Nadim Siraj’s engrossing Secret notes from Iran-Diary of an undercover journalist might appear to read like Know Thine Enemy—a Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran (1997) by Edward Shirley, a CIA undercover officer. Shirley, then based in Istanbul, whose real name was Reul Marc Gerecht, decided to study Iran’s classical culture, which had “seduced Alexander the Great, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and even the British”; also to experience the “Muslim mind and soul” and “its Shi’te Iranian version”. For this he smuggled himself into Iran in a dark box in a friend’s car. Like Siraj, he too was empathetic to Iran, blaming America for not trying to understand that country.
In 2017, Siraj did not have to enter Iran clandestinely. Still, he chose to call his slim volume “secret notes”, with a cover resembling an intelligence file. He admits that his precautions to hide the real intention stemmed from “loud cautionary notes before heading to Iran”. All these proved to be wrong. Apart from an incident of near arrest for photographing their parliament, which could have happened even in India, he did not need covert efforts in arriving at his positive conclusions. In particular, he mentions their robust social security system, high level of women’s safety, charming public gardens and bazaars, high tolerance towards all religions and the lack of petty crime.
Siraj argues that the US hostility arises from Iran’s refusal to join the ‘petro dollar’ system. Another reason is Iran’s fortuitous success in the Iranian Oil Bourse.
The book contains strategic analysis on Iran and West Asia, including a sweep of history from the 1953 “Oil related coup” to the present US abrogation of the P5+1 “Iran Nuclear Deal” of July 14, 2015. He sets the tone of analysis by quoting Noam Chomsky, his inspiration, to whom he has dedicated his book: “Iran is a highly independent nation and surely not a proxy of any other country”. He argues that the reason for American hostility is Iran’s refusal to join the “petro-dollar” system through which oil revenue has to be stashed in American banks. Another reason is Iran’s fortuitous success in starting the Iranian Oil Bourse (IOB) in Kish Island. America’s traditional policy was to put down countries defying its diktat. He quotes Gen.Wesley Clark’s 2007 interview in Democracy Now on a Pentagon plan “for taking out seven countries in five years”, including Iran.
The chapter ‘Who really owns Iran’ is an analysis of the ‘Pyramid of Power’, showing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the top, controlling temporal and religious matters, including intelligence and the armed forces. It also reveals the less-known details of ‘Setads’ and ‘Bonyads’, Iranian foundations which are “economic octopuses” controlling 20 per cent of the GDP landscape.
Siraj found the local people freely discussing domestic politics and government policies, contrary to what the Western media would say—that they were a highly radicalised and suppressed society. He could question even Ghazi, his taxi driver, why Iranian villages were so poor with such huge oil wealth. His conclusion: “Much of Iran’s prosperity is restricted to the big cities like Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, and in the powerful religious backyards of Qom, Najaf and Mashhad”.
(The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat)