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Adam Curtis | 15:45 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2012

When you bring God into politics very strange things happen. You can see this now in both America and Iran -  in their elections and also in the growing confrontation between them. But it wasn't always like this - in fact for most of the 20th century fundamentalist religion in both America and Iran had turned its back on the world of politics and power.

But in the 1970s everything changed. For that was the moment when religion was deliberately brought into politics in both countries with the aim of using it as a revolutionary force. And those who did this - Khomeini in Iran, and right-wing activists in America - were inspired by the revolutionary theories and organisations of the left and their ambition to transform society in a radical way.

I want to tell the forgotten story of how this happened - and how in the 1980s both the Americans and the Iranian idealists came together in a very odd way - with disastrous consequences.


In the early 1970s in Washington a small group of young conservative activists came together to try and change American politics. They called themselves the New Right and they were convinced that unless they did something drastic, the liberals and the left-wingers in America were going to take over the country.

One of the leaders of the New Right was a man called Paul Weyrich, and in the wake of the student revolts of 1968 he infiltrated the meetings of left-wing grassroots organisations. He was astonished by the amount of planning and tactics that he saw and he realised that the conservative movement in America was completely unaware of all this. The right, he said, were still trapped by the belief that people would simply vote for them because they were right.

So the New Right set out to organise a new grassroots movement that could counter the left's success. They had all sorts of discussions and during one of them Weyrich pointed out that there were millions of Americans who were socially and culturally very conservative but who never voted. They were the religious fundamentalists and the evangelicals - a vast segment of the population who believed that they should never get involved in politics.

Weyrich realised that if you could activate the fundamentalists and the evangelicals then the New Right could create an incredibly powerful force. But the problem was how to persuade them. The fundamentalists were driven by pietism - the belief that a true Christian should not only devote their life to god, but also turn their back on the secular political world. They should live the good life through their own actions - and forget about politics.

Ironically it was the liberal left that offered Weyrich the way to activate the fundamentalists. Since the late 1960s the left had pushed through reforms on all kinds of moral issues - gay rights, abortion, sexual discrimination. This had shocked the Christian heartland of America because it was politics attacking and undermining the very beliefs through which they lived their private lives.

The final straw came when President Carter abolished the charity status for the fundamentalist religious schools. This really hurt because they thought Carter, an evangelical, was one of them. But Carter was of the old school - he believed that religion should be separate from politics.

So in May 1979 Paul Weyrich and four other young activists drove to the Holiday Inn in Lynchburg Virginia to meet one of the most powerful evangelical pastors in America, Jerry Falwell. Like a number of other pastors, Falwell had his own television network and millions of followers. What happened at that meeting would shatter the pietism of millions of fundamentalist Christians and bring them - and their beliefs - into the heart of American politics.

I interviewed Paul Weyrich and another of the New Right group, Morton Blackwell, about that meeting. Here they are - describing what happened. It begins with Weyrich telling how he infiltrated the left. Weyrich was a fascinating man (he died in 2008) - a conservative revolutionary.

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At the same time - in early 1979 - the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that toppled the Shah in Iran.

Khomeini did this by completely transforming Shia Islam. It was a religion that for hundreds of years had taught its millions of followers to turn their backs on politics and power. Khomeini had turned this upside down - and had brought Shiism into the heart of politics.

Back in 1963 Khomeini was just another conservative cleric living in the City of Qom, but then the Shah launched the White Revolution which was supposed to modernise Iran. Khomeini was horrified because the programme was going to emancipate women, swear in elected officials on any holy book - not necessarily the Koran, and worst of all it threatened to take away the clergy's very large landholdings.

Here's an image of the future of the Shah's revolution. Girls running nuclear power.


But the problem was how to challenge the Shah? Shiite Islam had a quietist attitude towards politics. One of its main ceremonies is "Shiite lamentation", where the faithful ritually flagellate themselves. Throughout Shiite history the clergy have made this the symbol of a retreat from the world - and above all from politics and power. The people must wait in a world full of shadows and evil - for the return of the twelfth imam. This meant that political power was evil and debased, and you must have nothing to do with it.

Khomeini decided to overturn this - and to do it, like Paul Weyrich in America, he turned to the ideas of the political left.

In the 1960s an Iranian sociologist called Ali Shariati had become fascinated by the writings of the Third World revolutionary, Franz Fanon. And when Shariati translated Fanon's writing into Persian he used the language of Islam - so marxist terms like "the oppressors" became "the arrogant" while "the oppressed" became "the weak" or "the disinherited".

For Khomeini this was the key - and in 1970 he gave a series of lectures that took Shariati's attempt to fuse revolutionary Marxism and Islam and used them to portray a new vision of Shia Islam. Your duty, Khomeini said, was no longer to remain passive but to seize power and drive out the wicked and corrupt ruler. It was an extraordinary move, because Khomeini was exploding one of the fundamental ideas of his religion.

You don't just sit around waiting for the Messiah. You fight - and you take power now. Led by the clergy.

Khomeini lifted a lot from Shariati, but it was also driven by his powerful personality and his brilliant use of the media. Here is is film of Khomeini in exile in Paris in 1977 as his ideas were taking hold in Iran. It is followed by some film rushes of the extraordinary mass demonstration that happened in Tehran on the 29th March 1978 - the slogans on the banners show the fusion of left wing revolutionary ideas and Islam. As the Shah says in the film, Khomeini had combined "the red and the black".

A few weeks later violent revolution began - and I have included in the rushes some great and very brave reporting in the midst of the fighting by the BBC reporter Richard Lindley.

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In America the politicisation of religion had taken off in a big way. Throughout 1979 The Revd Falwell travelled the country contacting, he claimed, 72,000 pastors. He showed them how to mobilise their millions of followers and how to register them to vote. Falwell also worked with the New Right to use Direct Mail to dramatise the moral issues - and to provoke.

When gays were allowed to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, Falwell sent out a warning to the Moral Majority followers:

"That's right - the gays were allowed to turn the tomb of the Unknown Soldier into:

But the question was - who should the newly radicalised fundamentalists support in the 1980 presidential election? The Religious Right prepared a Presidential Biblical Scorecard which was sent out to millions.


