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Orwell: A Writer for Iran

October 3, 2014
Roland Elliott Brown
7 min read
Orwell: A Writer for Iran
Orwell: A Writer for Iran

“I am aware that I write for readers about whom I know nothing,” George Orwell wrote in his preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, acknowledging too that Ukrainian readers were unlikely to know about him. He introduced himself as a product of the English middle class, a former colonial policeman who hated imperialism, a socialist who had known the poor through poverty, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who had escaped a Stalinist purge of rival Left factions, and an adversary of the “Soviet myth” in England. He confronted totalitarian habits of mind with such urgency that he accepted no royalties for translations of his rural satire intended for readers too poor after the Second World War to buy them, including Ukrainian, Russian, and Persian editions.

Orwell died in 1950, four years before Josef Stalin, but his satires of the Stalin era live on even as memories of the Soviet state recede. Although Orwell set Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in England, their resonance is global: Palestinians staged Animal Farm in the West Bank in 2009, and authorities in Thailand now consider Nineteen Eighty-Four subversive. Iran, however, holds a special place in Orwellian history, not least because the 1943 Tehran Conference inspired the ending of Animal Farm. The Islamic Republic, meanwhile, relives Orwellian themes through its embrace of realpolitik, its interest in the nuclear question, its conception of state, and its betrayal of a popular revolution.


Orwell: A Writer for Iran

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Tehran 


Realpolitik as Farce

I meant [Animal Farm] to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Tehran Conference, which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long...”

Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, 1947


The November 1943 Tehran Conference was the first of three major conferences between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin Roosevelt, and their former adversary, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. The three parties negotiated terms of a joint military strategy against Nazi Germany, as well as a vision for a post-Second World War order in Europe.

In Animal Farm the revolution of animals against men degenerates to a dénouement in which the ruling clique of revolutionary pigs abandon their revolutionary principles to meet the human owner of a neighboring farm. The farmer avows common interests with the pigs, as the pigs lament “a period of misunderstanding” with their human neighbors. The meeting collapses into a quarrel over a game of cards, much as the alliance between Stalin and the West collapsed over questions of international positioning.

Iran and the West have both claimed to derive their animosities from high principles, but nuclear negotiations, along with the ISIS incursion into Iraq, have rendered those principles flexible. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has expressed Iran’s willingness to “do something” against ISIS if the West lifts sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, while British MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind actually drew a direct analogy to the Second World War, writing, “The balance of advantage and disadvantage of working with the Iranians is not nearly as difficult as it was with the Russians.”

Animal Farm enthusiasts need not get thematic shivers just yet. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei believes America is behind ISIS, and has not afforded Zarif the authority to negotiate on the matter. A proper Iran-driven parody of Tehran ’43 is some way off.


Orwell: A Writer for Iran

Mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima


Nuclear Weapons: Tools for Tyrants

Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as might have been expected...”

You and the Atom Bomb, 1945


Orwell concentrated his pessimism and disdain for centralized authority most potently in his essay You and the Atom Bomb, in which he coined the term “Cold War.” Writing two months after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Orwell dismissed statements about putting nuclear weapons under international control as useless, and took alarm at public passivity on the subject.

Orwell, who had taken up arms against fascism in Spain, was no pacifist. He believed that the history of civilization was the history of weapons, and that expensive and hard-to-manufacture weapons made for ages of despotism. Nuclear weapons alarmed him because they favored the state against the individual. He envisioned a clique of powerful nuclear-armed states unable to attack each other for fear of mutual destruction, but still able to menace “subject peoples and oppressed classes.”

While no one has been blown to pieces by an atomic bomb since Nagasaki, and no state has intentionally threatened its own citizens with nuclear weapons, the threat nuclear-armed states pose to their own citizens is evident in the US’s long and terrifying history of accidents involving nuclear weapons, and the Cold War’s many chilling instances of “nuclear near use.”

