March 26, 2007


The big question: What is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and who controls them? (Angus McDowall, 27 March 2007, Independent)

Will the British servicemen be released soon?


* Iranian media have played down the incident, creating some room to back off

* The Iraqi government has said that the boats were in their waters, not in Iran's

* Iranian pragmatists have become more important in recent months and might counsel a swift solution


* Top officials have said the servicemen could be charged ­ which might take weeks

* Revolutionary Guards are angry at what they see as recent American escalation of involvement in Iraq

* Some factions might see the servicemen as bargaining chips for other disputes

Largely unmentioned, because little understood in the West, is that even reform-minded, pro-Western, secular Iranians would be prepared, at some level of consciousness, to believe that the Brits were there spying. There is a near universal mood of Anglophobia that lingers as a result of past British meddling in Iranian affairs and that is best captured in Iraj Pezeshkzad's very funny novel, My Uncle Napoleon. As Azar Nafisi writes in her Introduction:
My Uncle Napoleon is the story of a pathetic and pathological man who, because of his failure in real life, turns himself into a Napoleon in his fantasies and becomes convinced of a British plot to destroy him. It gripped the Iranian imagination to such an extent that since its publication in 1973 it has sold millions of copies and has been turned into perhaps the most popular television series in the history of modern Iran. Banned by the censors of the Islamic Republic in 1979, both the book and television serial have thrived underground.

Part of this phenomenal success is because, like all good works of fiction, My Uncle Napoleon is rooted in the reality it fictionalises. It reveals an essential truth about life in contemporary Iran. In a speech at the University of California at Los Angeles, Pezeshkzad traced the origins of Uncle Napoleon's character to his own childhood, when, listening to grown-ups, he was baffled by the way they indiscriminately labelled most politicians "British lackeys". This obsession was so pervasive that some Iranians even claimed Hitler was a British stooge and Germany's bombing of London a nefarious plot hatched by British Intelligence. Similar sinister musings were spouted recently when, after the bombings in London last July, the powerful Iranian cleric Ahmad Janati, chair of the Council of Guardians of the Revolution, claimed in a nationally broadcast sermon that "the British government itself created this situation". Janati also blamed the Americans for the attacks on September 11 2001.

After the publication of My Uncle Napoleon many, including the late prime minister Amir Abbass Hoveyda -who, in a macabre twist of fate, was accused of being an imperialist stooge, among other charges, and was murdered by the Islamic regime - were convinced that Dear Uncle Napoleon was based on a family member.

Although the book is not political, it is politically subversive, targeting a certain mentality and attitude. Its protagonist is a small-minded and incompetent personality who blames his failures and his own insignificance on an all-powerful entity, thereby making himself significant and indispensable. Uncle Napoleonites can be found anywhere in the world and among the different strata of any society. In Iran, for example, as Pezeshkzad has mentioned elsewhere, this attitude is not limited to "common" people but is in fact more prevalent among the so-called political and intellectual elite.

In My Uncle Napoleon, as in another and very different Iranian masterpiece, The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, the tension between reality and fiction is an integral part of the story's plot. The conflict between what exists and what is imagined to exist shapes the characters and their relations. The plot's tragicomic resolution depends on the way this tension is resolved. But the absurdities that cause us to laugh at a ludicrous fictional character can become sources of great suffering when practised in real life. Pezeshkzad's Dear Uncle Napoleon can only exercise his petty tyrannies within his own household, yet he also represents far grimmer dictators with much greater power to harm.

Sometimes it seemed to me when I still lived in Iran that My Uncle Napoleon predicted and articulated in farcical terms the mindset ruling over the Islamic Republic. Like all totalitarian systems, the Iranian government feeds and grows on paranoia. To justify its rule the regime had to replace reality with its own mythologies. The Islamic regime based its absurd justice on Uncle Napoleonic logic, destroying the lives of millions of Iranians through its laws, jailing and torturing and killing all imagined enemies and accusing them of being agents of the Great Satan, namely America and its allies. If Uncle Napoleon felt that the delay in his nephew's train was a British plot, the guardians of morality in Iran saw a woman's lipstick or a man's tie as props/accessories in an imperialist plot to destroy Islam.

SPIEGEL INTERVIEW WITH IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER: 'We Warned the United States': Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, 53, discusses efforts to resolve the conflict over Tehran's nuclear program, his country's right to resist and its offer to help bring peace to Iraq. (Der Spiegel, 3/26/07)

SPIEGEL: Is Iran's nuclear program truly so important that you would even risk going to war over it?

Mottaki: Every country in the world sets its goals and should also be able to achieve them. On March 5, 1957, exactly 50 years ago, we signed a treaty with the United States that granted us the right to acquire nuclear power plants. The first sentence in that agreement guarantees that the peaceful use of atomic energy is one of the fundamental rights of all nations. We consider the right to development to be inalienable.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 26, 2007 6:24 PM

Fine. Let them test a weapon, with the understanding that we will then obliterate their program (and the Revolutionary Guard) with nuclear weapons, rather than a somewhat limited conventional attack now. Their choice.

Posted by: ratbert at March 26, 2007 9:27 PM

Regarding the Iranian "Revolutionary Guards," being "crack troops" or something like that, we should remember how the "dreaded" SS-type guard units of THE FORMER IRAQ were blown away like chaff by American power.

Another point to be made is that alternative militaries, such as the SS, KGB armed formations, and various spiritual jailhouse copies, are a sign of great weakness, not strength. They testify to the illigitimacy of the regimes they support.

Moving on to the issue of whether the British boat crew my be charged with "Spying," it is obvious that they had been in military uniform, in a marked military vessel and are entitled to lawful belligerent status, were it a wartime situation.

There being no war between Great Britian and Iran, Iran could treat them like illegal immigrants.

Perhaps something more is going on here. Iran has done this sort of thing before. If the British are sending tiny patrols into disputed waters they are certainly aware of this contingency.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 27, 2007 4:16 AM

"My Napoleon" sounds like a contemporary "Don Quijote." I wonder if there is a Sancho Panza character?

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at March 27, 2007 6:46 AM

His Sancho is quite a character, playing up his fantasies but trying to maintain peace.

Posted by: oj at March 27, 2007 7:59 AM