It scored all the candidates on the great moral issues - abortion, homosexuality, national defence, and many others. Jimmy Carter didn't do very well.


But the question was really decided at a dramatic mass meeting in Dallas. It was called The National Affairs Briefing and was sponsored by the Religious Roundtable - a coalition of religious groups. All the candidates for President and other political figures were invited to come and explain their views on religion - but only one turned up, Ronald Reagan.

The meeting's other aim was to show just how many leading pastors now believed that evangelical religion should become involved in politics. Along with Falwell, leading televangelists like James Robison and Jimmy Swaggart whipped up the 17,000 strong crowd in the Dallas Arena - in front of 50 million television viewers.

Other leading pastors, like Billy Graham, refused to come. They hated what was happening. One of them, a Baptist called James Dunn gave a brilliant quote:

"We've got a bunch of TV preachers who want to establish a theocracy in America, and each one of them wants to be Theo."

And then Reagan made his speech.

Here is James Robison at the meeting followed by Reagan, a moment that many in the movement say was the turning point. I have also included Jimmy Swaggart attacking those who say religion should not be involved in politics - because it is really funny and shows just how powerful and confident this movement was back then.

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But as all this was happening in America, the battle that was taking place in the Iranian revolution over religion and politics spilled over into American politics - and things began to get very complicated.

And its victim was the hapless President Jimmy Carter.

Unlike previous US presidents, Carter didn't like the Shah of Iran. The CIA had told him horror stories of what the Shah's secret police were doing to Iranian dissidents. And Amnesty were publiciising the same thing - like the use of bacon slicers to cut off prisoners' hands bit by bit. Carter didn't like this, he believed that America should promote human rights around the world and he publicly criticised the Shah.

But not very strongly. Carter said that criticism of the Shah's secret police was "perhaps sometimes justified", while he continued to give Iran vast amounts of weapons.

In 1977 the BBC were making a sycophantic documentary about the "life of Washington's first lady" - Rosalynn Carter. They were filming in the White House when the Shah of Iran came to visit. Carter had promised he was going to tell the Shah he should try and liberalise his country. Unfortunately thousands of Iranian exiles didn't think this was enough and they turned up outside the White House to protest, and Rosalynn's plans started to go wrong

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When the Iranian revolution happened, President Carter tried to contact what he believed were "the moderates" in the revolution. The embassy in Tehran opened a dialogue with the liberals who had allied themselves with Khomeini - and who now wanted to transform Iran into a democracy. The most important was the new Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan.

But Khomeini wanted to get rid of these liberals because they were opposed to his idea of the new political structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran - where absolute power would be given to "the Guide", which meant Khomeini himself. The liberals saw this as the restoration of a dictatorship.

So Khomeini and his supporters manufactured a crisis. On November 4th 1979 500 "students in the line of the Imam" (ie followers of Khomeini) stormed the American embassy and took the diplomats hostage. There are stories that a young Ahmadinejad was one of the students, but no one has proved this and he denies it.

There is a great book written by Massoumeh Ebtekar who was one of the invaders of the embassy. She describes how when they began to explore, the students found tons of shredded documents lying discarded on the floor and in the barrels of the shredders. One of the invaders, an engineering student called Javad thought that the shreds from each document must have fallen together - and so it might be possible to rebuild the documents.

"He was a study in concentration - bearded, thin, nervous and intense. These qualities combined with his strong command of English, his mathematical mind and his enthusiasm, made him a natural for the job.

One afternoon he took a handful of shreds from the barrel, laid them on a sheet of white paper and began grouping them on the basis of their qualities.


"After five hours we had only been able to reconstruct 20-30% of two documents. The next day I visited the document centre with a group of sisters. 'Come and see. With God's help, with faith and a bit of effort we can accomplish the impossibe', Javad said with a smile."

A team of twenty students then went to work to reconstruct all the papers - in the end they published 85 volumes of them. The documents revealed the deep and cynical involvement of America in supporting the Shah throughout the 1970s. They were the Wikileaks of their time, for they showed how the CIA had worked closely with SAVAK - the hated and vicious Iranian secret service.


The students renamed the embassy "the nest of spies" - and quite a lot of the hatred and distrust of America that has pervaded Iran ever since comes from those reconstructed documents.

And what's more the documents also helped Khomeini destroy his liberal allies, because they revealed that, since the beginning of the revolution, President Carter had been talking to "the moderates". Khomeini seized on this and used it to force out and arrest all those in the new government who wanted a democracy. They were traitors because they had been corrupted by the Great Satan.

Khomeini then used the embassy crisis - fuelled by the hatred of America - to build his vision of a radical theocracy in Iran. It had an enormous effect on the Presidential campaign in America because it made Carter look impotent, especially when his mission to rescue the hostages failed dramatically with helicopters crashing and burning in the Iranian desert.

To give a sense of the drama and uncertainty of that time - here are some sections from the BBC News Comp tapes of the time - 1979-80. They were the 2-inch video tapes onto which raw material coming over satellite from Washington and Tehran was first dumped. I have kept them as they are - and they give a very good sense of the complexity and dislocation of what was happening. They include footage the Iranian students shot as they invaded, and then some video of what they found inside the embassy - the secret communications equipment, and then they find the shredders.

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In November 1980 Ronald Reagan won the presidential election. Millions of newly radicalised Christians voted for him. Reagan would have won without their votes, but the New Right had awoken a powerful force that now came into Washington - an evangelical conservatism that wanted to change the world, not just keep it the way it was, as traditional conservatives always had.

By 1980 the idea that left-wing politics could change the world was finished and over - throughout the western world. And in a strange way these new conservative radicals were the last spasm of twentieth century revolution - created out of left-wing tactics borrowed by the New Right - and then fused with fundamentalist anger.

But the problem was that almost immediately Reagan ignored them. Although in speeches he paid lip service to their fury over subjects like abortion - he did almost nothing to remake America into the morally good country they sought. And the religious right and their supporters were frustrated and angry.

