New Internationalist

The view from Iran

Issue 398

We have been here before: a nuclear stand-off, stubborn leaders on both sides, the drumbeats of war getting louder. Chris Brazier argues that the West is getting Iran wrong.

‘I feel cold when I think about the possible war against my homeland,’ wrote an Iranian in his blog recently. ‘During the bloody conflict between Iran and Iraq I was witness to many victims in our cities… I am really scared when I hear the US has a plan to attack my country during the coming 16 months. My picture of war hasn’t come from Hollywood movies: I have seen the pain, the kids’ tears, bloody streets…’ The six billion of us who live in the rest of the world should not have our political priorities dictated by the US election cycle. But when, in November 2006, the Bush Administration was given a bloody nose by the US electorate – punished for its prosecution of deeply unpopular wars – it seemed for a comforting week or two that the democratic process might have done its job. The long-standing rumours about the Administration’s interest in extending its ‘war on terror’ to Iran could surely now be discounted. Donald Rumsfeld had been forced to resign as Defense Secretary and the Iraq Study Group was counselling, amongst other things, that the US talk directly to Iran.

But the instincts of the Bush-Cheney White House do not tend in that direction. Crazy though it may seem, there are persistent reports that the Administration continues to talk about ‘regime change’ in Tehran. Bush characterized Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union speech in 2002 and contingency plans were subsequently developed for taking out Iranian nuclear installations with air power.1

More worrying still, there are indications that the Bush Administration is still infected with the delusion that an attack on Iran would lead the public to rise up and overthrow the religious leadership. The neoconservative David Wurmser is among those on Vice-President Cheney’s staff who are said to argue that there can be no settlement of the Iraq war without regime change in Iran. ‘It’s a classic case of “failure forward”,’ a Pentagon consultant cited in the New Yorker said. ‘They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq – like doubling your bet. It would be an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle East by creating one new model state.’2

This kind of thinking long predated the election of hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. But his inflammatory pronouncements about Israel – though these were widely mistranslated* – swiftly followed by his denials that six million Jews died in the Holocaust, have certainly done little to discourage US officials looking to take a confrontational line.

Nuclear contortions

Crudely put, part of the impulse to war derives from horror at the idea that an Islamist firebrand like Ahmadinejad might wind up with a nuclear weapons capability. The idea of Iran with nuclear weapons is indeed terrifying – particularly for Israelis who would be within easy range of them. But, to be frank, so too is the idea that nuclear weapons are already at the disposal of the Bush Administration, the Israeli military and General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. No state should possess nuclear weapons and the first concern of the world at the end of the Cold War should have been to move speedily towards their elimination. Like handguns in the US, the more nuclear weapons there are, the more likely it becomes that they will one day be used. For that reason alone, Iran’s alleged intention to develop ‘weapons of mass destruction’ should be a matter of profound concern to us all.

But the idea that war should be waged in order to stop such weapons being developed is an absurdity. According to Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an attack on Iran ‘would be absolutely counterproductive, and it would be catastrophic’. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, ElBaradei said diplomacy is the only way forward, and talk of military action would backfire because it ‘strengthens the hands of those in Iran who say “let’s develop a bomb to protect ourselves”.’3

Given the poor quality of the intelligence on Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that helped drive the US and Britain to war, you would think there might be great caution about claims that Iran is on the verge of developing its own nuclear capability. Even the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is cautious this time around. It has circulated its own classified draft assessment, based on satellite pictures and on measurements of radioactivity in suspected areas, and ‘found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons programme running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency’.2 The CIA assessment has so far been dismissed by the Cheney-dominated White House but, based on what has (not) been found so far, Iran may be telling the truth when it says its uranium enrichment is in the service of developing its own civil nuclear power programme.

But even if weapons were being covertly developed, what right would Britain, France and the US have to deny Iran weapons that they hold themselves? The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not only designed to prevent new states from going nuclear, it also places obligations upon the existing nuclear powers to dismantle their own weapons over time. Far from doing so, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has recently announced his intention to upgrade the Trident weapons system, locking the country into a nuclear future for decades.

