FEBRUARY 12, 2020
IN FALL 2007, I was asked to host a peak-time TV chat show on Iran’s domestic state news channel. As the chief exec of a think tank focused on nuclear weapons and global security, I had become used to being a defence pundit on Western TV stations commenting on military adventures in the Middle East — ever since the bonanza triggered by the Bush-Blair Iraq War. But this was a curveball out of nowhere; I had always been on the receiving end of the microphone. My subsequent six-year engagement with Iran involved chatting weekly for an hour with a couple of guests and a million Iranians mostly sympathetic with their government. The experience challenged many of my assumptions, ones I am sure many readers share.
The very existence of my TV program undermined my idea of inflexible state censorship. Many Iranians share with Brexit Britain an inflated view of the United Kingdom’s role in the world. Neither have fully accepted that the UK lost its empire, and the Iranians hold a macabre respect for the British as deceitful and manipulative. Yet here I was being handed the keys to the citadel of state propaganda. While they attempted to control the agenda, I had no script and had leeway to riff and criticize Iran’s adventures and mistakes.
Week after week, I would interview numerous people close to the explosion of popular pro-democracy anger across the Islamic world that came to be described in the West as the Arab Spring. It was triggered on December 17, 2010, by Mohamed Bouazizi, a market vegetable trader, who set himself on fire in an isolated protest in Tunisia. A few weeks later, we were covering the wildfire protests across the Middle East that were to evolve into civil uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain, and transforming into civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that continue today. The Iranian elite were keen to promote this as “the Arab Awakening,” a 30-year delay to the inevitable spread of the Islamic Revolution from Persia to the Sunni world, an overthrow of puppet regimes propped up by the West. I know this because I was briefed each week to try to draw this message out of my guests. While I agreed that Western support for these regimes was deeply harmful to the region and the world, my program communicated a different narrative — yes, they were a means to overthrow local strongmen despots whose time had come, but their nature was not Islamic. The participants of the wave of protests were Muslims because the vast majority in those parts of the world are, not because the revolution itself was Islamic. Even the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood who appeared on my program admitted they were not at the vanguard of protests in Egypt and elsewhere.
I was broadcasting at a time when Iran’s elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demonized by Washington and its allies, was playing a Make Persia Great Again isolation game, and President Bush had been obliging him. I was involved in the debate over how the international community would best respond to the country’s civil nuclear program. I was collaborating with John Thomson, former UK ambassador to the United Nations, in advocating moves to internationalize Iran’s enrichment activities and warning that military threats were deeply counterproductive.
My role as an expert on nuclear weapon policy and diplomacy gave me opportunities to visit Iran on several occasions under the invitation of the Foreign Ministry, mixing with high-level officials and journalists. As I walked the streets of Tehran, seeing the “Death to America” murals, I was reminded of the idealistic expressions of political anger at British student unions I had visited when myself a student. The former US Embassy had changed little since the months after the hostage crisis of 1979, when it was abandoned and then plastered by colorful political murals accusing the imperialist power of crimes against humanity. The Iranian elite — the mullahs, the Revolutionary Guard, and the judiciary — remain committed to the Islamic Revolution and its values in defiance of an inflexible US policy. On the other hand, I experienced ordinary people just getting on with their lives, finding their own normality.
Visiting a country I barely knew as a minor TV celebrity had its surreal moments. Strangers asking me for a joint selfie was to be expected, though for me, it was a novelty. It was hearing curious tongue-clicking from women when I passed that was more confusing. The receptionist in my hotel was most amused when I asked her about it. After recognizing me, she said that this was a form of wolf whistle.
The freedom I had to move around Tehran might surprise people. I took the opportunity to take long walks through the city streets, interacting with the locals. While there were moments when my paranoia got the better of me and my imagination conjured stories or entrapment (like the taxi driver from the airport talking drug use), I paid close attention when walking, and there was no way I could have been followed. I remember well the families crowded into the parks having midnight picnics when the temperatures were more pleasant; watching two men openly engaging in explicit displays of sexual affection in a manner more expected in San Francisco; groups of women in headscarves enjoying each other’s company while looking for the latest bargains at the bazaar. I experienced the kindness of strangers when I, a non-smoker, had a white-out after sampling the local hookah tobacco bar.
Yet, while claiming our caricatures are heavily distorted, I acknowledge there remains plenty of chaos affecting life in Tehran. Friends at home asked me how I managed my fear visiting the country, and I would respond by admitting that I was taking my life in my own hands. While I felt no more vulnerable to being attacked in Tehran than in London, crossing the road or taking a taxi ride could be dangerous. The traffic is very heavy, and people in Tehran drive like it’s a sport. One time, I waited a quarter of an hour to cross a particularly wide road, until a young boy took pity and took my hand, walking straight out into the flow. His approach was to pay no attention to the cars and keep a steady speed as we crossed. Terrifying. But I was grateful.
I also acknowledge my confidence in Iran may have been based upon naïveté. I visited Iran a year or two prior to the beginning of secret bilateral negotiations in Oman between the Iranians and Secretary of State John Kerry. I was attending a conference one morning, when at the last moment the organizers informed us that President Ahmadinejad was to attend. They asked the thousands of participants, almost exclusively Iranian expats from abroad, to hand over their passports and mobile phones to ice cream vans they stationed in the car park before entering the building. Feeling powerful sensations and surrendering to my fate, I passed the symbols of my identity over the sea of heads, suspecting I would never see them again. To my astonishment, my faith was later rewarded with a reunion that my rational mind put down to a miracle.