But they still had hope in foreign policy. Like the fundamentalists, Reagan saw foreign policy not as realpolitik, but as a global battle of good against evil - and he backed the idealists in his administration who wanted to support what they called Freedom Fighters in countries like Nicaragua.

But this would lead the American religious idealists into a very weird situation - they would become the allies of the religious revolutionaries in Iran.

Because Khomeini's revolution was also having problems. The country was facing an economic disaster and the millions of poor people who had created the revolution were finding that their prospects hadn't really changed. While the intellectual leftists who had supported Khomeini had turned against his idea that he should be in charge.

So Khomeini simply annihilated the left. He killed them - or forced them to confess to treachery on TV from prison.

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Then Iraq invaded Iran - and hundreds of thousands of the most devoted and active revolutionary militants were sent off to become cannon fodder. They were giving their lives to defend the revolution - but their deaths also removed the growing threat from this group as Khomeini's revolution failed to solve the economic and social problems.

And by 1984 Iran had become a very dark and strange place. Any idea of using religious energy to change the world was gone - and faced with the appalling butchery in the war, Iranian Shiism found it's way back to the old idea of martyrdom, but in a horrific way.

The historian of modern islamism, Gilles Kepel, described what happened to that young revolutionary generation.

"The appalling butchery of the war against Iraq gave the younger generation of poor Iranians an incentive to return to the former tradition of martyrdom.

No longer at issue was the transformation of the world, for the revolution had clearly failed to satisfy that expectation. Rather the young men developed a new desire - a longing for death - as a response to the failure of Iran's revolutionary utopia and the pressures of the war with Iraq.

The Shiite death wish took on massive dimensions with the sacrifice of the bassidjis at the front. The colunteers wrote letter and last testaments to their families, asserting their longing for death. What these tragic documents describe in religious terms is no less than the political suicide of the young urban poor of Iran in the 1980s."

In 1984 the BBC made a two-part documentary recording this dark, strange Iran. It is a brilliant film - it shows just what Kepel describes, hundreds of young men being bussed off to the front every day, welcoming the fact that they are all going to die.

The giant fountain in the mass war cemetery spouts blood-red water. While in cool, white offices, very young children are taught to embrace the idea of martyrdom by a spooky cleric - and are given toy models of the US space shuttle to reward them. And the revolutionary guards spend their time driving around policing their neighbours' morals, and hunting down ill-veiled women (bad hejabi).

Here are some sections from the film. I really like the way it is made - refusing to bow to the normal hysterical news style. Its calmness evokes the growing darkness brilliantly.

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And into this weird, dark world came an equally weird American - called Colonel OIiver North. He was a radical Christian fundamentalist who wanted to save his, and Reagan's, global revolution through an audacious and, in retrospect, completely crazy plan.

North was high up in the National Security Council and had been running a secret programme to help the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua - it was part of what he saw as an epic battle of  good vs evil all around the world. But Congress had found out about it - and stopped him.


So in 1985 North, began to build an amazing scheme. He knew that the Iranians were desperate for weapons in their war against Saddam Hussein, so he proposed to sell them thousands of missiles, then take the Iranian money and use it to secretly fund the Contras. The Iranians would also persuade the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon to release American hostages.

North, along with the National Security Adviser, Bud McFarlane, told Reagan that this would also be a way of opening a dialogue with "the moderates" in the Iranian regime. And out of this North built an epic vision whereby this would allow America to defeat the extremists in Iran, end the Iran-Iraq war, and root out all Islamist terrorist networks in Europe and around the world.

A journalist called Ann Wroe wrote a fantastic book in the 1980s about the Iran-Contra affair. What she describes is an incredible comedy - somebody should make a drama about it.

North gave everyone and everything code names:

Missiles were "dogs"
The airport was "a swimming pool"
Iran was "apple" - so Tehran airport was "apple swimming pool"
But confusingly in another code sheet Iran was "tango"
Israel was "banana"
The United States was "orange"
Hostages were "zebras"
So a typical message in North's notebook was:

But it got more confusing because North kept on giving himself different code names. Initially he called himself "Wagner", but then he began sending messages about the plan signed "Steelhammer". Then he called himself "Colonel Goode", while his right hand man, General Secord was codenamed "General Kopp". And then he started calling himself "Mr Green".

Here are two orange zebras:


At times North got confused about who he was. When he boarded planes he couldn't remember what name he was on the passenger list - and had to go through all of them until he got it right.

North and McFarlane started meeting with representatives of the Iranian regime in great secret in places like Frankfurt. They were convinced they were dealing with "moderates", but no one could define what a moderate was in Iran - especially when it began to seem that "conservatives" in the theocratic regime were also "radicals".

The Iranians got thousands of missiles - and three hostages were released. But then Hezbollah kidnapped three more hostages - and the Americans were back at zero again.

But North was convinced that it would work because it was the meeting of two groups - from America and Iran - who both devoutly believed that their political aims had a grander, religious purpose. He flew to Tehran to try and solve it. North sat listening to his Iranian contact talking emotionally about Martyrdom. North replied

"Because I am a Christian, I understand and believe that when one dies in faith he will spend eternity in a far better place"

The Iranians got lots more missiles, North got more money for the Contras - but no more hostages released. He got desperate and arranged another meeting with the Iranians in Frankfurt. North took a bible with him in which he had persuaded President to write an inscription - and he gave it to the Iranians saying:

''We inside our Government had an enormous debate, a very angry debate inside our Government over whether or not my President should authorize me to say 'We accept the Islamic Revolution of Iran as a fact. He (the President) went off and prayed about what the answer should be and he came back with that passage I gave you that he wrote in front of the Bible I give you.

And he said to me, 'This is a promise that God gave to Abraham. Who am I to say that we should not do this?' ''

At one of their meetings, an Iranian came up to North's right-hand man, General Secord, and said:

"What's with this guy North? We just left a country full of mullahs, and what do I find here but another goddam mullah."

Then - at the end of 1986 - North's mad scheme was exposed. There was an enormous political scandal that nearly brought Reagan down. And the revolutionary visions of the religious right were finished.

