The axis of doubt

Print edition : August 03, 2002

President George W. Bush talked of an 'Axis of Evil' threatening the U.S. that comprised Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In the case of Iran, it is difficult to see it that way.

IMAGES of Iran seem to be stuck in a time warp that dates back from the early 1980s, when that country was one of the world's 'rogue states' with its militant stand-off with the United States and an active state-led programme of support for Islamic terror groups. Now it is a flawed democracy - with a distinctly patchy record on human rights - trying to break free from the chains of a theocratic Constitution voted through in 1979 in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of the Shah, one that gives the clergy veto powers over the decisions of elected politicians and allows them to control key appointments to positions of power.

Iran's supreme leader, the conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two contradictory state structures are vying for power in Teheran.-AP

The reformist President Mohammed Khatami, re-elected in 2001 with a crushing 77 per cent of the votes on an 83 per cent turnout, is battling for power. He had been blocked by a conservative Majlis (Parliament) during his first term, but this hurdle was swept aside in the February 2000 general elections when the reformists obtained 80 per cent of the popular vote and a clear parliamentary majority.

Since the last presidential elections the Majlis has passed legislation to free up the press, abolish torture and improve the human rights outlook, raise the age of marriage for girls from a child-molesting nine to the adolescence stage and break the economic gridlock by privatising some state enterprises that control 85 per cent of the economy. The unelected Council of Guardians has blocked the first three moves and caused the last one to be watered down. The Council is controlled by the conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, selected by the clergy to replace Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as spiritual leader upon his death in 1989.

Thus the reality is that within Iran two contradictory state structures are vying with each other for power. The conservative state comprises Ayatollah Khamenei, the Council of Guardians and the judiciary - intent on applying to the limits, Sharia law including the provisions of public stoning and hanging, amputation and flogging - backed by the electronic media organisations, whose directors are clergy appointments.

The reformist state is, increasingly, the people, the President, Parliament and the print media. One example in this struggle is the campaign being waged against pro-reformist newspapers and their journalists. Mohsen Mirdamadi, MP and current chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Majlis, is the publisher of Nowrouz. He was a former militant, who led the student group that occupied the American Embassy in 1979-81 and was involved in the 1987 Mecca riots. Nowrouz is his fourth newspaper. The others have all been closed by the courts. On July 20 the right-wing Syasat-e Rouz reported that Nowrouz was to suffer the same fate with punitive measures to be taken against Mirdamadi. In the last three years, 30 of their journalists have been jailed. Yet, in contrast to the judiciary, Parliament has given the licence for the paper to re-open under a new name.

THE reality of the Islamic Revolution was never as clean and tidy as it is currently portrayed. The Shah's regime was finally swept aside by a coalition of forces ranging from the (Communist) Tudeh Party to the wilder shores of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism even as the Shah's long march to modernism and westernisation proved a failure and the economy was left floundering. The poor paid the price as he continued to throw their money into conspicuous consumption on palaces, parties and pleasure.

The coalition knew exactly what it was up against, but not what it stood for. It culminated in the Shah's tanks crushing demonstrators beneath their tracks in a final failed attempt to maintain a dynasty imposed on Iran in the 1950s by the U.S. and Britain. The blood on the tarmac was barely dry when the component parts of the coalition turned on one another. In less than three months of savage civil conflict the Ayatollah won as his Islamic Revolution Guards swept alternative futures into history's 'might-have-beens'.

They then turned on the U.S., the Great Satan, which had created and maintained the Shah in the interests of oil. Western assets were nationalised, the American embassy was stormed, its diplomats were held hostage and anti-U.S. terror was subsidised. President Jimmy Carter authorised a farcical hostage rescue mission and later Ronald Reagan's Col. Oliver North secretly swapped them for a cache of weapons which was to blow up later as the 'Irangate' scandal.

When Iraq chose to settle its border dispute with Iran by force of arms, the U.S. took the view that 'my enemy's enemies are my friends' and supported Saddam Hussein. This must rate, alongside the U.S.' more recent support for the Taliban, as one of the most expensive misjudgments in history. During the 'War of the Cities', Teheran and Baghdad pounded each other with Scud missile clones made available by North Korea and U.S. surrogates respectively.

On the front lines, wave upon wave of schoolchildren with Kalashnikov assault rifles slaughtered one another in industrial quantities. Millions died. After almost six years they fought themselves to a standstill - militarily and economically. An uneasy peace came about and Saddam Hussein turned his war machine to easier targets - first to the Kurdish opposition in the North, where he piloted his chemical weapons on the Kurds in Halabja, and then to Kuwait in the south. In the aftermath, Saddam Hussein, in revenge for the American support to those people, attempted genocide against the Marsh Arabs, forcing hundreds of thousands of them to flee to Iran where they remain as refugees till this day.

On January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush talked of an 'Axis of Evil' threatening the U.S. that comprised Iran, Iraq and North Korea. These countries were sponsoring terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction. It is difficult to see it that way in the case of Iran. The democratic government is desperate to kick-start the economy and widen it in order to move away from an almost total dependence on oil, to deal with 30 per cent unemployment (including three million young people who have never had jobs), and to become a 'normal' Islamic state. Bush's speech amounted to playing into the hands of the Iranian Conservatives forcing the reformers to join a united front against the U.S.

The Iranians may have chemical weapons, but unlike the Iraqis, they never used them, while evidence of a nuclear programme is not clear. The new Russian reactor being built in Bushehr is claimed by the U.S. as being usable for military purposes, but the same could be said of almost any country with a nuclear programme. The Iranians support the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have criticised the U.S. for abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty - hardly the actions of a country hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. Iran has announced no-first-use of its 1,500-km range Shahab 3 missile and offered to refrain from developing the longer-range Shahab 4, based on the North Korean Taepodong, for military use.

As for terrorism, the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies murdered a group of Iranian diplomats when they seized Mazar-i-Sharif some years ago. When the U.S. commenced its campaign against Afghanistan, Iran closed its borders to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While a small number of the wilder Bonyads, the independent Islamic foundations outside parliament or presidential control, may have flirted with or even had links with Al Qaeda (although it would in religious terms be the equivalent of a partnership between Northern Ireland's Reverend Ian Paisley, the arch-opponent of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Pope), there is no evidence of government support. After all, a number of individuals and organisations in the United Kingdom have similar links, and President Bush did not, in his State of the Union address, threaten to blame and maim them.

So the Europeon Union (E.U.) has rejected the counter-productive U.S. approach in favour of a trade and cooperation agreement with Iran that will be negotiated in parallel with separate agreements on terrorism and political dialogue. The latter will include human rights, West Asia, weapons of mass destruction and drug trafficking. A safer and more secure world, with the West in partnership with the 'Dar al Islam', will come from talks rather than tanks, common action and not covert action. That will do more to unfreeze politics in Iran than all the bellicose threats from Washington.

Glyn Ford, a member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom, visited Teheran with a delegation from the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in July 2002.

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