Iran’s Intelligence Ministry Resurrects My Uncle Napoleon

by Farideh Farhi

As most observers and students of Iranian politics know, paranoia about behind-the-scenes British machinations and interference has a special place in Iranian politics and the Iranian psyche. Dinner conversations about any world event, even in family settings, may easily be peppered with at least one person confidently asserting that the Brits are behind it all, after all. In fact, the reason the novel Dayi jaan Napolean (My Uncle Napoleon) by Iraj Pezeshkzad (translated into English by Dick Davis) remains popular is precisely because it deliciously captures and lampoons so many cultural reference points, including the obsession with British hands behind Iran’s misfortunes, exemplified by the character that the novel gets its title from.

The book, written in 1973, and popular TV mini-series that was based on it, have been banned in Iran since the Revolution. But now, without exhibiting a trace of irony, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has decided to resurrect one of the book’s main themes via a public communiqué regarding the reason more than a dozen journalists have been arrested (more will apparently continue to be arrested).

In my previous blog on this topic I had speculated that, given the recent pronouncement of the Prosecutor general and the Judiciary’s spokesperson, Mohseni Eje’i, this move may have come from the Judiciary. But based on information from the horse’s mouth we now know that I was wrong and the arrests resulted from efforts by the Ministry of Intelligence to discover “one of the largest media networks” connected to external “media camps” and were undertaken “in the context of its legal duties and responsibilities to combat any foreign infiltration and interference” by those who want awful things to happen to the “free nation of Iran.”

Furthermore, the Intelligence Ministry feels obligated to make several points clear:

  1. Because the dossier is “highly sensitive and involves a multitude of security and judicial considerations,” the gathered intelligence regarding the relationship of arrested individuals to “the psychological operation of the UK government” is “completely supported and solid.” So, even without the accused admitting contacts, the fact that organized work was done by foreign media has already been established.
  2. Given the large number of individuals connected to this media network (from inside and outside the country) and the variety in levels of contact, some of the accused may not even be aware that they have been in contact with a network that has a foreign source. This is why some may be released and more may be arrested. And rest assured that all the noise from various “so-called” human rights organizations connected to the same “arrogant camp” will not have any impact on the resolve of the Intelligence Ministry’s selfless members who are trying to get to the bottom of all this.
  3.  Finally, more information regarding what’s going on will not be available until more information is gathered during the initial stages of interrogation.

So, “solid and supported” information regarding a network of contacts has led to the arrest of individuals who may or may not have been aware of their participation in the alleged crime and, given the potential release of some, may not have even participated in it!

It turns out that the Intelligence Ministry’s “solid and supported” information boils down to the fact that BBC Persian exists and that the Ministry has not been able to stop its reporting of issues related to Iran to viewers inside the country. The rest will be established via the interrogation of individuals who have no access to due process and will probably be prodded into securing their release by admitting their cluelessness in unknowingly helping the “old arrogant power.” The Intelligence Ministry will be vindicated, while hoping that it has created conditions in which Iranians will be leery of talking about what is happening in Iran to anyone lest they be arrested for unknowingly working for a network that eventually finds its way to BBC Persian!

(I had written earlier that if the late Pezeshkzad were alive today, he would probably be wondering if he could have written a better parody. Well, he is still alive, thank goodness, and I hope his great sense of humour extends to me and my blog post as well.)

There is a real conversation to be had regarding the role and impact of Persian-speaking media located outside of Iran that’s funded by citizens or governments of countries that are openly pursuing hostile policies towards the Islamic Republic. But these arrests do not contribute to that conversation. The only thing they show is that close to 35 years after the Islamic Republic asserted its “final independence” from external control and proverbially “slapped the face of arrogant powers” and “cut off their hands”, the Intelligence Ministry is once again full of the likes of Dayi jaan Napoleon and his servant Mash Qassem, both of whom were convinced of British revenge.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.