Posted by: Corri van de Stege | February 1, 2012

David Ignatius, The Increment and some memories of Iran

In the acknowledgements to this book David Ignatius  writes that The Increment  (which came out in 2010) is a novel about an imaginary country, a country called Iran.  What he means is that the Iran evoked in his nuclear spy thriller provides the setting of imaginary events.  Nevertheless he has managed to depict a country and people who are very close to the real Iran, to bits of it that I recognise and well remember from the time I lived there just before and during the time that the shah was deposed and Khomeini came to power.    We used to refer to these events as ‘The Revolution’, as if there only ever had been one such event worthy of the name Revolution.  For us, who lived there at the time there only ever was one revolution of course, the one we got caught up in and that changed our individual lives beyond recognition, as drastically as it changed the rest of the country and what was to come.

Imagine what might have happened to Iran, the Middle East, the World if that Revolution had failed somehow, or had a different outcome?  Would there have been an Iran / Iraq war, would there have been the ‘discovery’  of the Americans of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the alleged link between the Taliban and Iraq?  You can go on.

The Increment is apparently an existing unit of SAS soldiers, part of the British Intelligence Service.  The mathematical definition of ‘increment’ is ‘a small positive or negative change in avoidable quantity or function’ (I looked it up in the dictionary).

‘Dr Ali’ is the name used by the CIA head of ‘Persia House’ Harry Pappas, for the nuclear scientist working in one of Tehran’s nuclear research facilities and who starts to communicate by e-mail giving away information about the progress of Iran’s attempts to build a nuclear reactor.   The young man, who’s real name is revealed later on in the book, is a lover of Simin Behbehani’s poems:

Like his father, Behbehani had never left Iran for long, even in the worst days, but there was in her poems an anguish, and a yearning for escape.

Similarly the young scientist yearns for escape from the country that, under the current regime, has become a prison for people like him, who want freedom of expression and freedom to live their own lives in whatever way they want to.

I galloped through this book and tremendously enjoyed the observations on Iran as a country, its culture and its people.  When Harry ponders the poster of Imam Hussein which he has hung at the entrance of Persia House, he knows that

The Iranians understood suffering.  They knew that the decent young men were betrayed by the deceit and blunders of others.  They knew that goodness is a secret and happiness is an illusion.  That was what Harry had in common with them.

Harry has lost his only son in the war with Iraq and blames himself for not doing more to avoid that particular conflict.  For a while he went to pieces but is now heading Iranian intelligence, waiting for a breakthrough.

As well as referring to Ferdowsi’s Shahnahme there is also mention of ‘My Uncle Napoleon’ by Pezeshkzad.  Again, I remember when living in Iran in the 70s the evenings that were spent by families watching the ‘Uncle Napoleon’ series on tv and I would not understand the dialogue.  Everyone else was in stitches and then it was explained to me that Uncle Napoleon was crazy and would say things about the British duplicity and interference in the affairs of the country, that really struck a chord with the very Iranian and profound belief in conspiracy theories wherever they can be found.  Perhaps Uncle Napoleon was not so crazy and underneath it all the viewers adored him for saying the kind of things they only dared to think.

In The Increment, Ignatius has managed to give a genuine snapshot of Iran and its people, even if the story and the plot is imaginary – I think this is why the book is so readable and the plot quite believable.  It’s a thriller, about spies, intelligence and counter intelligence, traitors and opportunists, it’s about Iranian nuclear ambitions and a young scientist who is disgruntled with the regime and informs on his country’s nuclear experiments to the CIA’s Harry Pappas who subsequently co-opts the help of the British Intelligence and its ‘Increment’ unit to ‘exfiltrate’ the scientist.  That is the simplified summary which does not really begin to say anything about the fall-out, about the interference by and conspiracies of other nationals and nations.

This is a very satisfying read also because it could all so easily be true and it makes you wonder with Harry about the rash decisions America could be making and thus plunging the west (and the rest of the world) into another war, this time with Iran, about perceived threats, real or unreal, by the development of nuclear facilities in Iran.

Plumb, the British Intelligence Chief warns Harry: ‘….Iran, you see, is a different matter altogether.  You start a war with Iran, Harry, and it will take us all thirty years to dig out from the rubble’ and after he’s picked some more cheese from the cheese trolley he notes that even if they are building a bomb, that they’re working on the trigger ‘Even if it’s true, let me pose the impolite question: So what? Everyone wants a bomb these days, but we haven’t gone to war to stop them.  Chinese, Indians, Pakis, North Korea, for goodness’ sake. They all have their bombs and mirabile dictu, none of them seems at all inclined to use them.’

When I finished The Increment I looked up the essay ‘Iran’s Waiting Game’ in Christopher Higgins‘ wonderful book of essays ‘Arguably’  Higgins relates his visit to Khomeiny’s grandson, Hossein Khomeini, and reflects on the view of this younger generation of mullahs who are so much less averse to dealing with America and how this ‘young Khomeini’ favours ‘the removal of the regime established by his grandfather because they stand for a separation of religion and the state’.  Higgins notes the schizophrenia in Iran and Iranians: the duality and split personality.  On the one hand there is the Revolutionary Guard enforcing a ‘pervasive religious strand’ and on the other side there are the Iranians ‘buying & selling video’s, making and consuming alcohol, tuning into satellite TV stations, producing subversive films…..’, etc.

The book that should be able to throw some additional light on why Iran got to where it is today, including its underlying distrust and hatred of everything British, explaining some of this duality of approach is Patriot of Persia: Muhammed Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue which has just come out.  Another to add to the reading list!



  1. I’m definitely interested in The Increment. I’m reading a book called Saved by Beauty by Roger Housden which charts one man’s travels to find the “real” Iran. I’m learning a lot about the country and would love to read other books (fiction or non-fiction) with Iran as the setting.

  2. Kathleen – I have not read Housden’s book and will follow up on it. I’m never sure what the ‘real’ Iran is as that is subject to so many different views and I’m sure that mine are very subjective indeed: I lived there for about three years but these were years of great turmoil. I’m still fascinated though especially now that politics seems to take a turn for the worse…

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