The Iranians made great play of how mad Oliver North was. The then speaker of the Iranian parliament, Rafsanjani, held up North's bible for the world to see:


But the religious right in America didn't go away, instead - just like in Khomeini's Iran - it has mutated since the late 1980s into a rigid moral police force that has become an iron cage that possesses American politics and stops it progressing.

And that is what someone like Rick Santorum is. He's no revolutionary. He's just a conservative. But whatever happens to his campaign, the religious right is an active force in American politics. In particular they are among the keenest to bomb Iran.

Meanwhile in Iran there are parliamentary elections - but it's a contest between different factions of conservative religious fundamentalists, with the opposition excluded.

Forty years ago, in both America and Iran, religion was brought into politics as a revolutionary force - fuelled by a vision that it could be used to transform the world. But now, in both countries, that power has mutated into a backward-looking and hysterical conservatism that is doing its best to remove both countries from the dynamic force of history.

And look what happened in 1987 to one of the great leaders of that revolution in America - Jimmy Swaggart. But even when he faced his downfall, he was a great performer.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Adam,

    The theme that you draw here - that two sets of religious conservatives used ideas and strategies from their political / social / cultural opposites to defeat them, and now find themselves opposing each other - is intriguing though of course familiar to those who have seen your documentary series "The Power of Nightmares".

    I would just like to add my two cents' worth to what you have described in your post:

    - I assume you're well aware that in 1953 the CIA engineered a plot to oust Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq's government for having supported the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1951. In the early 1950s, both the UK and US had pressured the Iranians to change their nationalisation stand with economic boycotts but after 1952, with a change to conservative government in both countries (Winston Churchill was re-elected Prime Minister and Eisenhower replaced Truman as President), and a change of CIA Director as well (the new director Allen Dulles was a brother of Eisenhower's Secretary of State), the CIA went ahead with a plot that involved hiring thugs and gangsters to stage pro-Shah demonstrations and instigate riots in Tehran. Some 300 people were killed, Mossadeq was forced to flee his house and surrendered to the military. He was arrested, tried and found "guilty" of treason, sentenced to death, then had his sentence commuted to solitary confinement in prison and finally house arrest.

    Mossadeq's overthrow is always going to be the proverbial elephant in the room whenever Iran's modern history in the last 60+ years is discussed. The coup paved the way for Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to rule Iran with an iron fist. The AIOC was free to commence (continue?) its grand career as an upstanding, socially and environmentally responsible corporate citizen of the world (ha-ha, only joking!), later renaming itself British Petroleum Company 1954 and becoming one of the founding companies of BP in the late 1990s.

    For the musical people among us, one of the organisers of the 1953 coup was CIA agent Miles Copeland, father of the drummer Stewart Copeland.

    - There have been allegations that Republicans associated with Reagan's presidential campaign met with Iranian government officials during the Tehran embassy hostage crisis in late 1980 to delay the release of the trapped embassy staff until after Reagan was elected President (the so-called October Surprise). If true, then the religious conservatives in both countries were closer and more morally bankrupt than you've shown them to be.

    - I question your portrayal of Shi'ism as a re

  • Comment number 2.

    @ AC (continued)

    - I question your portrayal of Shi'ism as a religion with a quietist attitude towards politics. It may have become so in Iran by virtue of becoming the state religion in the 1500s but it hasn't always been passive and otherworldly. In its early years it was a religion of dissent and protest against Sunni Islamic domination. It was Shi'ism which in the 11th century produced the famous sect of the Assassins whose founder was Hasan-i Sabah. He is a fascinating figure in his own right, knowledgeable in philosophy, medicine and all the scientific fields of his time, ascetic and yet apparently heretical in some of his religious views: he was influenced by Neoplatonist philosophy.

    - Ayatollah Khomeini's daughter Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini has a PhD in philosophy and teaches at the University of Tehran. There have been rumours that Islamic government forces killed one of Khomeini's sons in 1995. Of Khomeini's grandchildren, at least three are pro-reform / pro-democracy. Somehow I don't imagine that Khomeini is whizzing all that furiously in his grave; more likely he was portrayed in the Western press as a stereotyped mad mullah.

    Thanks very much for more food for thought!

  • Comment number 3.

    @ Nausika - Check out the posts BP AND THE AXIS OF EVIL and THE BABY AND THE BAATH WATER if you haven't already, you should find them interesting.

    Also, I heard of the October Surprise only recently. I have absolutely no idea what the really happened, if there's any truth in it. It sounds quite plausible, but you'd expect Iran to have hung the US with it by now.

    On Falwell - that's the first time I've actually seen him. What immediately occured to me is I felt his 'style' was familiar. And then it clicked - Bill Hicks. Which makes an incredible amount of sense.

    Also about the Iran/Iraq war - of course I know the story has been simplified etc. But the story of the young men going to the frontline, and their martyrdom, was it really 'a longing for death' that was driving them? I never thought of it this way, that young men became so hopeless and their life conditions were so awful that they were happy to go. I find it hard to articulate what I mean, but I always thought that acts of martyrdom like the ones we've seen over the past 30 years, they were supposed to be for something (however misguided we may think it), not just the afterlife and the virgins, but some idea of change on Earth. What Curtis is saying I think is different, that in this case it was only an act of self-destruction, that it was a reaction of hopelessness in the face of the failure of the revolution, not an act in support of it. Perhaps that's what martyrdom really is, perhaps this idea of dying for a cause is often just a rationalisation - it seems much better to live for a cause instead.

    I guess it's the poor and disenfranchised who are usually martyrs, or soldiers, so to hear it put in a broader social/economic/political context shouldn't be any shock at all. But it just struck me, this vivid picture not of extreme devotion or faith, but of total nihilism.

  • Comment number 4.

    Also, banana had a big role in getting the dogs to apple, which shows how complicated the history of that whole basket is. I wonder if Ahmadinejad has seen Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit?

    The whole of the last video is amazing by the way, especially the bit about the church secretary, it's like something out of Brass Eye.

  • Comment number 5.

