There’s an extremely grim moment in the 1967 movie version of A Man for All Seasons, the epic Robert Bolt screenplay about the chancellor Thomas More’s refusal to support Henry VIII’s divorce, when Thomas Cromwell recruits the young and ambitious schoolteacher Richard Rich to become a spy. Rich will later provide the tainted evidence that sends More to his execution. But in this first meeting – in a London pub – Cromwell offers Rich preferment (and thus wealth) in return for even the tiniest scrap of information which might be used against King Henry’s new lord chancellor.
I have always suspected that Tudor plotting has something in common with the dark, utterly hypocritical world of Middle East politics. The fictional works of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi may lack the essence of the humanist Utopia or of my liege Lord Henry’s Renaissance music, but the fierce rivalries and the fear of terrible death which afflict so many leaders and their supporters between the Mediterranean and Iran has much in common with the personal ambitions which ran like electricity through Henry’s England.
The purities of spurious Middle Eastern nationalism, and religion – and the superpowers happy to take advantage of such nonsense – transpose rather well when we set them back half a millennium. For today’s vicious dictators and Islamic prelates and their “enablers” – a word I shall return to – the support of Washington or Moscow is all important. The real More was quite prepared to sign off on the occasional bishop-burning while Henry enjoyed the blade, sending both More and later Cromwell to the block on Tower Hill. For the US and Russia, read the Pope and Spain.
But back to that chilling meeting in the London pub where Cromwell, unctuously played by Leo McKern, explains why humble administrators like himself have such difficulties in helping their king obtain a divorce – for a new marriage which will provide an heir, by chance a constant preoccupation of our current princes and tyrants in the Middle East.
“Our job as administrators,” an irritated Cromwell tells Rich (the young John Hurt), “is to minimise the inconvenience which this is going to cause.”
The key word, of course, is “inconvenience”, as Cromwell makes clear. “That’s our only job, Rich – to minimise the inconvenience of things. A harmless occupation you would say, but no. We administrators are not liked, Rich. We are not popular…”
I always smile when the film reaches this point. I have spent a lifetime listening to Arab and Iranian officials explaining the worth of their cause, the inconvenience which this imposes upon their reluctant masters – and the enormous burdens and risks which this work imposes upon them. One slip and the executioner’s axe is lifted at the Tower – or the drone arrives in the early hours over Baghdad International Airport.
Re-reading these past few days the remarkable series of Iranian intelligence documents, which The Intercept website and then The New York Times published less than two months ago, is worthwhile. Their provenance is a little unclear – and I can see why sceptics might claim them to have been planted. They suggested that Iran has far greater financial and political power over Arab leaders than previously known – and they portray Qassem Soleimani not so much as a monstrous king-maker but as an “enabler”, someone who makes (or made) the wheels of power turn in Iran’s favour.
The intensely vain photographic portraits which Soleimani used – to increase his supposedly iconic status and his chances for the Iranian presidency, perhaps – do indeed remind one of the Renaissance habit of intellectual idolatry through portraiture. Soleimani would not have liked Holbein the Younger’s shifty likeness of Thomas Cromwell in his late forties, all pudgy face and shifted eyes.
But the same Holbein’s portrait of the French ambassador to London, Jean de Dinteville – he’s the guy on the left in the self-confident The Ambassadors – would have been right up Soleimani’s street. He would have admired the Middle Eastern rug against which de Dinteville is leaning – even the assumed shape of a skull at the bottom of the painting.
Soleimani’s role was quite clear: to lay the foundations of an unbreakable bond between the Shiites of Iraq, Syria (the Alawites) and Lebanon which was reliant upon Iran. This he did with determination, enormous hard work and considerable ruthlessness, hoovering up ex-CIA agents – along, apparently, with their contacts in the States – while enjoying the esteem of Iraqi ministers (and thus their US backers) by striking at Isis in Fallujah and Mosul.
Soleimani could be an over-fulsome man. According to one of the Iranian documents, which cover the period 2013-2015, Soleimani sought permission from the Iraqi transport minister to fly “humanitarian supplies” through Iraqi airspace to Syria. When the minister agreed, he recorded, “he got up and approached me and kissed my forehead”.
But other documents suggest that Iraqis – especially Iraqi Sunnis – were enraged by Soleimani, whom they portrayed as a dangerous self-promoter, “publishing pictures of himself on different social media sites”. Perhaps he was learning his self-promotion techniques from the US president.
He was also too close to the intelligence operatives in non-Arab countries, particularly Turkey. But his most egregious sin was to permit bloody sectarian feuds to exist between Iranian-sponsored Shia militias and Arabs – Shias as well as Sunnis – in those countries in which Iran wished to find common cause. The Syrians sometimes found Soleimani’s rhetoric too much to stomach.
I still recall the young Syrian army officer who told me – with both respect for Iran and with cynicism – that “we like our Iranian brothers to come and fight for Syria, but when they tell us they have come here to die, I ask myself what this means. We don’t want them to die – we want them to fight.” And fight, of course, the Iranians did, though in nothing like the numbers they claimed.
The Syrians became tired of Soleimani’s Iranians when they boasted of victories in which they had no part. When Soleimani bragged about the Iranian role in the “recapture” of Aleppo – this information is not contained in the Iranian documents – the Syrian army was furious. There were no Iranian forces in this battle. The Lebanese Hezbollah certainly contributed mightily to the Syrian regime’s cause; but the Hezbollah’s own commander and chairman, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, declined to allow Soleimani to take control of the Lebanese Shiites – and the latter knew better than to try.
His real error was to support – as a state general, which is what he was – the Shiite militias in Iraq who were prepared to torture or kill their enemies (Sunni prisoners, free-thinking Shias, you name it) to maintain Iran’s power over the regime. This was what “minimising the inconvenience” really means, for Soleimani’s allies in Iraq opposed the demonstrations against state corruption, killing hundreds of protestors. Even the Iranian consulate in the south of Iraq was burned down.
In Lebanon, too, the Hezbollah tried to repress the anti-corruption demonstrations which not only sought an end to sectarianism but specifically demanded an end to foreign interference. No wonder the “administrators” were not liked. Theirs was not a “harmless occupation”.
For Soleimani’s legacy was an attempt to realign Shia militias not on the side of freedom or against corruption – or even anti-Zionism – but on the side of an Iran whose power was more important than its supposed moral virtues. In one of his last messages from Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden talked of the need to spare Shia Muslims in al-Qaeda’s war against the west. The Iranian documents record how the intelligence services of Iran (those working for the ministry of the interior) were discussing the very same subject – in relation to the suffering of Sunnis at the hands of Shia militias).
What more is there to say? Well, let’s just remember that Thomas Cromwell ended up like his victim, Thomas More – with his head on the block.
All that was left of Soleimani was a signet ring on a finger. As for Richard Rich, however – and they are the last words in the movie – he died in his bed.