During that same trip, I had the most bizarre experience I ever had in Iran: I was driven around the city to a nondescript building patrolled by a number of armed men. I waited in a well-furnished room on the eighth floor with a friend, an Iranian expat from London, acting as my interpreter. To our astonishment, in walked Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, chief of staff to and ideological backbone of the president, his preferred successor. We discussed ideas of cultural exchange, further specialist technical conferences, and back-channel talks to develop assurances between the United Kingdom and Iran. It was the only time I ever met him.
Some weeks later, the Iranian media was full of stories of accusations against Mashaei of consorting with foreign intelligence agencies among other crimes against national security. He was later to feature in a show trial as star defendant and is now serving an extended sentence. I am told that reports in court and in the media described my connection to him, describing me as a British secret agent, a spy or MI6 intelligence officer. I have been told that I am placed at the center of a web of connections, much like the pin-boards on episodes of The Wire. Sadly, I think that sort of curbs my ambition to visit the country anytime soon. My line of work, and my approach, does lay me open to such baseless accusations.
My time as a talk show host also meant that I stumbled upon a conflict at the heart of the conservative Iranian establishment and national identity — one often overlooked by foreign analysts and other governments. While the 1979 Islamic Revolution was of Shia identity, the ideological commitment of its leadership is aimed at uniting the whole Islamic world against Western and monarchical control. This runs up directly against a more ancient commitment within Iran to Persian nationalism, appealing to stories of an empire that once covered much of the ancient known world. President Ahmadinejad, under Mashaei’s influence, was associated with the latter, nationalist faction, and thus opposed by the religious ideologues who saw Persian nationalism as an obstacle to convincing Muslims from other states to support the Islamic Revolution across the region.
Iranians are rightly proud of their history and culture. Stop someone in the street and they will not only have heard of the ancient mystical, pretty sexy and romantic poets Hafiz and Rumi, they may well be able to recite them from memory. Persia, neighboring the cradle of civilization, offers the tourist riches of extraordinary architecture and ancient history incorporating numerous religious traditions, matched by few countries.
At the same time, Iranians are less stuck in the past than many of their Arab and Asian neighbors. While women frequently suffer from control by the authorities, the respect for female empowerment in wider society and in the professions is far more mature. Among the people I met, the thirst for engagement and freedom was palpable — attraction not only to the trinkets and consumerism of capitalism, but also a developed awareness of respect for diversity and tolerance. Many Americans experience this Iranian modernity firsthand in the Iranian Americans they know back home. But any sense of solidarity in most Americans is usually destroyed by the images on our TV screens of Western hostages; angry massed Iranians dressed in black; Iranian missiles and fast patrol boats harrying oil tankers and the US navy; leaders mixing politics with religious evangelism; and shady groups of masked men with Kalashnikovs associated with Iran causing chaos across the region.
I took on the TV program to help nurture a critical approach to international politics among Iranians, to enable them to see the broader picture. I came to believe that I had as much to learn about this from Iranians as I had to communicate to them. Speaking about US and European politics to my guests and talking with Iranians on my visits to the country, I came to realize that viewers appeared to be more informed about these issues than many Americans and Europeans were themselves. I have found a similar political awareness across the Middle East. When international politics — regional conflict, sanctions, and inequality — has such a big impact upon daily life, people put more effort into informing themselves and interpreting the information in the context of broad arcs of history. They see their own daily challenges reflected in the stories and analysis that makes sense of the international injustice playing out in their media. Americans remember the aggression of the Iranian Revolution some 40 years ago. Ordinary Iranians remember the actions of the CIA and British MI6 30 years earlier in triggering a coup to overthrow the democratically elected President Mossadegh and then installing and supporting a ruthless dictator in the Shah throughout those three decades.
Some time ago, a few months before he died, I interviewed Sir Anthony Parsons, former British ambassador to Iran throughout most of the 1970s, and a friend of Margaret Thatcher. He talked of watching the peaceful demonstrations that preceded the revolution from the Embassy’s windows in downtown Tehran. He described the horror and personal responsibility he experienced when he saw much of the military equipment he had sold to the Shah being used against his own people. For him it was a life-changing moment, one that was to drive a lasting personal opposition to British arms sales across the region.
I guess sometimes life offers us the chance to be courageous. Or maybe naïve. Telling the difference can be challenging, and others can be quick to judge. Life is complex and defies simple analysis usually based upon prejudice. While hostilities are deeply buried, the situation with Iran is not hopeless. When a government encourages a narrative of revolution, injustice, anger, and revenge, directing it toward other states in the hope that this unifies its people behind its operations in neighboring states — this is dangerous and brittle. When its armed forces kill 176 innocent people and lie for three days about it, that anger can easily redirect.
But when the United States, a globally powerful state breaks international rules, invades, sanctions, threatens, or assassinates a deeply popular military leader, that anger can switch right back again. If we genuinely want to escape the cycles of animosity and conflict to bring Iran in from the cold, we have to tread carefully in a manner of respect and engagement. We need to be sensitive to the narratives at play, to acknowledge our past mistakes, to demonstrate accountability. In other words, we are called by the situation to show true leadership.
There are a number of inspiring American-Iranians who can provide such leadership, but for me one clearly stands out. Trita Parsi, former president and co-founder of the National American Iranian Council, has just helped form a fascinating new group to provide such leadership for US foreign policy called the Quincy Institute (quincyinst.org/), which has already attracted considerable bipartisan support.
Paul Ingram is a former political talk show host on 60 minutes on IRINN, broadcast in Iran and globally by IRIB, Iranian state TV (2007–’12). At the same time, he was executive director of a think tank exploring, with diverse governments, practical means to pursue effective steps toward nuclear disarmament called the British American Security Information Council (www.basicint.org, 2007–’19).