    If nothing else, the triumph of religious groups that shunned politics for so many decades - and in such a short time - proves that There Is Always An Alternative...

    It is always so interesting to me when revolutionary movements begun by thinkers like the Black Dwarf set (who Adam described a few months back) so often end up breeding the techniques that lead the walls to come tumbling down in the opposite direction to which they had planned. Perhaps once these movements get into the hands of the working class majority of any country, they inevitably pull conservative, even if the techniques are taken from the left. Certainly Adam hints at it here and it's explored by Buruma & Margalit in their book "Occidentalism." In the case of Iran, it's vividly illustrated in the recent Oscar-winner "A Separation." And one has only to look at the base of the Republican party to see it.

    Perhaps this is too can lead to Adam's years of stagnation. Any one with power who is inclined to think progressive is immediately forced to spend all their time fighting off the religious right instead of pursuing their goals. Even if deals are made, or the person is co-opted, social policemen have no problem moving the goal nets back so the same confrontation will arise a ways down the road.

  • Comment number 6.

    A great read and an interesting perspective. One thing I will point out is that I'm almost 100% certain that the individual showing off the bible in the image is not Rafsanjani. He never appears in public without his clerical garb.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is an excellent essay, with a good perspective. However, I'd like to point out that American Fundamentalists were involved with politics- just not as much on a national scale with a united national organization. One set of examples of what they were involved in can be found here:

  • Comment number 8.

    I wish Adam had incorporated Tony Blairs now famous "Classless Society" speech into this story. Just look up Marxist Lumpenproletariat, the spirit of the translation is Classless society. Knowing how these nutters like to talk in code. I wonder what the fruits of Labour were? Ha ha!

    I think a terrible parallel can be found as we gaze at the monstrous industrial, technological, business world and find every single resource is being exploited faster than it can be restored. Similarly every aspect of the human psyche is being possessed covertly in mass by people looking for more control and power. What comes next is the question? or will it all just cycle like the Dead of Night? Fruit for thought!

    Sorry I couldn't help that one!

  • Comment number 9.

    @ theartteacher2: Thanks for those tips! I have just seen those old posts, they're both very good.

    That Miles Copeland got involved in a number of major events in his career and even after when he had retired. He participated in a plan to rescue the embassy hostages in Tehran in 1980 which would have required several CIA agents to pose as Iranian military to take charge of the hostages and deliver them to a location to be picked up by US aircraft. For all that though, he seems to have been badly treated or used by the CIA bureaucracy and advised his children not to work for that organisation or in espionage generally. He was probably happy that all three of his sons opted for careers in the music entertainment industry as he himself was an enthusiastic amateur jazz musician. His daughter became a script writer.

    If you want to read more about the October Surprise and Copeland's role in the Iran embassy hostage crisis, there is a detailed interview by Robert Parry of Copeland at https://www.consortiumnews.com/2009/110409.html.

    Re the martyrs of the Iran / Iraq war: my impression was that these "martyrs" were uneducated teenage boys from the country who'd been told that they were participating in something grand for which they would be handsomely rewarded by God. Basically the Iranian army used them to clear mines. If you have seen the animated feature "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, based on Satrapi's graphic novel, there is a reference to the martyrs, how they died and how the theocratic regime exploited their memory.

    Asghar Farhadi's film "A Separation" also has a reference to the martyrs and includes a pathetic moment in which a woman phones a religious helpline for advice which illustrates how the regime reduces and abuses Islamic principles and rules to the point where some people are unable to function as independent moral beings and need religion as a super-parent. Later in the film the woman is blackmailed by other, more secular people who use her simple religious faith as a weapon against her.

  • Comment number 10.

    Dear Mr Curtis,

    'A is for Atom' spends a great deal of time considering the dangers of Light Water Reactors (LWRs), invented, designed and developed by Weinberg and Wigner and your two interviews with Weinberg displays his unease with the safety of LWRs. Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs), the most successful and widely used LWR will form the bulk of all 'New Nuclear' and they are at the centre of the USA's and Israel's problems with Iran. The need for enriched uranium to fuel these reactors and the avenue which opens for plutonium production are added black marks against future adoption of these reactors. Of course, the main reason why we should be seeking alternatives is the safety of PWRs, particularly in respect of Loss of Coolant/Core Meltdown accidents. Weinberg, the co-inventor railed against the use of LWRs for civilian power generation and championed the cause of thorium-fuelled Molten Salt Breeder Reactors (MSBRs), which he had developed in his time as Director at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. His political masters, so committed to the uranium - plutonium fuel cycle, were so exasperated by the vociferous opposition to 'their' technology by its inventor, that they 'removed' Weinberg from ORNL and involvement with nuclear power. In the 'Saddest Accident in History', funding for the MSBR was withdrawn, development ceased and the technology has remained in stasis for the last 40 years.

    Had MSBRs reached fruition all those years ago, the world would have been an infinitely better place in so many ways, not the least of which being the avoidance of this Iranian issue.

    There is such a tale to be told of lost opportunities. See: https://lftrsuk.blogspot.com/2012/03/follow-up-to-is-for-atom-saddest.html

  • Comment number 11.

    But why would they have bacon slicers in Iran?

  • Comment number 12.

    I vividly recall seeing that blood fountain in the newsreels all those years ago and how unutterably weird such a monstrosity seemed to be to me and how frightening the idea of such a culture heading my way was. Fortunately back then we had Saddam handy to keep them occupied. Where did it all go wrong?

  • Comment number 13.

    It wasn't a given that Khomeini and his crew would eventually come out on top in immediate post revolutionary Iran. There were plenty of people who, despite the brutality that underpinned the Shah's regime, rather liked the greater equality, better access to education that the modernisation of Iran had started.
    What had helped the Mullahs, as pointed out, was the attack by Iraq.
    Today, the current Iranian regime is far from popular at home, it's not only brutal and regressive but also corrupt and incompetent. Hence the need to 'manage' elections, even if that includes throwing female protestors in jail to be gang raped by those militiamen taking a break from being out on the streets enforcing 'purity'.

    If there is one thing that would give the Iranian regime much greater support and entrench them even further in power, it's an attack by foreign forces. Which is pretty much true everywhere.

