As protesters take to the streets, candidly flaunting their frustration towards the Iranian regime, chants for political freedom can be heard echoing through the back alleys of Tehran.
It’s a mild, humid and tense December morning. The end of 2017 is approaching and after two years of continuous promises of economic change people have lost hope. Thousands of men and women, thwarted by an economic system that protestors and many others believe to be skewed to benefit a rapacious clerical elite, scream “death to the dictator”. After 38 years of oppression by religious zealots, the Iranian population have gathered to express their disgust for a pernicious ruling class who’ve desecrated their country. But was it always like this?
No, it wasn’t and I would know, as I’m half-Iranian.
Iran, commonly referred to by the United States as part of the “axis of evil”, has a proud and opulent history. Contrary to popular belief, its geopolitical relevance didn’t begin with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It began in 7000BC. At the height of its reign, the Persian Empire led by the Achaemenid Dynasty, stretched from Macedonia and Libya to the Hyphasis River. So, why are we now known for being the world’s “greatest exporter of terrorism”?
As a child of immigrant parents growing up in Britain, I struggled to come across any good news about the Iranian half of my heritage. My mother comes from Croatia, a sunlit, beautifully rich, seaside country, which remains a popular destination for British tourists. My father, however, comes from an Islamic republic, which left me with a surname so difficult to pronounce my school teachers would gasp for breath after calling me out for the class register.
Yes, I’m half-Iranian. I’m from the Middle East. That peculiar region of the world, where despite being so abundantly wealthy in natural resources – the majority – live in destitution. Where politicised Muslim clerics lead nations in the name of God and where terrorism is said to be synonymous with everyday life. I’ll never forget the looks my father, siblings and I would get when travelling abroad during our school holidays. It was as if we had Osama bin Laden hiding in the suitcase.
I can recall the conversations my family would have in the living room when I was a teenager. Gathered around the coffee table, placed upon a virulently red Persian rug, my relations would exchange comments into the early hours of the morning about how the West had connived in our country’s downfall. “It was because of our oil,” my uncle would say. “They wanted to control our resources,” my father would shout. “It was because we were becoming an independent nation!” my aunt would scream.
So, what happened?
In the wake of the Second World War, the geopolitical influence of the British empire began to rapidly decline. After centuries of ruling the globe, unsurprisingly, the country’s elite couldn’t bear to accept their diminishing role in the world. However, Persia, as our country was then commonly known, would soon become Britain’s most profitable overseas asset. But, there were a few problems.
In 1951, a new democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was appointed by the nation’s Shah, King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Unlike his predecessors, Mossadegh intended to use our country’s vast oil reserves to embolden the populace, rather than to appease Western powers. Only two days into his new position, he nationalised Iran’s oil supplies. His act was met with ire by America and Britain, with Clement Attlee, commonly described as the most “radical” prime minister in the history of the Labour Party, imposing a worldwide boycott on our most lucrative commodity. The events led to the three-year-long Abadan crisis, which saw the imposition of stringent sanctions upon Iran. Attlee’s hypocrisy couldn’t have been more profound, as he had just overseen the nationalisation of many British institutions, including the NHS.
My family were in Tehran at the time and lived through the collapse of our burgeoning democracy, after Mossadegh was overthrown by the CIA and MI6 in 1953 for his revolutionary actions. My relatives Omid Jabalee*, Ahmad Jabalee* and Farahnaz Jabalee* grew up under the regime that replaced their former nationalist leader. Instead of their patriot they had the Shah, who was a brutal dictator.
“Your family loved Mossadegh,” Ahmad says, with a faraway look on his face.
“He was a threat to the Anglo-American interests in the Middle East. They wanted rid of him, as his views could have encouraged others to adopt a similar path,” he continues, as he gradually becomes more angry.
Mossadegh was succeeded as Prime Minister by Fazlollah Zahedi, who was favoured by the Shah and served as his second-in-command. The duo went on to attain total control of Iran when our hero, Mossadegh, was sentenced to three years in prison for his radical and socially progressive plans.