Most relevant to Iran is the dearth of urgent discussion Orwell observed, writing seven years before his own country acquired a nuclear weapon. In Iran public debate about the nuclear program remains taboo to such an extent that authorities imprison citizens for raising questions about the program.

Western discussion of the matter, meanwhile, is also straitened. US leaders maintain a threat of military action behind the phrase “all options on the table,” yet do not reveal what they think the humanitarian costs of such action would be. A study by Khosrow Semnani, in cooperation with the University of Utah, projected that airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would have consequences “far more devastating” than industrial accidents at Chernobyl of Fukushima, and would contaminate major cities and lead to tens of thousands of deaths. This report has not roused nearly so much discussion as might have been expected.


Orwell: A Writer for Iran

 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini greets his supporters


God and the State

Moses the raven...would perch on a stump, flap his black wings, and talk by the hour to anyone who would listen. ‘Up there, comrades,’ he would say solemnly...lies Sugarcandy Mountain, that happy country where we poor animals shall rest for ever from our labours!”

Animal Farm


Moses the raven in Animal Farm embodies the Marxist view that religious leaders, through their offer of an afterlife, anaesthetize powerless people into passivity, thereby preventing them from seeking better conditions on Earth. As the revolution on Animal Farm begins to fail, many of the animals embrace Moses’s teachings in their despair: “Their lives now, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?”

No regime in the world acts out this concept better than Iran, where Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claims to be God’s representative on Earth, and puts theocracy before prosperity. The Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, developed a theory of religious government during his pre-revolutionary exile that even Moses would have envied. Whereas Moses preached at the mercy of communist pigs, Khomeini’s principle of the velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, gave the clergy ultimate political authority.

As the leader of a clergy-driven regime, Khomeini occupied simultaneously the role of Animal Farm’s ruling boar Napoleon, who frightens and kills other animals when they question their revolution’s trajectory, and of Moses, who puts ethereal matters over material concerns. Where Orwell used an agricultural metaphor to describe the ruin of a utopian project, Khomeini used agricultural language to shore up his utopian preoccupations, as when he said that Iran’s Islamic Revolution was not about the price of watermelons, or that economics were for donkeys.


Orwell: A Writer for Iran

Police attack members of the public in 2009


Revolution Betrayed

We didn’t ought to ‘ave trusted ‘em.”

--Nineteen Eighty-Four


Orwell understood revolutionary passions and the pain of revolutions betrayed because he had witnessed the Stalinization of the workers’ social revolution during the Spanish Civil War, and because of his friendship with many disillusioned former communists form Eastern Europe, such as Arthur Koestler. His account of the animals’ overthrow of the drunken farmer Jones in Animal Farm is the most moving depiction of a revolution in fiction, and his depiction of their disillusion is all the more wounding for that.

His great portrait of disillusion, however, was Nineteen Eighty-Four. Whereas the animals in Animal Farm can still recall their revolution and its ideals, those passions are more obscure to Winston Smith, who survives under the nightmare quasi-theocracy of Big Brother. Big Brother’s regime controls and manipulates history, and its rise to power is a distant memory for Winston, who nevertheless recalls, in his childhood, a tearful old man in an air raid shelter remarking that “We didn’t ought to ‘ave trusted ‘em.”

Although the Islamic Republic is not totalitarian, let alone a ready analogue for the zero-gravity world of Ninteen Eighty-Four, Khomeini and his followers shared elements of the Big Brother style, from their reliance on emotional rituals of hating enemies, to public executions, to the ubiquitous display of Supreme Leader portraits, to their appetite for torture and show trials.

Winston’s place on the revolution’s timeline recalls Iran’s “burnt generation”—those children born too late to influence the course of revolution but obliged to survive in the world it made. It is precisely because Iran is not totalitarian that that generation—unlike Winston’s—felt entitled to recast revolutionary slogans for themselves in 2009, but the Orwellian elements of the regime responded in an Orwellian fashion.



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