On the 28th and 29th of February, the Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy (CoGGS) held a two-day series of events on Iran in memory of Dr. Michael Axworthy. For decades, Michael Axworthy had been one of the foremost British experts on Iran, working on the topic both in government for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and as an academic. As director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter he was the author of several books on Iran such as The sword of Persia or Empire of the Mind. Not least, he was a founding director, driving force and inspiration of the ‘Westphalia for the Middle East’ project at CoGGS. He sadly passed away in March last year.
The events in his memory took off on the evening of February 28th at his old college in Cambridge, Peterhouse, with a lecture by former British foreign secretary Jack Straw on ‘Understanding Iran and why it distrusts Britain”. Mr. Straw painted a broad historic picture of Western and British interference in Iran and the legacy this leaves for politics up until today. This started with British involvement in Iranian politics and economics by the end of the 19th century and of course included the infamous British involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup against Mohammed Mossadeq, which Mr. Straw did not hesitate to admit. He was by no means apologetic of the authoritarian character of rule by the current Iranian regime and its hardline elements. But he also urged the audience to take into account the Iranian perspective on the West, who has been economically crippling the country for decades. Not least he demanded not to neglect and forget the moderate elements in Iranian politics. They are most likely the first victims of a harder line taken towards Iran through actions such as reneging on the 2015 Nuclear Deal. Mr. Straw not only managed to provide a comprehensive, convincing, detailed and profound account of the West’s and Britain’s relations to Iran, but also enlivened his talk by time and again including personal anecdotes about his dealings with the country both during and after his time at the helm of the FCO.
On the following morning, proceedings began with a keynote speech by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States and thus the Vatican’s ‘foreign secretary’. He was introduced by the UK’s ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy MBE. Archbishop Gallagher spoke about the Vatican’s position on the Middle East, but also took the opportunity to elaborate more generally on the diplomatic work of the Vatican. Its church networks provide the Holy See with a unique grassroot network of information. It engages in conflict resolution through diplomatic, humanitarian and interreligious measures. Archbishop Gallagher noted with regret how the Middle East is currently marked by conflicts and wars, which do not seem to stop. As such, he pointed out that for such complex conflict traditional means of diplomacy will not suffice for bringing about a resolution. In this vein he specifically mentioned and welcomed the Westphalia project’s aspiration to search for new methods, tools and approaches to bring about peace in the Middle East.
Following Archbishop Gallagher’s keynote speech, Ali Ansari from St. Andrews chaired a panel on “Iran, past and present, and conflict resolution in the Middle East” with a number of eminent academic experts on the region. Dr. Sussan Babaie from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London underlined Michael Axworthy’s contribution to Iranian history in the early modern period, which she illustrated in particular by discussing his work on Nader Shah. Dr. Assef Ashraf from Cambridge University underlined this point, mentioning how of only 12 books that had been written on 18th century Iran in the past 70 years, two alone have been produced by Michael Axworthy. Prof Paul Luft from Durham University shared with the audience his memories of Michael Axworthy’s early career and stressed how his insights and understanding of Iran had led him to initiate the ‘Westphalia for the Middle East’ project. Dr. Axworthy’s ability to instill students with an enthusiasm for Iran and Middle Eastern history was hailed by Prof. Gareth Stansfield from Exeter University. Dr Stuart Horsman from the FCO’s MENA research unit stressed the role of Michael Axworthy in providing expertise to the FCO even after leaving the institution in 2005, while Stuart Laing, Master of Corpus Christi, gave a view on the role of Iran from an ‘Arab’ perspective, focusing the perspective on Persian history in Oman or Kuwait.
While the lectures and seminars enabled everyone to pay tribute to the professional legacy of Michael Axworthy, the two days came to a close with a Memorial Service at Peterhouse chapel to remember him as a husband, father and friend.