BY JONATHAN GOTTFRIED
David Reddaway, 48 years old, has been in the diplomatic service for 27 years. He speaks fluent Farsi — Iran’s main language — and has a wife of Iranian descent. He first served in Tehran during the turbulent years of 1977 to 1980 and was later at the forefront of U.K.’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Iran, when he reopened the British embassy in 1990 as the charge d’affaires. In short, his knowledge of Iran’s culture and politics make him the perfect choice as U.K.’s ambassador to that country.
The only problem is that David Reddaway is Jewish. Well, actually he’s not. But the Iranian government thinks that he is; or at least that’s what they say. As a result, the Iranian government has rejected the U.K.’s nomination of this alleged Jew as an ambassador — a move that U.K. Foreign Minister, Jack Straw, has called “obnoxious in the extreme.” The tactfulness of this Iranian action should come as no surprise from a government whose subtle foreign policy advisor, Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani, forecast that the Islamic world would “vomit it [Israel] out from its midst” and dreamed aloud of bringing a nuclear holocaust upon that country.
There are several interesting lessons to be drawn from Iran’s diplomatic rebuff of David Reddaway. The first and, perhaps the least noteworthy because all too commonplace, is the usual, septic anti-semitic and religious bigotry that pass for logic in Iran’s government. Prior to the 1979 Revolution, there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Iran, while there are currently estimated to be only 25,000 — a reminder that Iran not only exports arms shipments to Israel, but its Persian Jews as well.
To be fair, Jews fair better than other religious groups in Iran. Christians and Jews are, at least, “recognized religious minorities” under the Iranian Constitution. In contrast, members of the Baha’i Faith — an offshoot of Shi’a Islam — have no legal recognition. They are denied property rights and forbidden access to public and private universities. Since the Iranian government does not recognize Baha’i marriages, wives are vulnerable to charges of prostitution and their consequently illegitimate children lack inheritance rights. Human Rights Watch noted several executions of Baha’i religious leaders in 2000. Not surprisingly, the U.N. Special Representative on Human Rights for Iran has been denied an entry visa since 1996.
However, there is more to Iran’s rejection of Reddaway than religious fanaticism. There is a political dimension that becomes more obvious when Reddaway’s diplomatic resume is compared with that of other Middle Easter ambassadors. Take, for example, Robert Jordan, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. A trial lawyer at Baker Botts, Jordan was previously a president of the Dallas Bar Association. His professional foreign experience seems limited to a stint in the U.S. Navy. Maybe he has visited Saudi Arabia on a pleasure trip. Maybe he likes Middle Eastern food. However, I’m guessing that his appointment had less to do with his intimate knowledge of Saudi Arabia and more to do with the fact that that Jordan was Bush’s long-time attorney.
While one might think that a country would prefer an ambassador somewhat familiar with its culture, this might not be the case if it is trying to hide skeletons — real ones — in the closet. Imagine an ambassador who, instead of being spoon-fed official interpretations of his host country’s current events, actually had the linguistic and cultural know-how to figure things out for himself. Such a person could present a more accurate description of domestic politics. Currently, when Western nations voice complaints regarding Iran’s actions, the Iranian government can invoke the old story of the Wild West attacking a misunderstood Middle East. A knowledgeable ambassador might blunt that rhetorical weapon. From the perspective of a government bloody with human rights violations, the more ignorant the Western diplomat, the better.