in Trump’s New York, because of “the ludicrous idea of calling anyone an alien”. He seems a bit reluctant to talk about hermaphrodite souls today but then says: “I think it’s important for an artist to see the world through other people’s eyes. I wrote a song a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I started to channel a transgender prostitute. I have no experience of that but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment. Music is an empathy machine, and I take that job seriously, even though it might be odd sometimes.”

Shaggy was described as a Jamaican Benny Hill. Credit: Rex


Three years ago, at the Public Theater just off Broadway, I watched a workshop of Sting’s musical The Last Ship, which is currently wending its way around regional theatres in Britain. It is the latest sign of a prediction Sting made in 1987 to Q magazine: that one day, mass appeal and his personal tastes would separate. He has done symphonies, lute music, gangster movies, Quadrophenia, a Stravinsky adaptation with Ian McKellen and a Threepenny Opera among many other things. The Last Ship is the story of a group of men who build a ginormous tanker in Newcastle and sail it to the New World. Jimmy Nail sang at the New York performance, perched alongside Sting on a stool.

Sting grew up on Gerald Street in Wallsend, where the hulk of a 10,000-tonne ship twice as high as the houses cast a permanent shadow from the Swan Hunter slipway. Such a ship would be built every year, and everyone would watch the launch. As it blocked the space and was then released, the vessel represented a constant cycle of constraint and departure for the child Sting. His father was a milkman: the class divide between him and his Police band mate Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA diplomat, fuelled much press interest in the early days.

“I always thought class ruled,” he says. “I wanted not to be judged by my accent. So I developed no accent. It made it easier to be fluid and not be judged. There were no regional accents on television. Now, I only speak Geordie when I’m angry or I’m with a Geordie – and I can speak it well.”

Sting and his brother would take part in the milk round, going to the dairy at 4am. He was particularly good at picking up the empties because he had big hands. He could do ten at a time, he once said. His father was hard to please – not overtly impressed by Sting’s academic achievements, his passing of the 11-plus, his athletics trophies or his music career. Grammar school alienated him from his family. Sting was a bus conductor and a labourer, before teaching English at St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He wasn’t “ambitious” until he discovered music.

He lost both his parents at the height of his fame, within seven months of each other. His mother, whom he credits with his musical education, was a strong character – she died of cancer, and wanted to volunteer at Chernobyl, pointing out that she was already full of radiation. He found a point of connection with his father towards the end of his life, when he sat with him and noticed how similar their hands were. He didn’t write any lyrics for two years after his parents died, but his famous rainforest campaign followed instead.

At the theatre, Sting told a story about the time the Queen Mother came to their road in Wallsend. As she passed in her car and everyone lined up to wave, he told himself that he would one day be on the inside of a car like that. The wealthy donors in the theatre cheered. Sting’s is a truly American tale – the very way he put his sentences together riled a UK music press that liked to see musicians hymning their roots rather than escaping them. The rainforest campaign saved an area the size of Belgium, but that too was a sign of stepping outside one’s box. “The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood,” he told Q. He spends most of his time in New York these days. But he votes in Britain, and by the time we talk about Brexit he is slapping the boardroom table.

“The people who voted for it are as dispirited as the ones who voted against it, and at least we’re joined in that. We’re all in this fucking mess, no one knows how to fucking get out of it.”

Shaggy points out that they are both “citizens of the world”.

“But we have the privilege of our careers, we can do that,” says Sting. “Most people don’t have that privilege, they’re stuck. I find it depressing and dispiriting. Our society is violent and confused – and yeah, maybe all this is important for us to ‘figure out something about ourselves’. But I see things from a different perspective than someone who lives in Sunderland and is stuck, and saying, ‘I just want to vote for something different, that sticks a spanner in the works.’ It’s those people who will suffer, and that’s a tragedy.”

“I know people who have never seen the ocean,” Shaggy muses. “I was in the military with a guy, we were on the fighting roll together, and his first time he’d ever been on a plane was when they flew him over to the desert on a jet.”

Agitprop is worse than off-putting, it’s counterproductive”: Sting enjoying a glass in the 1980s. Credit: Graham Wood/Daily Mail/Rex


Shaggy’s mother, who raised him without his father, moved from Kingston to Flatbush, Brooklyn as an illegal immigrant and worked as a medical secretary, leaving him with his grandmother and then sending for him when she’d saved enough money. She was, Shaggy says, “the biggest dreamer”. He brings up their new song “Dreaming in the USA”, about the American Dream. Sting says: “It’s a love letter to Americans. It’s about culture, and this engine that is basically fed by immigrants. America is in danger and we know why.”