    That it's just not recognised amongst not only the predictable right wing Republicans but a somewhat wider section of political/public opinion, might have something to do with the good fortune the US enjoyed in not having been bombed in wartime by foreign forces. (Pearl Harbour, not on the US mainland does not count, that's like the UK entering the war if the Royal Navy had been bombed in Gibraltar).

    Sept 11th 2001 was something like an air attack, by foreigners, albeit in hijacked US airliners, more shocking perhaps due to how unexpected it was.
    But this readiness to bomb, partly in the belief that it would lose support for a regime hostile to the US amongst the population predates 2001.
    It's understandable to a degree, geographic good fortune and the world war was when the Axis powers had neither the resources or technology to overcome the distances. No one did then.

    It might even be the case that the Iranian regime almost welcomes this, to enhance their political power, reasoning that an attack, especially if Israel goes it alone, won't completely knock out their nuke program, just set it back.
    The current leader certainly goes out of his way to offend, with his anti-semetic Holocaust doubting, 9/11 was an inside job stuff, including at the UN of all places.
    Indeed, his comments about Israel are not new from Iran, but by repeating them in the midst of the whole controversy around the nuclear issue, he's ramping up the tension. When you'd think he'd keep quiet, allowing more time for the weapons program to advance, by stealth.

    Without the external 'Satans' to rail against, exaggerated or plain fictional, what exactly has the regime got to offer? Hardly their domestic record, even before the embargo, fuel was often in short supply in a nation sitting upon an ocean of the stuff.
    Not just fuel shortages either, but's that's OK, since the President said he gets economic advice from his local shopkeeper.

    All the while a booming population of young people, with few prospects, living in a world that's it's getting harder to isolate populations from, (only North Korea manages it to a degree), who yearn for what young people everywhere do for, are fed up with the social restrictions - petty and severe, lack of opportunity (except for a favoured few).
    This time too, there is no enemy like Iraq to send them as cannon fodder against.

  • Comment number 14.

    I have been reading Mr. Curtis' recent posts with great interest.

    What if there are only two genres of human narrative: discourses of being, and discourses of becoming?

    We are then defined by the necessity to find positions on the arc between the two poles. Each attempt to break from one position (being or becoming) is drawn back toward the mass of the other. Is this then gravity's rainbow -- the arc of history? (I struggle here for a metaphor adequate to the task).

    If this is so, what does being 'progressive,' or even 'revolutionary,' really mean? My opening gambit would be to suggest it entails a state of perpetual ironic detachment, cultivating the ability to be, e.g., tragicomic (a socialist conservative?), or bittersweet (a conservative socialist?).

    In any event, living under either the universal and homogeneous state or permanent revolution seem dreary prospects to me. Irony seems to offer a possible defence, a posture of permanent defiance, though never an overcoming.

  • Comment number 15.

    @ Chronophobe:

    To me, being is static or a state of stasis and becoming is dynamic or a state of dynamism. Which would I prefer?

    In the context in which you and I are discussing being / becoming, I suppose being is the role that has been determined for us by the combination of society, culture, family and upbringing and our acceptance of it. Becoming starts with our awareness that we have been moulded into our particular roles in society. We can choose then whether we want to stay that way or follow a different route. At every stage in this route, we have a choice of continuing in this route and falling into a new stasis or go off in another. Whatever choice we make, whether we wish to settle in a new stasis or continue dynamism - and every state in itself generates a new choice between stasis / dynamism - we should do so with awareness of what we are and what we have been.

    There is nothing wrong or right with accepting a role predetermined or chosen for you by your family, community or social class if you want to do it and have the talent and motivation to succeed, and you value that role and what it represents for you. Plenty of people have done good works with awareness following in a parent's footsteps or in a family occupational tradition. Much of what we value in culture has been possible only because families, communities or guilds made of people from related families passed on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next.

    Equally a person may find that continually being "progressive" or "revolutionary" in the sense most people understand those terms is itself a form of stasis. An example may be someone who makes a significant and radical discovery in science, philosophy, engineering or art and then spends the rest of his/her career promoting it, pushing it and defending it to the detriment of all other possible alternatives and challenges to it. Would it not be better to allow others to defend your work or let it prove itself in application and examination while you go onto something else?

    There is no need for irony and to be perpetually ironic and detached for its own sake is a form of stasis. How can one be permanently defiant if what you oppose today becomes the outsider, radical position tomorrow? Do you shift your stand for the sake of being fashionably "defiant" or do you accept becoming the standard by which a new generation of rebels bounces off you? Today's rebels become tomorrow's establishment.

    If you accept my argument then you don't need to oscillate between two Hegelian extremes such as you describe because whatever position you accept has the potential to be static or dynamic in the future. Your level of awareness as to the benefits and costs each choice offers and what road it takes you down (and the alternatives that are lost as a result) is the important thing.

  • Comment number 16.

    Another great research/article Mr.Curtis. Would be a great thing to make a full documentary about it. Much like The Power of nightmares did to show us broader picture and symmetry in beliefs on both sides.

    in mean time, looking forward to Every day is like Sunday final cut.


  • Comment number 17.


    Thanks for that very thoughtful reply.

    I'd certainly agree that today's rebels become tomorrow's establishment. And I guess it is this all too predictable motion I would like to account for.

    Narratives of orthodoxy giving rise to narratives of heresy that entrench themselves as orthodoxy ... . Being, becoming cycling in an eternal recurrence. Even, as you suggest, permanent revolution can become a kind of tiresome stasis.

    What I'm wondering is if an ironic narrative (posture? position? discourse? not sure what to call it) mightn't be an antidote to the coagulation of heterodoxy into orthodoxy, or conversely, the dissolution of orthodoxy into heresy (depending on where one picks up what narrative). Irony as, not serious minded heresy intent on overturning the existing order and establishing another, but as mockery, forcing the serious and the high minded to laugh at themselves, consider the limitations of their narratives, wonder at new possibilities.

    Anyway, maybe not. It didn't work out well for Socrates.

  • Comment number 18.

