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Iran’s revolutionary hell The country is still trapped by the events of 1979

Iran's government still has its supporters. Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/ Getty Images

Iran's government still has its supporters. Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/ Getty Images


June 14, 2021   5 mins

Very occasionally, something happens that is so surprising that more than forty years can pass and still it cannot be apprehended, or understood. There is still a longing to go back, and not repeat the mistakes that led to the catastrophe, a desire to redeem the rupture.

I have met men who still long for their wives, when the separation has been longer than the marriage. I have met old Bolsheviks who kept rehearsing Trotsky’s actions after Stalin’s death, believing the Soviet Union would still be with us, and thriving if only he had returned two days earlier to Moscow. I have even met New Labour believers who think that if David Miliband had defeated his brother, then Brexit would never have happened and Labour would be in power, at the vanguard of a renewed EU.

When I listen to such claims, an old Yiddish phrase comes to mind, which is translated as: “If Grandma had wheels she’d be a trolly”. The conversation always ends in a kind of faraway silence. I find it hard to know what to say, while the person thinks about what to do next; whether to send a birthday card, write a letter to the Morning Star, renew their efforts to support Keir Starmer.

Sometimes the ship has sailed and it is never coming back to port. It has a new crew and a new cargo, a new trading route and a new flag. Yet they still believe that, someday, their ship will return; they stand at the dock, staring out to sea but always walk back home alone.

Sometimes things change, an era changes, and there is no going back. For institutions, for nations, as well as for people, this is hard to accept. For Britain and the United States, the Iranian Revolution is such a phenomenon. It was all going so well, and it is hard to accept that it will never go well again.

Muhammad Ali said that the first rule of boxing is that you never get knocked out by a punch you see coming. It is also the first rule of politics. And no-one predicted the form of the the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Both London and Washington did predict an imminent threat to the rule of the Shah, but from the Left, through a coalition between disaffected workers and intellectuals supported by the Soviet Union and led, within Iran, by the Tudeh Party. That is not what happened.

The spectre of Mohammad Mossadegh and the 1953 coup, orchestrated by the CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt, held them in its thrall. Mossadegh was an aristocratic liberal nationalist who wanted to nationalise Iranian oil. At the time, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor of BP, held a monopoly of oil production in Iran and signed a deal which only gave 19% to Iranians. It was effectively a nationalised industry and the profits were vital to post-war reconstruction. The NHS was founded on the assumption of continued revenue streams from Iran.

The Labour Government of 1945 was extremely opposed to to Iranian nationalisation, while pursuing it vigorously at home. Colonial double standards. Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Clement Attlee all took a hostile view of Mossadegh and supported the Shah as the instrument of maintaining the status quo. Eisenhower agreed and Kermit and his muppet show was unleashed; Mossadegh was deposed and condemned to a life of internal exile.

That is the lost moment of Iranian history, the great “what if?” What if we had supported Mossadegh rather than depose him? What if Iran had grown into a liberal democracy?

This is the question that haunts the minds of our diplomats because what happened was completely different: an Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini and the imposition of an eternal form of clerical domination, “the rule of the jurists” — and there’s no way out.

The coming Iranian presidential elections on Friday indicate and express the doomed eternity of stasis that the revolution created. The inevitable winner will be Ebrahim Raisi, a mass-murdering apparatchik who was part of the four-man team responsible for the public executions of up to 30,000 Leftists in a few months in 1988 for the crimes of atheism and apostasy.

He will be elected on a turnout of less than 30%. Most Iranians understand that the power lies not with the President, but in the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, which controls the Revolutionary Guard, the media channels, the clerics and foreign policy.

In other words, there is a double system. These elections are for a government that will pretend to govern while the real power lies elsewhere. Just look at the country’s vaccine programme, which has inoculated only 2% of the population. The Health Ministry fully participated in Covax to receive vaccines, and yet Khamenei announced a ban on both British and American jabs on the grounds that they were “likely designed to contaminate foreign nations”, leaving the Chinese vaccine and Sputnik as the only options. One is useless and the other is scarce.