The punishment only increased his reputation and he was hailed as a nationalist and a patriot, who dared to defy the West. The Shah, however, remains a despotic and embarrassing figure in Iran’s history, who instilled fear in the public and led a remorseless dictatorship. “He may have improved the economy and endorsed liberal policies, but he was a Western pawn, who flaunted his opulent lifestyle,” Ahmad explains.
I’ve been to my home country. As a young boy I visited the capital, Tehran. I didn’t see any cultural motifs, tropes or murals honouring our former subversive leader, as have been awarded to many of our country’s religious dignitaries. Reflecting on it now, it’s clear why. Endorsing a figure who breathes social justice would be a threat to the status quo.
My relatives lived in trepidation after the Shah consolidated his power with the help of Britain and America. Political dissidents were tortured. Economic disparity grew. Any semblance of democracy was sabotaged. Alternative political views couldn’t be openly discussed. Those who dared to question the Shah’s subservience to Anglo-American interests would go missing. Democracy was anathema to the ruling elite. Was this the price my family had to pay for our country’s natural wealth?
The belligerent Shah remained in power until 1979. My father left in 1976 and came to England, to pursue a better life. My remaining family members had to endure his reign, until the situation worsened further, when he was overthrown during the Islamic Revolution.
Despite the economy prosperity of the 1970s – the same decade in which the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini led the nation’s Islamic uprising – Iranians began to rebel against the rapid Westernisation of their country. Although, the economy had grown exponentially, with GDP expanding by an average of 9 per cent year on year from 1964 to 1978, the population had become irascible and sick of autocratic rule. In February 1979, the last shah of Iran was deposed.
My relative, Farahnaz Jabalee, was present and witnessed the revolution. I remember during my teenage years the comments she would make to me. “You should be grateful for the privileges you have in England,” she would say. “In Iran, women are sub-humans.”
The Islamic Revolution galvanised more than 10 per cent of the population. Films such as Argo have attempted to depict it. But, what was it truly like?
“There was this sense of fear. Life became an act and the streets were the stage. You would smile in public. But, you didn’t feel good inside. It was all a lie. You could only feel at ease when you were at home. Otherwise, you were in a state of anxiety,” Farahnaz says.
My family escaped unscathed from the events of 1979. However, they endured nights of consternation, while some old friends worked their way into the ruling elite and embezzled public money. School days soon changed. Chants of “death to America” and “death to Britain” became common, while memories of a once burgeoning democracy became ever more poignant.
My family have always said the revolution was unexpected. Discord was clear, yes. But an Islamic uprising? No.
Since the founding of Iran’s Muslim theocracy, its relations with the outside world have deteriorated. Those who endorse Western morals and values have been harassed, imprisoned and worse. My family have had to rid themselves of what was once their home.
So, what’s next?
In 2015, Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, which includes all five members of the United Nations Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – as well as Germany. The agreement prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In return, decades of economic sanctions have been eased. However, since Donald Trump was inaugurated as US President last year, the pact has been in jeopardy, with Trump criticising the arrangement and threatening to withdraw from it. As part of the agreement, he must review the deal and decide on whether to reimpose sanctions upon Iran every three months. After waiving trading restrictions in early January, he has yet again threatened to abandon the covenant later this year in May if tougher constraints are not imposed.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, believes Trump has been gradually “sabotaging” the pact. “The arrangement is close to being destroyed,” he says. “Although, many are pleased the President didn’t terminate it this time around, he is still diminishing its credibility and gradually dismantling it by creating much insecurity about its permanence. This has led to banks and companies refraining from entering the Iranian markets. This in turn undermines the arrangement while impeding Iran’s economy. If this continues it will not survive.”
Trump has previously accused Iran of “destabilising activities” in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, while his administration has labelled the country as “the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. Parsi, however, believes the situation is multifaceted. “Part of the difficulty is that there is a view only one country is behind the destabilisation. This ignores the core problem, which is that almost every nation is playing a negative role in the region. If we want to address instability, we must take a holistic approach. There hasn’t been a more destabilising event than the occupation of Iraq, which we are still seeing the repercussions of today. If we believe simply stopping Iran’s activities will end the problems, we are fooling ourselves.”
*The real identities of Omid Jabalee, Ahmad Jabalee and Farahnaz Jabalee have been protected for their personal safety
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