    @ chronophobe:

    "... Irony as, not serious minded heresy intent on overturning the existing order and establishing another, but as mockery, forcing the serious and the high minded to laugh at themselves, consider the limitations of their narratives, wonder at new possibilities."

    Correct me if I'm wrong but was this the position that the Situationists took in the late 1960s/70s? Look at where some of them have ended up: the British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was an early follower of Situationism when she was living with Malcolm Maclaren and she is now the grande dame of the global fashion world. One that doesn't give a rat's arse about how it treats young inexperienced models in their teens or the effect it has on people's thinking about how they should look. Situationism was also an influence on late-70s rock and pop and the irony of seeing rock and pop stars like U2, Bob Geldof and Sting from that era comfortably ensconced among the elites is so heavy as not to be laughable at all.

    The problem with irony as mockery is that once the elite has laughed at themselves enough and wondered at new possibilities enough, one of these possibilities is to co-opt the joker into their packs.

    Where's the poisoned chalice when you most need it?

  • Comment number 19.


    Arghh! That damned arc of history again? Playing out in microcosm across an individual career ... ? Die young, stay pretty (or at least witty).

    It does bring to mind is the close relationship between irony and vanity. What starts as a hip detachment can ever so easily lead to aloof disinterest in all others but oneself. Hence, perhaps, the ranks of the formerly cool now striking self absorbed poses while looking down on the herd from their uber-perches.

    But consider FDR as a political ironist ("I never let my left hand know what my right hand is doing". Certainly broke open the political paradigm on my continent.

    And what about Obama? Too black. Not black enough. Not even an American in the eyes of some. Etc. But if he manages to pull off a second term, I have at least some hope he will (touching wood, I say this) bring about a significant realignment in US politics. And as go the politics of the Imperium, so go the politics of the world.

    WHich leads me to the other aspect (pole? -- damn dialectic!) of irony: on the one side it flirts with vanity, on the other is all about finesse, in something like Pascal's sense of the word.

    Which really is not that far from phronesis. Irony and prudence? It might seem a stretch, but I think there is a case to be made for a close relationship.


  • Comment number 20.

    I think by now we have seen Jason Russell's "Kony 2012" or at least are aware of it? I saw it on Mathaba.net and I am glad that I saw it there because it was part of an article that mentioned that 2.5 billion barrels' worth of oil had recently been discovered in Uganda. That would partly explain why the call to bring Joseph Kony to justice has come now and not earlier. Obama already has 100 troops stationed there to find Kony who may not even be in the country now.

    Jason Russell himself has connections to fundamentalist Christian right-wing organisations. Last November he gave a speech at Liberty University of which Jerry Falwell was the founder. Falwell supported South Africa's apartheid regime in the 1980s and supports US intervention in areas supposedly harbouring terrorists.

    The Invisible Children charity counts among its donors the National Christian Foundation and the Christian Community Foundation which also back Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, both of which oppose abortion rights and rights for homosexuals. The NCF and CCF have also supported the Discovery Institute which advocates the teaching of so-called "intelligent design" in schools.

    So we have an organisation masquerading as a charity promoting a film masquerading as humanitarian and appealing to young people to support a US invasion of eastern Africa on the pretext of bringing to justice someone who has not been seen in Uganda for several years. In the meantime some two hundred children in northern Uganda have been hit by a mysterious and fatal neurological disease called Nodding disease which came across from southern Sudan.

    US presence in Uganda would turn that country into a military base from which to launch attacks on other countries in the region. The DRC, southern Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi are close neighbours and the Nile river runs through Uganda itself. US control of Uganda could give the Americans indirect control over Sudan and Egypt since these countries depend almost solely on the Nile and its tributaries for water.

    Now this is a case where irony and prudence are far apart.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    Dear Adam,

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  • Comment number 23.

    As always good stuff. One small typo in the quote from Gilles Kepel. you typed colunteers instead of volunteers.

  • Comment number 24.

    Thanks for this, particularly some of the raw Iranian footage. Really helps me put some visuals to reading Kapuscinski's Shah of Shahs last year.

    Being too young to have for Iran-Contra at the time, this particular episode in geopolitics has always blown my mind and left me feeling as if there was something I was missing. Recurring usage of "mad" and "weird" in this post reaffirms this for me - a reminder of the insensibilities of historical narratives.
    Would love to see a full-length treatment of the topic, or if anyone can recommend me something.

  • Comment number 25.

    @ Socpup:

    There is a good article on the Iran-Contra scandal on Wikipedia, fully footnoted and with a list of references and links. Here is one link which looks very good:


  • Comment number 26.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 27.

    Dear Adam,

    I very much appreciate your take on things. Thanks for putting all this material together. What a fascinating comparison.

    But this is far too much material to view, read and take in while sitting at a computer. If I watch all the videos I'm looking at the best part of an hour of sitting staring at the screen. I think you need to edit more, find the pith of the story and place limits on how much you write. It is fine to break stories into pieces.

    For instance the first segment on the birth on the moral majority is about the right size and could have been a good standalone piece - text along with the video. It makes an excellent point! Then you could have posted several follow ups over the next few days and weeks - creating a buzz as people come back to see where you are going with it.

    I don't think you're using the medium to best effect. A little and often would work far better, get people coming back to the site more regularly (i.e. give you better stats) and allow is to digest, and comment on, a fairly complex point of view. At the moment you only post once a month, but each post is four times longer than it should be: why not post once a week in smaller chunks?

    What do you think?

  • Comment number 28.

    Thanks Adam. Back on form with this one I think. Your best stuff is often about Anglo-Saxon and middle east relations!

    If extremism of all kinds always has such unintended consequences - should we all aim to be moderates?

    I guess even in the UK religion was seen as a revolutionary force in Northern Ireland in the 70's...

  • Comment number 29.

    That was a great read and an interesting point of view. I'll only say, the triumph of religious groups that shunned politics for so many decades show us that will always be a second path.

  • Comment number 30.

    That's an interesting question at Comment 28: If extremism of all kinds always has such unintended consequences - should we all aim to be moderates?