The moralistic lectures about nuclear non-proliferation emanating from Washington, London and Paris smack of hypocrisy. None of the existing members of the ‘nuclear club’ developed their weapons with the permission of the international community. They all did so covertly because they thought it served their own national interest. And if Iran were to look at the examples of Iraq (a pariah state with no nuclear weapons that has been torn apart) and North Korea (a pariah state with nuclear weapons that the US has no thought of attacking) it could be forgiven for drawing its own conclusions about what its own national interest might be.

The acknowledged civil nuclear-power programme has become a source of national pride in Iran, and were that research to extend into weapons production it is, sadly, likely that this would be seen in a similar light, as it already is in India and Pakistan.

‘Why doesn’t America stop enriching uranium?’ President Ahmadinejad is said to have asked in a meeting with a US Middle East expert, before laughing and adding: ‘We’ll enrich it for you and sell it to you at a 50-per-cent discount.’2

Isolated leader

As this exchange suggests, Ahmadinejad is more astute than Western characterization of him as a loony tune usually allows. His defence of Iran’s rights is often couched in terms of legitimate resistance to US power that he knows will play very well in many quarters of the world. He knows he is on much firmer ground in terms of Iranian popular support on the nuclear issue than he is on almost any other. And were Iranian nuclear-research facilities to be bombed – whether by Israeli or US planes – Ahmadinejad knows full well that Iranians would rally behind him and he would become an overnight hero, not just at home but throughout the Muslim world.

The West misconstrues Ahmadinejad in many other ways. Because he has a higher profile than any Iranian leader since Ayatollah Khomeini, he is automatically assumed to have a similar hold on power. This is far from being the case. Power within the Iranian constitution resides not with the elected President or Parliament but rather with the Supreme Leader – Khomeini’s former position, which is now occupied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Were there to be an Iranian ‘commander-in-chief’ with a finger on the nuclear button, it would be Khamenei – and he, incidentally, has issued a religious decree against the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad’s political position is, if anything, even weaker than was that of his reformist predecessor in the presidency, Muhammad Khatami. When Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, it was widely interpreted in the West as a vote for the religious repression of the 1980s. But Ahmadinejad ultimately won support not because of his hardline Islamism – during his campaign he took care to play down his religious and social conservatism – but because he was a maverick outsider to the clerical establishment who also promised to fight poverty. Effectively a vote for Ahmadinejad was seen as a vote for change.

Change of a sort has certainly ensued. Not in terms of the economic fundamentals – poor people are already becoming restive at the lack of progress on that front, as the interviews on page 12 show. But where the President can have an influence is on the social atmosphere. Khatami was unable to get his legal attempts at reform past the clerics, but he did manage to preside over something of a ‘Tehran Spring’ – a wide range of books could again be published, reformist newspapers gained a modicum of confidence, there was an explosion of blogging on every subject under the sun, women could show a bit of hair beneath their hejab, and young men and women felt able to be seen together on the street, sometimes even holding hands.

Ahmadinejad’s most significant impact has been to shut all this down. Reformist newspapers have been closed and journalists arrested or warned. A directive from Iran’s National Security Council has forbidden negative reporting of the country’s nuclear disagreement with the West. Even the once-unconstrained blogosphere has become inhibited. Those who write under their own names use self-censorship and their observations bear no resemblance to the old unbridled writing in their archives. Anonymous bloggers who cross the red line are blocked or shut down.

Because Ahmadinejad sees himself as guardian of the original spirit of the Revolution, it has often been assumed in the West that he has the full support of the clerical establishment. On the contrary, he is loathed by them almost as much as by the liberal intelligentsia. In part this is on theological grounds – Ahmadinejad is thought to adhere to the radical Hojjatieh movement, which was banned as heretical by Khomeini in 1983 and is still opposed by most clerics. In recent years the clerics have made outrageous use of their veto power to reject progressive candidates on the grounds that they are ‘incompatible with Islam’. But when it came to the elections in December 2006 for local authorities and for the Assembly of Experts (see Facts on page 10 for an outline of the Iranian constitution), many candidates aligned with Ahmadinejad and his guru Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi were also disbarred.

The elections overall turned out to be an embarrassing blow to Ahmadinejad. Not only did he fail to carve out a significant power bloc within the Assembly of Experts, but his allies failed to win control of a single local council.

