[inset_left]A Bazaar Life: The Autobiography of David Alliance
By David Alliance with Ivan Fallon
The Robson Press, 448 pages
According to conventional wisdom, Iran and Israel are mortal foes locked in a deadly struggle to the bitter end. However, David, Lord Alliance, whose autobiography A Bazaar Life has just been published in London, does not share the conventional wisdom.
He recalls the history of close ties between Iran and the Jewish people, going back more than 25 centuries, when Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to their original homeland. Cyrus’s successor Darius even financed the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem that was to be destroyed by the Romans centuries later.
In more recent times, Alliance tells us, Iran has been one of the few countries in the world where Jews could live in relative security. And when Israel declared itself a state in 1948, Iran was the only Muslim country to recognize it. (On that, Lord Alliance is wrong because Turkey, too, granted Israel recognition.)
Alliance, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords and one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists in the past 50 years, makes an even more interesting assertion: Iran is the only country that can succeed where everyone else has failed by “solving the Israel–Palestine problem.”
“Only Iran which knows cultures on both sides has the great capacity to negotiate and the clout to mediate peace between two regional neighbors Israel and Palestine,” he writes. Notwithstanding the rhetoric from Tehran and Tel Aviv, Iran is Israel’s best hope.
He also claims that “mullahs are experts in the art of negotiation,” always looking for profit, just like the merchants in the bazaars of Tehran and Kashan where Lord Alliance spent his early years as an Iranian-Jewish shop assistant to his father and uncles.
A man of the bazaar, Lord Alliance knows that nothing is ever done for nothing. So, what reward would mullahs get in “negotiating the end of the Israel-Palestine conflict”?
Lord Alliance’s answer is that Israel should “offer Iran joint guardianship of the holy Islamic sites in Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.” Interesting thought, you might say.
There is no doubt that at least part of the Israeli leadership elite is persuaded that the mullahs of Tehran could be useful allies against hostile Arabs. This is why Israel lobbied the US in 1985 to smuggle arms to Iran, needed to stop Saddam Hussein’s armies and then force them into retreat in the Iran-Iraq War. In secret talks held between a US delegation sent by President Ronald Reagan and the Khomeini government in Tehran, Israel was represented by Amiram Nir, then a rising star of Mossad. Hassan Rouhani, the future president of the Islamic Republic was an interpreter with the Iranian delegation led by Ayatollah Dorri Najafabadi, then a close aide to Rafsanjani. Tehran repaid Israel by creating Hezbollah to evict PLO forces from southern Lebanon close to the demarcation line with Israel.
However, the solution proposed by Lord Alliance, who has close relations with Israeli leaders and the Rafsanjani faction in Tehran, would mean a double exclusion of Palestinians not to mention 85 percent of Muslims who do not subscribe to Iran’s brand of Islam especially in its Khomeinist version.
Alliance relates his encounter with Khomeini in Paris just weeks before the ayatollah returned to Tehran to seize power. Accompanied by his son Ahmad, the ayatollah came to George V, a luxury hotel in the heart of Paris for the meeting to reassure the Jewish community through Alliance that the coming “Islamic regime” would do nothing against them or Israel. A few weeks later when Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister, asked the Israelis to assassinate Khomeini in France, the Mossad rejected the idea out of hand.
Alliance left Iran aged 16, almost penniless but with great dreams. Over the years he became the owner of the biggest textile empire in the world, based in Manchester, and one of Britain’s wealthiest men. With wealth came social recognition and, as is the British custom, membership of the House of Lords.
The book includes several fascinating chapters on wheeling and dealing in a major capitalist economy where fortunes could be made out of nothing and then unmade because of a mere slip. Though he does not tell us whether or not he plays cricket, over the decades Alliance became a fully-fledged Englishman, hobnobbing with the great and the good in British society. Among the people he hired at different times were a number of senior former Cabinet ministers and leaders from all the three major political parties. He offers delicious prose caricatures of some of them, notably George-Brown, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party.
At one point he notes, tongue-in-cheek, that in a capitalist society, a man with big pockets could go wherever he likes.
Alliance is cryptic about his contacts with the current leadership in Iran, although in the 1990s he reportedly introduced Rouhani, then Iran’s nuclear negotiator, to several senior members of the British establishment.
Although the Iranian part of his life was brief, Alliance’s memoirs show that coming out of Iran may be easy, but getting Iran out of oneself is not. Some of the best pages of this memoir consist of nostalgic ruminations about Alliance’s boyhood in Kashan, an ancient oasis city on the edge of the great Iranian desert.
The Iran that Alliance loved was the one where the Shah reigned. This is why Alliance felt the fall of the Shah was a personal tragedy, for which he blames everyone from President Jimmy Carter to the state-owned BBC radio network.
Iranian, British and Jewish, Alliance is an interesting example of the complex identities that our globalized world could produce. His book is also a hymn to the openness and generosity of British society that gives the frailest of saplings from faraway lands a chance to root and grow.