BOOK REVIEW / Hooker, line and sinker: Shusha Guppy on Roger Cooper's fine, composed account of his Iranian jail sentence: Death plus ten years - Roger Cooper HarperCollins pounds 17.50

ON 7 DECEMBER 1985 Roger Cooper took a taxi outside his hotel in

Tehran and set off for a business meeting. He was working for McDermott International, an American construction company for offshore oil installations and he was in Iran to discuss an important pipeline project with Iranian officials. Presently a car pulled up in front of his taxi, forcing it to stop. Two young men jumped out and arrested him at gunpoint. Bundled into their car and blindfolded, he was driven to an interrogation centre 'to answer a few questions'.

This is the opening scene of Death Plus Ten Years, the extraordinary story of 'the British Master Spy' who became the Ayatollah's prisoner, and Cooper tells it brilliantly. His fluency, charm, and irony recall those itinerant storytellers you occasionally encounter in Oriental towns, who hold an audience spell-bound with tales of unbelievable adventures.

The timing of his arrest was unfortunate: at the height of Iran-Iraq war that had started in 1981, and the nadir of Iran's relations with the West, in particular with Britain, which the Iranians believed (as it turned out correctly) was helping Saddam Hussein. Cooper was accused of being an agent of the British Secret Service, called by his interrogator 'the Intelligent Service': 'I never corrected them, as it was a secret source of amusement.'

He spent over five years in jail, more than half of it in solitary confinement, first at an army barracks then in Evin, the notorious prison where tens of thousands were shot in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. For nearly a year he was subjected daily to several hours of gruelling interrogation and frequent beating by a masked man he calls Hosein, then dragged back to his tiny cell, where he often heard 'the loud but muffled . . . unmistakeable sound of a firing- squad carrying out an execution'.

To survive his ordeal he devised a programme of physical and mental exercises: jogging on the spot and push-ups, ingenious mathematical games with orange pips and prune stones, a cardboard backgammon. He translated (or rather re-wrote) The Principles of Islamic Theology by Ayatollah Mohammad-Reyshahri, the Minister of Intelligence responsible for his detention.

Eventually he was offered a classic bargain: to confess and co-operate with the authorities in exchange for a lenient sentence, or to proclaim his innocence and be hanged. He chose the former, and decided to have fun with it: he invented Colonel Dick Hooker, based on Evelyn Waugh's Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke in his Men at Arms trilogy - his 'minder' in the 'Intelligent Service' - and wrote thousands of pages of 'confession', concocting unlikely tales of extravagant missions - all harmless and unverifiable - which his tormentors swallowed hook, line and sinker.

Unfortunately Cooper's televised confession in January 1987 was perceived as fraud in Britain and denounced by the British press, which further exasperated his gaolers. At his trial he was refused a lawyer: 'All lawyers are liars, and the more you pay them the bigger the lies they tell,' they told him. The dandyish 'Judge', a Mullah, wearing silk robes and smelling of rose-water, told him that the verdict was guilty before the hearing, and read a newspaper throughout his impassioned defence: ' 'I would prefer to wait until Your Honour has finished perusing his documents' . . . 'No, go on, it's only a newspaper. I'm listening'.' When he was told that his sentence was 10 years in prison followed by death, he replied: 'Please don't make it the other way round]'

Roger Cooper is perhaps the last of a distinguished line of Englishmen, from R Burton and E G Browne to T E Lawrence and Wilfred Thessiger, whose romantic longing for ailleurs drew them to the Middle East where they found their spiritual home. Born in 1935, Cooper went to Persia in 1958, and fell in love with the country. He learnt Persian, earned his living as a teacher and journalist, and married a Persian girl. Although the marriage was later dissolved, he remained in Iran, writing and working for a number of commercial companies. He acquired a deep knowledge of the country and its culture. He returned to England in the 1970s because he 'did not like the way Persia was changing' as a result of the oil boom.

Cooper's vivid description of prison life - squalor, indignity, boredom - and his astute observation of prisoners and guards are interwoven with accounts of historical events and political upheavals. His personal odyssey is a metaphor for the uneasy relationship between Britain and Persia over the past 200 years.

He traces the origins of the Iranians' paranoia towards the British to the beginning of the 19th century, when Persia lost its Central Asian provinces to Russia in a series of wars, and became the most important card in the rivalry between the two great empires of the day - Britain and Russia. Anxious to protect India from her competitor, Britain never stopped interfering in Persia's affairs, extracting economic and political privileges from weak, tyrannical Shahs. Britain secured the oil concession of 1901, backed the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, helped Reza Shah to power in 1921, forced him to abdicate in 1941, and finally masterminded the CIA coup that brought down Dr Mossadeq in 1953.

Thereafter Britain was replaced by the United States as the major player in the Middle East. Yet the Iranians continued to believe that the English were the puppet-masters behind the scenes: 'Lift Khomeini's beard and you'll find the Union Jack' was a saying during the Islamic Revolution. (To his dying day an old uncle of mine bombarded me with letters urging me 'to ask Mrs Thatcher to get rid of these wicked Mullahs'. No amount of protestation on my part that I had no more access to Mrs Thatcher than she had power to remove Khomeini prevailed and the letters kept coming).

Cooper emerged from his ordeal with his love for Persia unimpaired. He even forgives Hosein, his incompetent interrogator: 'Although he treated me shamefully in many ways, I actually found myself feeling sorry for him . . . when I heard on the grapevine that he had had a nervous breakdown and left the Ministry.' This generosity combined with courage, wisdom and wit makes Death Plus Ten Years a remarkable book.

Just before his release on 2 April 1991, an Iranian official told him: 'There are very few people in the West who know Iran as well as you do Mr Cooper. We count on you to put this knowledge to good use.' He has done just that.

(Photograph omitted)

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