Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Iran: Presenting a New Image

The “tar baby” is the second of the Uncle Remus tales published in the US in 1881. In it the evil “Bre’er” fox conjures a doll made of tar and turpentine with which to entrap the “Bre’er Rabbit”, the more the victim tries to shake himself free the more entangled he becomes. Several recent events make one think of that American cautionary tale.

Last year China published the final map of its “One World One Road” global project, leaving Iran completely out.

Last month, Turkmenistan put out its map for an energy trunk-line to ferry oil and gas from Central Asia to Europe via the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Türkiye. The initial project worked out five years ago was to see the trunk-line pass through Iran to Türkiye rather than avoiding the Islamic Republic.

Last week it was the turn of India to publish its own map for sea and land connection with Europe via the Bay of Bombay, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Mediterranean.

Finally, it now seems certain that President Joe Biden has given up all hope of embracing the Islamic Republic by concocting a new “nuclear deal” and presenting it as a great diplomatic victory close to next year’s US presidential election. Robert Malley, the man in charge of the forlorn scheme has been sacked and, despite years of acting as an apologist for Tehran, is now presented as a hate object in Iranian media.

Malley isn’t the first Western Khomeinophile figure to see his career ruined by the tar-baby in Tehran.

Robert McFarlane who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Deputy National Security Advisor took the gamble of making a secret trip to Tehran on a false Irish passport bringing with him a planeload of illegal weapons and a promise of even more. Yet the power struggle in Tehran exposed his cloak-and-dagger number and ended his political life. In deep depression, he even attempted suicide. Lt. Colonel Oliver North, His side-kick in the encounter with the Tehran “tar baby”, was tried, convicted and sent to jail. A third member of the trio, Amiram Nir of MOSSAD, was to die in a mysterious far attack in Mexico.

Another distinguished Israeli advocate of “normalization” with Tehran was David Kimche who, genuinely believed that even helping create Hezbollah in Lebanon, to crush the PLO, was a wise move on the region’s deadly chessboard.

The “tar baby” attracted several French political grandees.

Philippe Pons, once a key figure in Jacque Chirac’s political serail even became the Islamic Republic’s advisor while his daughter served as a lawyer for the embassy in Paris. Needless to say, Pons soon found out that the “tar baby” could not be shaken off which meant his political career was over.

Guy Georgy, a distinguished diplomat, made it a crusading cause to argue in favor of close ties with the Islamic Republic and ended up being named Ambassador to Tehran. The lovefest with the “tar baby” didn’t last long; the French embassy was raided by “students following the Imam” and Georgy was briefly held hostage.

Journalist and diplomat Eric Rouleau was another figure who dreamed of embracing the “tar baby” and shaking it off when desired. But he ended up being told that if he set foot in Tehran once again he would end up as a hostage. As his predictions about the Islamic Republic becoming moderate proved wrong both his journalistic and diplomatic careers had to end.

In Britain, a number of political figures, including former Treasury Secretary Lord Lamont did all they could to change the Islamic Republic’s image but failed. Former Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn worked for the official Islamic TV for 13 years but ended up being seen by his own electorate as tied to the “tar baby”.

No British politician did more than Jack Straw, as foreign secretary under Premier Tony Blair, to sweeten Tehran’s image, I believe mostly out of good intentions rather than personal profit. But he narrowly escaped being seized as a hostage when he was visiting Iran with his wife at the invitation of then President Hassan Rouhani.

The “tar baby” hasn’t been any kinder to its Iranian bedfellows. Almost all dual nationals held as hostages in Tehran are the Islamic Republic’s own lobbyists, facilitators, sanction-breakers, and propagandists. They end up as hostages because a rival faction within the Tehran ruling elite is sore at them for siding with the “wrong faction.”

These days, of course, some policymakers and analysts insist that the “tar baby” has changed. They claim that Tehran’s “unacceptable behavior” in the past was due to fears by the radical Khomeinist faction that the “other side”, that is to say, those who commend a deal with the US, might succeed and use their success to exclude the radicals. According to that narrative, the radicals are now in control of all levers of power, and no longer fear being dislodged by “reform-seekers” linked to Washington. Thus, embracing the remade “tar baby” may not be as risky as it was for almost four decades.

This message has also been sent to some 8 million Iranians in the diaspora who fear that returning home even for a holiday may get them stuck with the “tar baby”.

Last month, Islamic Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohseni Ejehi called on Iranian exiles to “come home whenever you like. You won’t be arrested at the airport. We just take your passport for a few days and if there is any cause for investigation that will be done quickly.”

A similar message has been sent by President Ayatollah Dr. Ibrahim Raisi to foreigners who wish to invest in Iran. The recent release of several foreign hostages may give credence to that invitation. Right now, however, China, India, and Russia, not to mention the European Union and Japan, still seem unwilling to embrace the “tar baby”.

Raisi hopes to address those concerns when he attends the UN General Assembly in New York. The “usual suspects” who always tried to soften the image of the “tar baby”, are preparing a platform for him to play that new tune.

Will anyone be seduced?