Shaggy worries that Americans will take the song literally, jingoistically, like they did Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. He is not bothered about class – “I am motivated to better myself” – but he’s bothered about racism. “I don’t want our children to be raised with that. Which is why I am raising them in Jamaica.”

His Kingston youth spanned the changeover from the People’s National Party to the Jamaica Labour Party and a period of riots in the city. When he got to Brooklyn as a teenager, he enjoyed a mixed neighbourhood – Barbadians and Haitians, “a Caribbean-American kind of life” – but was shocked by the public laundromats.

“In Jamaica, you just wash it in the backyard, you put it up on the clothesline, with a little bit of bleach on the whites and the sun dries it,” he explains. “I’m sitting in Brooklyn and I feel embarrassed, because people were seeing my drawers. My mum would put me on folding duty: I’d sit there folding drawers. I’d say to her, ‘This is crazy: I’m doing this in public, there’s public people looking at my drawers.’ She’d say, ‘No, man, everybody’s doing it. They’re clean!’ That was a culture shock for me.”

Shaggy had an aptitude for pastels and won the Brooklyn Union Gas art competition more than once. He attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where “all the greats” had been pupils – among them Marky Ramone and Barbra Streisand.

“You went to the same school as Barbra Streisand?” says Sting.

“Second-oldest high school in the US,” says Shaggy proudly.

Didn’t Sting buy a house off Barbra Streisand?

“I did!”

After high school, Shaggy needed to get out of the house and away from his mother – “We weren’t getting along at that time, and still to this day we really don’t.” He joined the Marine Corps in 1988, aged 20, and stayed for four years. He served with the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm, where he piloted a Humvee and worked as a cannon cocker. He became a lance corporal, but was not a committed soldier and was twice demoted in rank. His main problem was attendance – stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, he regularly drove back to Brookyln for reggae nights.

To this day, he believes in the power of music over conflict, telling the Military Times in 2011 that the best way to combat Isis would be to distribute a massive bag of Jamaican weed and play them “Shaggy music”.

“When you’re listening to reggae, you only want to do two things: get high and have sex,” he observed. “If they’re listening to Shaggy music, they’re not going to want to cut somebody’s head off.”

Shaggy during his military service in the US Marines 

Next door to Sting’s management office looms the Trump International Hotel. When an NME journalist came to meet him in New York in 1991, he commented that Trump’s buildings were the mark of a declining empire, “a property developer’s empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown at the heart of New York City”. Shaggy says he knows people who voted Trump and “wondered if they’d been like that the whole time”. Earlier this month, he played the president in an elaborate Late Late Show parody, with James Corden as Special Counsel Robert Mueller ("Can we talk about the pee tape? It wasn't me"). I ask Sting about the man next door.

“I’m daunted and terrified by what is happening,” he says. “I’ve been brought up with safety nets – the National Health system, my education. My further education was something I never had to dream about paying for, I could never have afforded it. So I cherish those things and they’re all under threat at the moment, as is democracy. Xi Jingping and Trump saying, ‘I’m going to be president for life’ – it is medieval.”

He believes, though, that political messages in music should be “veiled”. Agitprop is “worse than off-putting – it is counterproductive”. And veiled they are on 44/876. Shaggy claims to write four songs a day on average – but says he never thinks about instrumentation. Sting, who emails Shaggy in bullet points and tends to “squirrel himself away”, is all about instruments and key changes. “Shaggy brought the vibe and I brought the structure,” he concludes.

Shaggy turns 50 this year – “his birthday is 20 days after mine,” offers Sting. The party will happen in Jamaica and Sting is going. He is impressed with Shaggy’s charity work on the island. “I look for consistency. When celebrities take on projects I think, OK, let me see you in six months and we’ll see how serious you are. I call him the Pope of Jamaica,” he says. “He’s a personage. A citizen with duties and responsibilities.”

“There is always a fear that I may be losing it,” Shaggy says. “Am I not hip anymore?” But at the end of the day, he reasons, “Shaggy is what Shaggy does.”

And Shaggy, after all, is an act. Is Sting an act too? “Absolutely,” says Sting. “Of course he is. It’s been very useful for the past four decades to have a persona you can hide behind.” But it’s hard to recall a time when Sting has hidden behind anything. He’s been in the business for 40 years now. Peers like Elton John, just a few years older, are starting to retire.

“Yeah, and he’s going to do 300 gigs before he retires,” Sting says. “That explanation didn’t quite add up for me.”

44/876 is released on 20 April on Polydor “The Last Ship” is on tour in the UK now

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the unlikely musical collaboration of Sting and Shaggy on the album 44/876, as well as reviewing the new Alex Garland film Annihilation (with special guest Helen Lewis), and celebrating the noniversary of the bumbag (or fanny pack, if you're American).

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:


Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia