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.
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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.