Book review of 'The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain' by Jack Staw

During his years as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had extensive dealings with Iran and came to know the country well. The fact he chose to return there on holiday in October 2015, with his wife a couple of friends, is indicative of the great love he developed for Iran and its people. The holiday itself was not a success and had to be curtailed early but the experience, described in the opening chapter, explains well both something of the power struggles within Iran and the country’s longstanding obsession with Britain. During the trip Straw found himself being protected by one arm of the Iranian Government against threatening attacks from the other. The incident shows that in Iran there is Government within Government, that what you see is seldom what you get and that real power lies in the hands of unelected religious leadership. The remainder of the book is largely Straw’s response to the list of complaints against the British presented to him during his holiday by members of the Basij - the shadowy militia arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Straw’s main aim in writing is to provide the reader with a better understanding of Iran and of Britain’s part in her unfolding story; these he achieves with skill and sensitivity.

The book is a sweeping appraisal of Iran’s history, from the time of Cyrus the Great to the present, and includes an astonishing amount of detail and analysis especially around Straw’s own role when Foreign Secretary. Charting the rise of Islam it identifies similarities between the Shi’ism of Iran and the Anglicanism of England, which serve to intertwine the two countries further.  He gets under the skin of complexities and paradoxes which make Iran a singularly unique country in many respects and unfolds these with tremendous sympathy for Iranians whilst seldom losing his critical edge. One exception is perhaps his references to religious minorities which don’t take full account of those groups currently most persecuted.  

Nevertheless Straw really does understands Iran, the psyche of her people and the multi-layered way in which political and religious power is wielded. He also has unique inside knowledge and experience of British politics at the highest level. He displays empathy for the Iranian people and exposes the way British influence, particularly from the 19th century onwards, played a part (through trade, territorial treaties and political machinations) in contributing to the radicalisation of clergy and sowing the seeds of the 1979 Revolution. Straw clearly depicts how past events have shaped and cemented attitudes to the British, outlining why the British are regarded as an all-pervasive influence (for good and ill), why this paranoia is so deep-seated nor entirely misplaced.  But Straw is also alive to the weaknesses of Iranians and their Governments and is, at times, resolutely withering.

The high level of detail increases as the book goes on and not all the material is presented chronologically. This makes for a dense and sometimes potentially confusing read especially for those unfamiliar with Iran. However, the prize for completing it is a well-rounded, authentic portrayal of an often misunderstood nation whose place in the Middle East and the wider world continues to be hugely significant.   

Straw paints a picture of Iranians caught in a web of paradoxes. He demonstrates their longing for international recognition whilst showing how national pride and a sense of victimhood trips them up again and again. He underlines the critical part oil has played and how the presence of particular individuals (in Iran and the West) has at given points in history changed the tide of events, for better or worse. He leaves us with the impression of a country that is far from settled nor at ease with itself and suggests the international community might yet play a productive part in future developments by better understanding and honouring Iran whilst also speaking out against the excesses of the current regime. 

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