The office of the Supreme Leader also vets who can stand for office, and they rejected all candidates from outside the revolutionary vanguard. The former reforming President, Mohammad Khatami, set up an “Association of Combatant Clerics” and put forward fourteen candidates, but each was rejected.

Iranian foreign policy is based on building proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the militias in Iraq, Hamas in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen. And it’s the same at home. These elections are just proxy politics, the candidates represent the regime, not the people.

I sat through the first three-hour debate between the approved candidates. They were not allowed to discuss Covid, vaccines, sanctions, power cuts, sinking ships or burning factories. It reminded me of Brezhnev-era Soviet plenaries, where all the candidates agreed that the achievements of the Revolution were eternal, but the enemies of socialism were still sabotaging the project, particularly the Government.

This time, it’s the unprecedented form of Shia theocracy invented by Khomeini that must be preserved. When I was in Najaf in 2018, the historic home of Shia religious authority, I met with two senior ayatollahs and many clerics, all of whom rejected the Iranian system as hostile to the teaching and practices of the Shia Muslim faith. In Iraq, a year later, I witnessed the assassinations of protestors by Iranian-backed militias. Tens of thousands of Shia protestors in Baghdad sang “Iran Iran, go away” every night. They are still there; still shooting them.

At that time in November 2019 demonstrations against the regime exploded all over Iran, so the Government turned off the internet and shot the protestors. Any remaining political prisoners were recently transferred to the violent offenders section of the prison. They won’t last long.

And yet Western diplomats still believe that it is possible to negotiate with the government, to normalise relationships, to go back to 1953 and do the right thing this time. The first foreign policy act of the Biden Presidency was to re-engage with Iran and revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, lifting sanctions on proxies and renewing the distinction between hardliners and “moderates”. This is not a distinction that is believed in by the Iranian people as reflected in the overwhelming majority who will boycott the election. The Biden approach still assumes that they are negotiating with Mossadegh when the truth is otherwise.

The Iranian Left have been utterly routed and the middle class lurk in North Tehran, playing cat and mouse with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, over how much hair women can show in public. And yet the yearning of Iranians for something better and different cannot be stilled. It remains a crime in Iran to speak to others about Jesus or to claim that you have a relationship with him. And yet, the number of Christians there is now estimated to be close to a million.

There is a network of underground churches. Bibles are smuggled in and passed from hand to hand. The numbers continue to grow. It seems that for thousands of Iranians the only way to get rid of this regime is to change your religion. That is the long story in Iran. The desert church is lighting its candles for the prince of light once more.


Maurice Glasman is the founder of Blue Labour and director of the Common Good Foundation. He is a Labour life peer.


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Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago

What if the West had supported Mossadegh?
Probably would have turned out like all those other benevolent Middle Eastern rulers.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

History alone would make it difficult to negotiate with Iran. Then there is the added factor of not knowing who to negotiate with.
In the absence of a separation between religion and state, you have to negotiate with a religion. Every religion is a matter of interpretation – the religion has its holy books and each cleric, each ayatollah, each member has his own interpretation (not to mention her own interpretation).
Before meaningful negotiations could start you would effectively have to ask the Iranian negotiators if they had any power to deliver an agreement, if they truly represented the country – and that would be an insulting way to begin any discussion.
Perhaps the way forward is to open up Climate Change discussion with Iran. Everybody there could see that the future value of their oil would decline and it would be in their national interest to react in some way. Then the true leaders might have to join in and you might develop a rapport which could continue to other things.

Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

There is nothing religious about Iran’s foreign policy. And Iran, the country, negotiated perfectly fine with the JCPOA — it is the US and its lapdog the UK which re-negged on the deal unilaterally.
Your comment misses the mark, the Iranian government was perfectly willing to negotiate — indeed the not-“hardliners” lost a lot of face when the US (with the UK’s solemn support) backed out of the JCPOA.
Imagine, if you will, if your conservative uptight father is unsure of the person you’re marrying — and then that person cheats on you shortly after engagement. Then a few years later they come back and ask to try over — do you think your stern father is going to feel like you have the best interests of the family at heart?
Javid Zarif and those involved with the JCPOA stuck their necks out for rapprochement and the US (and the UK in tow) made sure the blade fell on them. Now we have these awful thinkpieces which suggest it was Iran’s fault all along.
For forty years the West has tried to kill the Iranian government but only succeeded in killing Iranian civilians. Maybe that is what should change?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Armand L

Why does the West need a relationship with Iran at all? What do we gain from it?

Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It’s a globalized world, if you want to ignore a country of 90m in the middle east be my guest, but the “stick and stick” approach to dealing with Iran has not worked.
It is a sovereign nation, if they want nuclear power and an increasingly powerful military that is their right. If the west doesn’t want that, then they need to have a relationship with Iran — wouldn’t you agree?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

So we have the NHS to blame for the Iranian revolution

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
3 years ago

If frogs had pockets they would pack pistols and shoot snakes.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

…the inevitable winner … was part of the four-man team responsible for the public executions of up to 30,000 Leftists 

So he’s not all bad?

Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago

This is an absurd and ahistorical article. An insult to the reader’s intelligence.
Some facts for you: The Iranian public, the ones the author seems concerned for, are suffering under sanctions designed to slowly starve and sicken them. Medical supplies and food products are blockaded. The UK supports this, the UK also supports the butchering of Yemeni farmers in Yemen.
All the talk of proxies, hardliners, and regimes would be better appreciated if the UK didn’t dutifully roll out the green carpet for Saudi Arabia and every other hardline regime that uses proxy warfare. I saw MBS’ face emblazoned across Hyde Park, I saw the Queen of England give her hand to him and Theresa May curtsey to him. So don’t talk about the evil Iranian regime being an outlier, the UK and the British people are perfectly content to work with, and indeed work for, belligerent hardline regimes.
So putting aside craven moralistic platitudes we’re left with a country that was treated with indignity for decades. In 1979, due to a impossibly difficult confluence of reasons, everything changed. Now will the US, UK, and its NATO allies admit that they gave mustard gas and long range missiles to Saddam and the Baathists to kill Iranian civilians? Will they treat Iran with dignity and allow the country to breathe — after Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign which the UK endorsed?
The double-standards are pathetic and this is yet another extremely typical and not at all UnHerd/UnHeard bit of foreign policy activism. The subtext is clear: Iran must be regime-changed. Well, good luck I hope you enlist Maurice. I hope you go on the front lines and try to cross the Zargoz mountains on foot.

Peter LR
Peter LR
3 years ago
Reply to  Armand L

This is a regime which organises a ‘Holocaust cartoon competition’ and imprisons innocent foreign civilians. I’m not sure what you are trying to support?

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter LR
Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I’m supporting facts and reality, not war-mongering agitprop.
The UK’s loving allies in Saudi Arabia execute people for sorcery. So where’s your outrage for this ‘support’?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Armand L

Why does the Iranian state lynch homosexuals from cranes? Just asking.

Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Because they’ve a repressive and regressive government much like many of the allies of the UK. It’s besides the point, Jon.

Armand L
Armand L
3 years ago
Reply to  Armand L

Someone who doesn’t fall for pathetic propaganda and warmongering. Iran exists as it does, here and today. Until people like Maurice Glasman (and his financial backers) accept that there are real live people in there, and a real land, and a real geography, and a real (complicated) history attached to the land, intrinsic to the identity of the government and the people… they are only going the wrong direction.

Last edited 3 years ago by Armand L
Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago
Reply to  Armand L

Maurice Glasman (and his financial backers)”. I think you’ve just given your game away.