The democratic tide

Notwithstanding the clerical interference and screening of candidates, the level of democratic participation in Iranian society far outweighs that of its Muslim neighbours. It is the most educated country in the region and its women have benefited particularly from this – whereas 90 per cent of women in rural areas were illiterate in 1975, today there is 97-per-cent literacy nationwide among girls aged 15 to 24. Two-thirds of the students at university are women. A third of all doctors, 60 per cent of civil servants and 80 per cent of teachers in Iran are female. Although one of Khomeini’s earliest acts following the Revolution was to rule that women must cover their hair, and vigilantes then beat up those who did not strictly observe this, even the most reactionary clerics have not thought it possible to force Iranian women into the kind of straitjacketed existence endured by their sisters in many other Muslim countries. A Western visitor writing as long ago as 1912 considered Iranian women to be ‘the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world’.4 Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, has written: [the] ‘Islamic Republic has hidden this history of progressiveness, leading people to erroneously lump Iran together with Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, people have not yet started to fight for these rights. In Iran, people are fighting to gain back rights they once had.’ 4 The courageous current campaign to gain a million signatures for a petition protesting against the laws infringing women’s rights (see pages 8 and 20) is a sign that, far from withering in the face of state and religious repression, women are in the forefront of the movement aiming to build a new, democratic Iran.

This is the most important thing for Western observers and policy-makers to digest: Ahmadinejad and his cohorts are swimming against the tide rather than riding it. An increasingly educated population in which around 65 per cent are under 30 has every reason to wish for the revitalization of the moribund Iranian economy and to seek a closer relationship with the outside world. Mosque attendance continues to plummet and, according to a recent poll conducted by Iran’s own Ministry of Intelligence, only 25 per cent of Iranians now consider religion an important factor in their lives.5

The underlying trend in Iran remains towards reform and greater democratic health. The danger is that this will be undermined by military confrontation. The position of Ahmadinejad and the hardliners is strengthened by confrontation – which is precisely why he struts his inflammatory stuff on the international stage. There are emerging signs within Iran that Ahmadinejad will not be allowed to continue this posturing for much longer. In January, a majority in Iran’s Majlis (parliament) sent a letter to the President criticizing him not only for the dire state of the economy but also for his high-profile foreign travel. In addition, two key newspapers, one of them owned by Supreme Leader Khamenei, rebuked Ahmadinejad over the nuclear issue.1

These developments are not unconnected with the UN Security Council resolution of December 2006 imposing sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt the enrichment of uranium. The UN resolution emerged from a multilateral diplomatic approach led by governments in Europe which have been quietly working to keep channels open with Tehran ever since its nuclear programme became a cause for international concern in 2003.

Notwithstanding the sanctions, it is desperately important that those channels remain open – and ideally that talks between the US and Iran begin on all areas of disagreement, from Iranian support for Hizbullah in Lebanon to its alleged role in Iraq. Even Tony Blair has declared that Iran should now be offered ‘a clear strategic choice’ that could include a ‘new partnership’ with the West. Economic carrots would be much more productive than military sticks.

As the Security Council resolution passed, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, mindful of what happened in Iraq, stressed that it did not authorize the use of force. Nor is it likely that military action would gain UN approval – the greater danger is of a unilateral strike by the US or by Israel, where the more overheated voices routinely compare Ahmadinejad with Hitler. President Bush has just sent another aircraft carrier to the Gulf; this is a very dangerous time.

‘I am convinced that the only way forward in Iran is engagement,’ said IAEA chief ElBaradei. ‘We have to invest in peace,’ he said, because if the international community fails to do so ‘the consequence will be 10 times worse’. He added: ‘I hope we will stop speaking about a military option and focus on finding a solution.’

Amen to that.

  • He was translated as saying Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’ , when in fact he said: ‘the regime occupying Jerusalem should vanish from the pages of time’, a rather high-flown Persian way of talking about the need for ‘regime change’.
  1. Howard LaFranchi, ‘West Iran plan shows gains. Will US stick to it?’, Christian Science Monitor, 23 January 2007.
  2. Seymour M Hersh, ‘The next act’, New Yorker, 27 November 2006.
  3. Stella Dawson, ‘IAEA chief says attack on Iran would be catastrophe’, Reuters, 25 January 2007.
  4. Nasrin Alavi, We Are Iran, Portobello Books 2006.
  5. Ali M Ansari, Confronting Iran, Hurst & Co, 2006.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on The view from Iran

Leave your comment