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Eastern promises

Iran And The West (BBC2, Saturday); Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer’s (BBC2, Wednesday)

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

Iran And The West (BBC2, Saturday); Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer’s (BBC2, Wednesday)

Just in case you needed another reason to loathe and despise the French (I mean, as if Olivier Besancenot wasn’t enough), there was a corker in Norma Percy’s characteristically brilliant new documentary series Iran And The West (BBC2, Saturday).

It concerned the Lebanese hostage crisis of the 1980s when the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia (‘practitioners’ as Jon Snow would no doubt call them) kidnapped dozens of Westerners, among them American journalist Terry Anderson, Archbishop’s envoy Terry Waite, and various Frenchmen and seemed determined to hold them indefinitely.

Our then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was adamant on how to deal with this: there could be no concessions to hostage-takers for it only encouraged further hostage-taking. However, at a joint press conference, her opposite number in France took a more nuanced (i.e., typically devious, cheese-eating, surrender-monkey-ish) line. ‘I don’t think one can negotiate with people who commit such crimes but the problem is very delicate because we are talking about human life,’ said François Mitterrand, preparing his get-out clause, and the contemptuous curl of the blessed Margaret’s lips as he uttered it was glorious to behold.


But in terms of pure weaselry, Mitterrand had nothing on Jacques Chirac who was then campaigning for election as prime minister. Chirac’s opposition party, we learned from episode two of the series — ‘Pariah State’, produced and directed by Delphine Jaudeau — had no qualms about manipulating the hostage crisis for its own slippery ends. A deal had secretly been negotiated by Mitterrand’s government whereby the French hostages would be released for an eye-watering bribe — sorry, repayment of money owed — to Iran of around $1 billion. Then, at the very last minute, the deal was called off.

Why? Well, Chirac has always firmly denied that any skullduggery was involved but, then, you would, wouldn’t you, if you thought there was no way on earth you could ever possibly be found out. But Chirac had reckoned without the tenacity of Brook Lapping (The Death Of Yugoslavia; Israel and The Arabs; etc.), the remarkable documentary production company that always gets its men, be they presidents, prime ministers, ayatollahs, or just the guy who chauffeured them or the hack who interviewed them at a pivotal moment in history.

In this case the unlikely Deep Throat was one Sheikh Tufeyli, a member of the Hezbollah Central Committee which had decided not, after all, to release the French hostages. The committee, Tufeyli explained, had ‘received some envoys from the French opposition party’ (i.e., Chirac’s lot) who had asked them not to release the prisoners till after the forthcoming French elections. Mitterrand’s foreign minister revealed what he had been subsequently told by the Iranians: ‘Where you offer us ten, your rivals the French opposition offer us one hundred.’ (As a result at least one French hostage spent an extra two years in confinement.)

There is a lazy assumption in the West, especially among bien-pensants, that the people who live in lands where diarrhoea is a way of life exist in a kind of pre-lapsarian innocence of pure motives unsullied by realpolitik; that they don’t understand how Western governments work. Iran And The West was a reminder that they understand us all too well and exploit our weaknesses mercilessly.

Consider, for example, Iran’s exquisitely cruel decision to delay the release of the embassy hostages until 20 seconds after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as US president, just so it could properly humiliate Jimmy Carter and, extension, the whole of the Great Satan.

But there is honour among thieves too. There was a touching story about how President Rafsanjani, desperate to end the futile Iran–Iraq war but knowing that the Ayatollah Khomeini was dead against the humiliation of coming to terms with Saddam Hussein, offered himself up as the fall guy for the decision. He would announce the ceasefire, he suggested, and take the flak if the people turned against him. His scary, beardy, hawk-eyed Supreme Leader thought for a moment then said: ‘No that would not be fair. I will do it.’

Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer’s (BBC2, Wednesday) was almost too painful to watch. Here is a man who earns his living by his pen and his imagination being slowly deprived of the mental agility which most makes his existence worthwhile. We saw him stumbling through a public reading of his Discworld series because there were sudden gaps in his vision where the words on the page ought to be. We saw him heading to America in search of a cure. But of course there isn’t one. Not yet. And guess what the main qualification for gettting Alzheimer’s is. A specialist told it like it is: ‘Bad luck.’ We’re none of us getting any younger. Isn’t the great recession punishment enough?

Here’s something to cheer you all up, though. Well, so long as you use the internet, you like The Sopranos and you’re into swearing (which I am a lot at the moment having recently been in the US, where they hardly swear at all). Go to www.vimeo.com/2998698 and you’ll find, spliced together, every expletive that was ever in The Sopranos. It lasts over 27 minutes.


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