It's time to be friends with Tehran
Sunday November 28, 1999
Mention Iran and most people are apt to think of the Rushdie fatwa, the plight of women, the US hostages, exported terrorism and human rights abuses - an unlovely catalogue, especially since it is or was partly or wholly justified.
But how many know of the West's lamentable record in Iran? For more than a century it has been a chopping block for our own foreign policy needs, most recently in the cataclysmic Iran-Iraq war, which ended a dozen years ago leaving Iran with 1.2 million dead and a shattered economy. The fact that Britain, the US and France surreptitiously supplied the aggressor Saddam Hussein with armaments leaves Iranians cynical, especially given our morally righteous response to Saddam's subsequent land grab in Kuwait. All this was vividly apparent when I backpacked round the country with my son in 1997.
Returning a fortnight ago with the first parliamentary delegation to Iran since the fall of the Shah we were hospitably, though warily, treated. They retain, it seems, an exaggerated respect for British Machiavellianism and power, but the fact that we were there at all, ambassadors having been exchanged only last May after a 20-year gap, is of real significance. Above all, it speaks of a new outwardness and real movement within Iran and its clerical establishment, which Britain in particular should seek to understand and work with.
Iran is of prime importance. Its 65 million people are part of an ancient, proud culture occupying a territory seven times the size of Britain which is normally self-sufficient. It harbours great resources (and I refer to more than oil and gas, where massive new reserves have been confirmed and Shell has signed a contract with the government). It occupies a vital strategic position. Crucially, it also now exhibits a degree of democracy and stability (not forgetting the July student riots) enjoyed by few of its neighbours.
Iran none the less remains a conundrum, tending to attract attention only for its defects. Yet how many, for example, realise it has made huge strides in education, with around 700,000 students at its universities, with women to the fore (comprising 52 per cent of the Tehran University intake this year)? How many have any notion of the degree of freedom of expression and open political activity that now prevails? And what of the plus side of its human rights balance sheet, in terms of succouring two million refugees from oppression who have poured across its borders?
Even the conviction of cleric and editor Abdollah Nouri, who was yesterday sentenced to five years in prison for 'insulting Islam' and criticising the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, has a silver lining. Nouri turned the tables on his accusers, using the witness box as a pulpit to justify the campaign of his paper, Khorad, in favour of democratic values. Like a latter-day Luther, he berated the reactionary mullahs for misinterpreting the Koran and the meaning of the 1979 revolution. Unprecedentedly, neither his three-day lecture, nor the blanket coverage it received in the press, was blocked. It was electrifying. Iran is a country in flux, bursting with political energy, released first by the revolution and then by the liberalisation astutely presided over by Mahommad Khatami, who was elected President in 1997 by 69 per cent of the voters on an 80 per cent turnout. He crushed the 'official' candidate in a largely incorrupt, free election. Yet Khatami sails a delicate course, navigating through an immature party system and a constitution of Byzantine complexity, at the pinnacle of which sits a pragmatic conservative, Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic State of Iran.
The lid could still come off again, as it did when the Shah was, to the amazement of the out-of-touch embassies of the West, overthrown in 1979. The best guarantee against that prospect is continuation of the modernisation process demanded by a predominantly young population. Few want another bloody revolution, while all desire an improvement in employment and living standards. In this sphere, the dominant values of Islam clash with the rampant materialism of the West. Though many chafe against the theocratic state, Islam is still a popular religion, even with the young, many of whom simultaneously ingest 'alien' Western (especially American) cultural values.
As for human rights, it is facile to insist they adopt our standards. Ironically, it may be that more are put to death in the US in a year than in Iran. The ferocity of Islamic law is, anyhow, increasingly mitigated in practice (we were assured, for example, that the four death sentences passed after the student riots will not be carried out).
Special places are reserved in the Majlis (Parliament) for Armenian Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian deputies, though that does not help the Muslim Bahais, who are considered apostates. We met some of the former, and spoke up for the latter. We also met some forceful women MPs.
I have been visiting Iran since my student days, and have developed a strong affection and admiration for this profoundly independent, talented and friendly people and their beautiful land. I was not alone in feeling a line needs mutually to be written under the past and that we have every reason to lend strong but sensitive support to current trends (while remaining frankly critical). Criticism divorced from the context can be counter-productive. The general election in February will challenge Iran's institutional and cultural maturity. A great deal hangs upon the outcome.
The country that created Isfahan and Persepolis and names its main streets and squares after poets is, I suggest, a country manifestly worth reconnecting with and reinvesting in.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury is a Liberal Democrat peer.
©Copyright 1999, Gurdian (UK)