Royal Society of Asian Affairs

Journalists do not often write good thrillers. This roman à clef, naming many names of current leaders and only thinly disguising others, written by Reuter’s man in Tehran, concerns an ayatollah who seduces the British, along with the Americans and the Israelis, into supporting him in a coup. In exchange for this support he will suspend Iran’s nuclear programme for ten years and award oil and gas contracts in all the right places. All very topical. The plot and its dénouement are pleasantly convincing; the pace is fast and furious – it is everything that a thriller should be. What makes it particularly satisfying is the author’s easy grasp of the way Iran works, his view of the teeth behind the smile. While the liberal western press bleats ineffectively about the headscarves and hangings, Oliver shows that these are sideshows and that what matters are the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), who are taking the country over, to the frustration of the old business élite. Why do today’s press reports hardly ever address the role of the IRGC in Iranian affaris?

Lovers of qanats, the ancient Persian irrigation tunnels, will be delighted by their central part in the story. Baluchi drug runners, veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, foxy Tehrani party-girls who believe that England still runs Iran, mullahs who ‘master the art of crocodile tears before the onset of puberty’, Californian Iranians who can’t write their names in Persian, impoverished émigrés hoping to hawk valueless intelligence for unheard-of sums of money, a brilliant Iranian journalist in London – these are just some of the vividly drawn characters in the story. One would love to know where they were drawn from. The most inspired invention – was he invented? – is a Jewish-Iranian gendarme living in a lonely hut on the Turkish border, peacefully reading Balzac until he is nearly assassinated by an escaping British agent disguised as a Kurd. This surreal, yet utterly believable, character ends up running a bistro in Chelsea. Iran is a mad world navigable only by the partially insane.

Oliver grinds his axe lightly, dismissing equally the unreal Iranian opposition peddled in Washington, the detached mujahidin émigrés collecting signatures outside London underground stations and the pie-in-the sky monarchists, who are all so skilled at attracting funding under false pretences. The real backbone opposition is home grown, nationalist and disillusioned with the revolution it once supported. Or it is the business class that supported Rafsanjani, frustrated by the incompetents of the present régime who have not only bankrupted the country but also deprived them of the income that they were in the habit of creaming off the oil and construction deals.

The ayatollah, of course, is yet another racketeer. Although he gains the support of the British and the Americans, who think they are manipulating him, in good Persian tradition, he is in fact manipulating them. They never feel the knife going in. In the background are HMG officials demanding to know what is going on, while the civil servants whose job it is to inform them find Iran just as unreadable as ever. With a very satisfactory twist, the plot blows up in their faces, of course.

Those who know Iran will find much to recognise in this timely yarn. Oliver is very good at showing how Iranians say one thing while meaning another. This is not so much lying as hinting – with a nod to the wise – on the principle of ‘he that hath ears to hear, let him hear’. Persian truth is not wasted on those who need to have it spelt out for them. Did Donald Rumsfeld know,  when he was famously struggling to explain that there were things that he knew he didn’t know and things that he didn’t know that he did not know, that he was quoting from the poet and philosopher Rumi?

Review by Antony Wynn
© The Royal Society of Asian Affairs 2009