Why Jack Straw’s ‘The English Job’ gives a rose-tinted view of modern Iran

The former British foreign secretary's new book is little more than wishful thinking

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw arrives at Milbank Studios on February 23, 2015 in London, England.  Mr Straw has referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and has been suspended from the Labour Party at his own request after being secretly filmed apparently offering his services in exchange for payment. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

One of the great curiosities of the global controversy surrounding the Iran nuclear deal is that, despite no significant change in the confrontational attitude of Tehran, the major European powers remain committed to maintaining the agreement.

This conundrum is particularly relevant to Britain, as one of the three European countries to sign the agreement.

It is caught in the political no-man's-land of trying to save the deal while at the same time maintaining good relations with the Trump administration, whose decision last year to withdraw from the agreement laid the foundations for the current crisis. Former British foreign secretary Jack Straw is well placed to shed some insight into the British government's thinking, as one of the prime movers of the European-led diplomatic initiative that ultimately resulted in the signing in 2015 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear agreement is more formally known.

LONDON - DECEMBER 6: Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wave goodbye to Pakistan President Prevez Musharraf outside 10 Downing Street, on December 6. 2004, London, England. During their talks, Blair and Musharraf were expected to speak about tackling areas of illiteracy, poverty as well as resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Photo by Graeme Robertson /Getty Images)
Jack Straw was an influential figure in the government of British prime minister Tony Blair Getty

In his new book, entitled The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain, Straw attempts to give his side of the story and why, in his opinion, the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the nuclear agreement were a worthwhile exercise – and why it is worth saving.

As a senior figure in the Blair government, Straw was deeply involved in Tony Blair's decision to back the Bush administration's military operation to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. But while Straw's support for Blair was vital to securing the necessary political support for British participation, he was never one of the main cheerleaders.  

On the eve of the US-led invasion, Straw wrote to Blair and set out his reservations about the enterprise, giving him a political get-out-of-jail card in the event of the mission – as eventually turned out – not being such a good idea after all.

Thus, once it became clear that the Iraqi invasion was not going to be the instant victory that many of the Bush administration's cheerleaders had predicted, Straw, together with other European leaders of a similar mindset, sought to demonstrate that there were better ways of dealing with rogue states than launching full-scale military invasions.

And for that reason, he began working on a diplomatic initiative to resolve the issue of the attempts by Iran to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons, which, until 2003, had been in active development.

Straw's deep interest in Iran dates back to 2001, when he became the first British foreign secretary to visit the nation since its 1979 revolution.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi arrive at the presidential palace in Tehran 25 September 2001. Straw, the most senior British official to visit Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979, said that he was carrying no message from the United States as it prepares for military action against Afghanistan. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Jack Straw, right, and former Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi arrive at the presidential palace in Tehran in 2001. AFP

This led, in 2003, to him initiating, together with his German and French counterparts, the so-called E3 nuclear negotiations, which ultimately resulted in the 2015 deal.

But while it would be harsh to criticise Straw and his diplomatic acolytes for the enormous political and diplomatic effort they invested in securing the deal, it is hard to escape the conclusion from reading The English Job that Straw has acquired a somewhat rose-tinted understanding of Iran.

Yes, we all know, as Straw writes eloquently, that Iran is an ancient civilisation that has produced great poets and is home to some of the world’s great cultural treasures. But none of this can justify the barbarism and repression that has characterised the ayatollahs’ 40-year reign of terror.

What is remarkable about Straw's decidedly rose-tinted, and at times historically inaccurate, account of modern Iranian history is that he remains an apologist for the regime in Tehran, even though he and his wife suffered personal abuse from Iranian security forces when they naively decided to go on vacation there in 2015.

'The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain' by Jack Straw. Biteback Publishing
'The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain' by Jack Straw. Biteback Publishing

For the fundamental problem with Straw, as well as other European politicians who seek to promote the idea that Iran under the ayatollahs can be rehabilitated in the comity of nations, is that he genuinely appears to believe that there is a faction of moderates in Tehran who, given proper encouragement, can change the regime for the better.

Straw blithely writes about "friends" like Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister who helped negotiate the Iran deal, whom he believes could help steer Iran on a different, non-confrontational course with the rest of the world.

Straw's book is far from helpful for us to understand better how to deal with Iran

This is a view that has undermined the West’s attempts to deal with Iran since 1979 – the notion that if you can empower the moderates, the hardliners will be put in their place.

That a senior politician of Straw's stature still clings to this view is immensely disappointing, particularly as he must be aware of the brutality with which the regime crushed the so-called moderates during the short-lived Green Revolution in 2009.  

The reality is that, no matter how hard moderates like Zarif might try to improve relations with the outside world, the real power in Iran lies with the ayatollahs and the hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose brutal methods, both at home and abroad, sustain the regime in power.

Thus, Straw's book is far from helpful for us to understand better how to deal with Iran. Instead, it amounts to little more than an exercise in wishful thinking.