Michael George Andrew Axworthy FRSA, FRAS (born 26 September 1962) is a British academic, author, and commentator. He was the head of the Iran section at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office between 1998–2000.
Early life and family
Michael Axworthy was born in Woking on 26 September 1962. He spent his childhood in West Kirby, Radyr, Ilkley and Chester, where he attended The King's School. He now lives with his wife, Sally (née Hinds), in Morwenstow, Cornwall. They have a son and three daughters.
Axworthy visited Iran frequently during holidays as a teenager because his father, Ifor, was involved in a project there with the Midland Bank. He recalls leaving the capital, Tehran, around September 1978 soon after the first large demonstrations against the soon-to-be-deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had taken place in the city.
While studying history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the 1980s, Axworthy was greatly influenced by historians and other academics with interests in the history of ideas, such as Tim Blanning, Maurice Cowling, and Martin Golding. He graduated with a BA degree in 1985 and was awarded an MA in 2002.
An inability to get a grant to study for a Ph.D. led Axworthy to apply for work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), a department of the UK government where he thought he would be able to indulge in his desire for a challenging job that involved living abroad. He stayed with the FCO until 2005, and was its Head of Iran Section in Tehran between 1998–2000 after spells working in Germany and Malta.
Axworthy took leave from the FCO in 2000 and in 2005 he resigned his position. He has said:
I thought that the FCO would be challenging, and I liked the idea of living abroad. I was right about that — but the FCO also taught me how to write, which was a bonus. But ultimately I wanted to write books, and I was never entirely at ease in a large, hierarchical organisation.
Axworthy became a Research Fellow at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham, in December 2001. Since 2005, he has taught Middle East history at Exeter University. He was appointed director of the university's newly established Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies in 2008 and since 2012, when he was awarded a Ph.D., has been a senior lecturer in the university's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He acknowledges the irony that the bureaucracy he tried to escape by leaving the FCO has now resurfaced in his academic life. He is a critic of the target-led UK higher education system – "Everybody is hyper-incentivised to pursue research grant applications and so on when everybody knows, including the Treasury and research councils, that presumably 90 per cent of that effort is completely wasted" – but accepts that there is probably no perfect solution.
Axworthy has been refused entry to Iran in recent years, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is uncertain of the reasons for this, having been variously told that it is because of general relationship issues involving Iran and the UK and that it is due to the content of his own writings. On one occasion, in 2008, he and his family were all refused a visa at a time when his wife was due to take up the post of deputy head of mission for the FCO in Tehran; on another, in 2012, he was eventually granted a visa but was turned back at the border.
Writings, broadcasts and consultancy
In 2006, Axworthy took part in The Doha Debates, successfully arguing against the motion that "This House believes that Iran poses the greatest threat to security in the region." His first book, The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant, was published in the same year and his second, Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran, was published in the following year.
2013 saw publication of Axworthy's book titled Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic, which was described by James Buchan as a "calm and literary portrait". A review by Ervand Abrahamian raised several criticisms, including Axworthy's subscription to what he, Abrahamian, believes to be a "royal myth", and that the book deals better with contemporary events than it does with history. Nonetheless, Abrahamian says "If you were to read only one book on present-day Iran you could not do better than this."
Axworthy has written articles for academic journals and for publications such as The Guardian, Prospect and The Independent, and has appeared on broadcast programmes such as Start the Week, Sky News, Today and A History of the World in 100 Objects. He has also been an editor.
Other work undertaken by Axworthy includes consultancy for organisations such as Credit Suisse and Citibank. He has also worked with the governments of the Netherlands, Norway, UK and United States, as well as NATO, for all of whom he has given briefings and other speaking engagements.
- The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant. I. B. Tauris. 2006.
- Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran. Hurst Books. 2007. , republished as a Penguin paperback: Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day. Penguin. 2008. ISBN 0-14-103629-X. 
- Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic. Oxford University Press. 2013. ISBN 978-0-19932-226-8.
- "Axworthy, Dr Michael George Andrew". Who's Who. 2015. Retrieved 2015-06-13. (Subscription required (help)).
- Abrahamian, Ervand (4 April 2013). "Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- "Michael Axworthy". Capel and Land. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- "This House believes that Iran poses the greatest threat to security in the region". The Doha Debates. 28 March 2006. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- Floor, Willem (Autumn 2007). "The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant.(Book review)". The Middle East Journal. 61 (4): 748–9. JSTOR 4330478. (Subscription required (help)).
- Tonkin, Boyd (27 February 2009). "Iran: Empire of the Mind, By Michael Axworthy". The Independent.
- Buchan, James (1 March 2013). "Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- "Dr. Michael Axworthy". Exeter University. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- "Michael Axworthy". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- Kelly, Stuart (16 November 2008). "Book review: Iran: Empire of the Mind". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2015-06-13.