    This is similar to what Chronophobe and I discussed earlier. Substitute "moderate" for "progressive" or "revolutionary" and substitute "extremist" as its opposite and we find a similar interplay as in the heterodox-versus-orthodox pas de deux. As today's rebels become tomorrow's establishment, so does today's moderate becomes tomorrow's extremist and today's extremist becomes tomorrow's moderate.

    We can see this happening already in parts of the Middle East where movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine have become political parties giving up violence in favour of diplomacy. At the same time in the West, as more people desert Christian churches in favour of secular agnosticism or atheism, even those denominations usually considered moderate are starting to adopt attitudes that at best could be considered eccentric and at worst alarming, even hateful.

    I left the Anglican church years ago for several reasons: even for a "moderate" denomination, there were still people I met in the church who espoused creationism and an anti-homosexual agenda (and one of them was studying medicine and biology and had worked for a while at a hospital in Papua New Guinea - so go figure); and the church's own interpretation of its history had a sour Anglo-Israeli taste that forced suspension of logic and compassion.

    In short, a person cannot strive to be a "moderate" any more than s/he can strive to be "progressive" or "ironic".

  • Comment number 31.

    A girl at work told me about the Kony thing. MY first thought was I wonder what Curtis is thinking about this, or is it just too easy? It's nice that people feel sympathetic towards the situation described in the film, but people liking it on Facebook ain't gonna change nothing, not on its own. Part 2 of Machines gives you a clue why, and Part 3 is significant - it's not a dissimilar story and it's worth looking into the history of Uganda to understand the broader story, as others have indicated on here.

    @Nausika - loved Persepolis by the way, on your tip. A lot of it is really really funny and moving.

    I don't want to go all French, but words like 'extremism' or 'moderate' are really problematic, because what they mean always shifts. And they are pretty empty now I think, 'extremism' meaning 'bad' and 'moderate' meaning good. MLK was an extremist, and Cameron might be considered a moderate. MLK is better. I don't think there's any hard and fast rules that can be attached to these terms. What are you extreme for? Freedom, equality, compassion......it's the character and context of extremism or moderacy determines its value.

    It's kind of going back to this chaos and narratives thing. Moderacy and extremism are relative and conditional. They are not fixed. I don't think everything need be relative, I think there are things we might find to be true, always tentatively, but you know something to moor the boat up to for a while.

    And in conflict with another post I like the epic stories on here, the first TINA one I remember being immense. The stuff that's been on here in the last 6 months has been incredible generally, another level I reckon, and I think that's because the ideas behind the stories as well as the telling have been so massive - free will, narratives, religion, dreams, ghosts, knowledge, art, imagination, the nature of work and of class. Dream On is the best thing I think I've ever seen, so I hope it carries on.

    In a dynamic non-static way of course ;)

  • Comment number 32.

    @ Nausika: Are you really, truly prepared to surrender the idea of progress for the idea of change? If so, then my response to your critique of the Kony meme is 'well, whatever,' because history is a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot.

    The positing of purposes (which really is the necessary precondition of progress, i.e., having some goal to progress towards) might be part of human nature. Or it might just be a myth necessary for a certain kind of civilization.

    Otoh, there is the problem of sclerosis -- the degeneration of a worthy telos into rigid orthodoxy that stems progress towards the desired end. Here I think Pascal's notion of finesse offers a useful (and very ironic) tool to keep the juices flowing: "True eloquence makes light of eloquence, true morality makes light of morality; i.e., the morality of the judgment, which has no rules, makes light of the morality of the intellect. To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.'

    There is also the problem of distinguishing worthy ends from terrible ends (e.g., is theocracy less desirable than liberal democracy?). Here perhaps irony is less useful.

  • Comment number 33.

    @ chronophobe: My opinion of the "Kony 2012" is that it's astroturfing in support of an invasion by the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) of eastern Africa to gain control of oil supplies in Uganda and Kenya for the US. The invasion would serve several useful purposes as well. Lake Victoria drains into the White Nile which bisects the country and is the main tributary for the Nile so whichever power can control the territory that surrounds the White Nile could control the water supply to South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt and force these countries to do whatever it wants. You're also very close to Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern DRC and can control any trade going through these areas. A lot of smuggling of minerals goes on between the DRC on one hand and Rwanda and Uganda on the other: minerals that are rightly the property of the people in those parts of the DRC where Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers steal them.

    I don't think of "Kony 2012" as encouraging progress at all. It calls for US intervention in another country's affairs. Kony has not been seen in Uganda for several years. Yes, he could be causing trouble in the DRC but I think not as much as Rwanda and Uganda do or have done. I think he's a lesser evil than the current Ugandan president Yoweri Musuveni who has been in power for over 20 years and whose human rights record is very tarnished. Real progress would begin when we foreigners give up controlling the economies of African countries and allowing them to determine their own priorities with (hopefully!) health, education, housing and transport access to these predominant.

    In a situation like Uganda's and similar countries where tribal or clan loyalties can be very strong and people may be pressured to vote according to the preferences of their tribal leaders, and the relationship between a politician and his or her electorate resembles a feudal relationship between a lord and his peasants (with the lord dispensing favours in return for loyalty and the peasants coming to expect these favours), a liberal democracy of the kind we expect may not be an ideal form of government and until such time as the people in these countries have sufficient education and security to understand and trust in democracy, a managed democracy of the kind Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have gone through and which Russia is working towards is probably the ideal.

    I like to think I support progress towards a better world and that I have the right ethics even though I know I often fail to live up to them. To me, a better world is one where there is far more political and economic decentralisation than we have with no one country dominant over others but rather several interlinked blocs. I don't even support the idea of very large countries with large populations; I'd rather see countries like China, Russia, Indonesia and the US among others split into loose federations of states with some states forming coalitions based on common goals or traditions. I suppose if I were American, I'd support states' rights over the Federal government but not in the way that's usually understood (as right-wing and isolationist); rather, in the way the European Union was originally envisaged as being a network of interlinked states that gave a voice to minority groups like the Catalans, the Basques, the Bretons and others before the centralisation impulse took over.

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