It is time to forget Iran's past and look to its future
Robin Cook is right to get closer to this former pariah state
Friday December 3, 1999
It is essential for Britain, and the EU in general, to engage in a dialogue with Iran. The foreign secretary Robin Cook's initiative of increased political contact is to be welcomed. Since May we have had full diplomatic relations, for the first time since 1979.
In November my own parliamentary delegation established contact with the Iranian Majlis and government, and the head of the foreign office, Sir John Kerr, visited Tehran. The new year will bring the Iranian foreign minister, Kharrazi, to London with Robin Cook later visiting Iran.
All much needed and to a purpose. Iran, with its population of some 65m, its rich natural resources, large oil reserves and its pivotal position, is surely one of the most important geopolitical countries. Change is in the air in Iran and that change is being powerfully resisted by conservative forces.
For the last 20 years since Iran's revolution our relations have been difficult. Our close historical ties with Iran, their often semi-colonial nature and our enthusiastic support for the late Shah have not made things easy.
Now there is a new dawn and a great opportunity. The unexpected election in 1997 of President Khatami on a programme of modernisation and reform has given rise to great expectations. Whether these will be fulfilled remains to be seen but now is the time to get closer.
Whilst the revolution expelled the Shah and his government, not to mention many highly qualified Iranians, it also expelled the US and all it stood for by way of its all too powerful political, military and cultural presence in Iran.
The storming of the US embassy in Tehran in 1980 has left a bitter legacy. The Iranian government's support for radical Islamic elements in the Arab world, its opposition to the peace process and vehemently anti-Israeli line since the revolution have hardly helped to encourage a sympathetic American attitude.
That said the recent election in Israel of Prime Minister Barak and the close relationship of our government with the US administration and the trust that engenders, are all signs that now is the time to move.
Progress is possible on all fronts - economic, trade, cultural and political. The essential thing is that contact be conducted on a basis of mutual respect.
We are not dealing with a western democracy but we are dealing with a country that is probably more democratic than it has ever been in its turbulent history.
We are not dealing with a country enjoying western style human rights but we are dealing with an Islamic republic which has admitted millions of Afghan, Kurdish and Iraqi refugees and has its own rules and borders of conduct which have to be respected.
Religious minorities are tolerated and even represented in the Majlis, but they have to take care. They can live their lives but without evangelism. Jews, with all their international contacts, must be particularly careful and the current arrests in Shiraz and Esfahan are a case in point. Hopefully that issue will be gradually solved.
The Bahai community remain a special case. They are seen as apostates and therefore traitors to Islam. It is difficult to plead their case, though we tried. But the better our relations with Iran, the further Iran gets with modernisation and reform, the better it will undoubtedly be for the Bahais.
The country is now at a stage of potential transition and a power struggle is going on. Iran has no formal political parties, but all too many political factions. The vast majority of people want change. President Khatami was elected by a massive majority of around 70% of the vote, including many cast by women and the young. Around 50% of the 65m population are under 18. Each year thousands flood onto the job market.
The more conservative forces have largely got the economy locked up, with control being given to huge semi-charitable organisations called Bonyads. These involve vast areas of patronage for the regime, money for Islamic foundations and mosques. They are hard for western firms to deal with.
Iranians appeal for western investment and technological expertise but cannot as yet deliver their privatisations and organisation to attract and take advantage of it. We are seeing a race against time. Modernisation or increasing political turbulence is the name of the game. But nobody wants another revolution: the memories of events on the streets in 1979 are too vivid .
There are real grounds for optimism. Iranian education is good, the professionally qualified are emerging, former revolutionaries are now middle aged and increasingly used to the constraints of power.
Women for all their dress codes are ever more vibrant and occupy roles at every tier. Some 52% of this year's entrants to Tehran university were women.
The fact that the people want change even has an effect on the conservative leadership. They must to an extent go along with it. The important fact is that in Iranian terms the current struggle is being fought politically and within the rules, although these rules may appear strange and sometimes wrong and oppressive.
The key struggle at the moment is about who may be allowed to run in the Majlis elections next February. The names of candidates have to be submitted to the Guardian Council . Whilst many candidates will be submitted by progressive elements the council is controlled by the conservatives. Manoeuvring and possible deal making is going on, but at the end of the day the council can hardly block all progressives.
Once this hurdle has been passed the elections themselves will be as vigorous as ever and relatively free.
Islamic courts have recently been used for political purposes such as the recent extraordinary trial of the cleric and former minister, Abdollah Nouri.
For a highly dubious charge of insulting Islam via his newspaper, Khordad, he has recently been sentenced to five years' imprisonment. However much of the sentence he eventually serves, he cannot now run in the elections and therefore cannot be the powerful speaker of the Majlis.
Yet his recent trial and courageous castigation of the system was a high-profile event, broadcast on radio and television and featured in the international press. Such again are the contradictions of today's Iran.
Mutual respect is the key. Iran will never allow itself to be dominated by the west or anyone else again. If we encourage a relationship of equals, economic improvement and the momentum of change can be maintained and Iran can steadily emerge into an increasingly normal relationship with the rest of the world.
Peter Temple-Morris is Labour MP for Leominster. Martin Woollacott is away
©Copyright 1999, The Guardian