This side of the Evil Divide

Wendell Steavenson
7 November 2002

girl stepping into taxi
The streets of Tehran, by Ali Khaligh ©. All images Courtesy of The Iranian

I have just moved to Tehran; I have been here about a week. Before I left London many people told me I should be careful; wasn’t it rather dangerous to go and live in Iran when Bush was about to invade Iraq? Unsurprisingly, Tehran is very normal, ordinary, everyday; as safe as houses, as safe as Paris with much less street crime.

Endless columns of traffic jams, concrete-box housing terraced up the mountain, a thick layer of pollution, hustle bustle and dust, red green and yellow coloured lights strung up to celebrate the 12th Imam’s birthday. I spent the first week apartment-hunting (a slew of dingy places followed by a parade of fancy marble-faced towers with swimming pools in the basement – all well stocked with gold-painted curlicued rococo dining chairs; for reasons of prestige, formality and pretension, Iranians seem disposed to make their living rooms look like hotel foyers) and reading the papers.

In the papers there was a story about an opinion poll, officially conducted, but somehow leaked on to the website of IRNA, the Islamic Republic’s new agency, which said that 74.7% of Iranians would like to see discussions open with America. Iran and America have had no diplomatic relations since the revolution in 1979 and the hostage crisis. President Bush has included Iran in his ‘Axis of Evil’; in Tehran ‘Death to America’ is written in white paint on the black tarmac of certain highways.

Media and diplomacy: a revolving door

The Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs and National Security (relatively reformist) had requested the poll, but the results had not been intended to be made public. The ensuing fuss was an illustration of the push-me–pull-you between the hardliners who control the judiciary and the overseeing all-seeing Expediency Council, and the reformers who dominate parliament and President Khatami’s apparatus.

Star Burger joint, North Tehran by Dokhi Fassihian.

When the poll became public, the Kayhan newspaper (hardline) decried the validity of the result of the poll, saying the numbers had been altered to profit the US and the head of IRNA, Abdullah Naseri (relatively reformist), was summoned in front of Judge Said Mortezavi (famous for imprisoning journalists) to explain his actions. IRNA was obliged to apologise for publishing the result and said they didn’t mean to.

Notwithstanding, the Research Institute attached to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance (relatively reformist), which had undertaken the poll along with other pollsters, was closed and its head, Behrouz Geranpayeh, arrested and sent to Evin prison to answer charges of ‘fabricating news and spreading lies’.

I asked Morad Vaisi who had been upset about the poll. He smiled deftly, and answered, ‘Those who do not like the results.’ Vaisi knows this game well. Over the last two years he has been the foreign editor of three different reformist newspapers – all of which have been shut down. The reformists want to encourage a public mandate for their reforms, the hardliners would like to prevent the reforms from being publicly discussed. Mixed up in this battle of wills, which has gone on since Khatami was elected five years ago, is foreign policy – now squashed with recent events into a tortuous paradox. America is the enemy; but then again Saddam Hussein is also the enemy…‘Active Neutrality’ is how Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi (relatively reformist) has stated the official line.

In the last two weeks Jack Straw has visited Tehran and so has the Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. Both events provoked differing reactions in the Tehran press. No one could decide whether Straw’s visit was marred by official anti-American hostility or had been just another round of behind-closed-doors productive dialogue. The Iraqi visit was low-key and without an attendant press conference. In some quarters it was thought a good thing that the Americans could see the Iranians were independent regional players; in others the government was criticised for allowing Naji Sabri to come at all.

In the Hayate-No newspaper (relatively reformist), Mesam Saidi, an MP (relatively reformist) lamented that Iranian national interest was not being well served by the proclaiming of myriad opinions from all corners. ‘Indeed it is true,’ said Morad Vaisi, ‘we have multiple voices… The main difference between the factions is the place of the people and their vote. From the reformist point of view we should respect the people’s opinion on foreign policy as well as on internal matters because the government is chosen by the people.

Of those polled, 74.7% said they would like to open discussions with the Americans. We’ll see. For several years, Khatami and Kharrazi have visited all sorts of Middle Eastern countries, Gulf States and European capitals heralding trade and business joint ventures with the phrase that Khatami first used in front of the United Nations (UN) – ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’.

The challenge of how to play the US­–Iraq showdown of the moment is part of this ongoing opening dynamic. Iran has stated publicly (and they are hardly unique in this) that they are opposed to an American unilateral invasion of Iraq and that Iraq should comply fully with UN resolutions. But privately they worry how to influence the regime change that looks increasingly inevitable (and let’s face it, desirable for all).

The problem for Iran is that the Iraqi situation looks like it might end up the way of the Afghan situation. Iran helped broker the Northern Alliance take-over in Kabul, gave the US assurances that any planes that inadvertently crashed in Iran would be OK, pledged help to the alliance…and in return got the Axis-of-Evil speech. Vaisi said that, to some extent, Iran would feel threatened by Iraqi territorial ambition no matter what the regime in Baghdad. For the time being, the status quo was comfortable, ‘Iraq is weak and Iran prefers this position.

Baths in South Tehran, by Nader Davoodi

Bazaar politics

In the central bazaar in south Tehran (where I went to buy various household items for the apartment I finally rented) I sat discussing things with a couple of bazaari; here was the nub of it, the roll-your-eyes-at-the-ceiling of it. After they agreed that Saddam was wrong and Bush was wrong and that nature would punish them both, they discovered that I was from London and laughed uproariously at this, making puppet strings with their fingers. ‘Iraq and America are just British clowns,’ they said, repeating the old Iranian tenet that the nefarious British are behind everything, even the blundering Americans, even Saddam and the Mullahs to boot. I tried to tell them that this was silly and that Britain hasn’t had an Empire with which to machinate for a long time, but, mindful of old histories and Mossadeq in the 1950s and all sorts of dodgy oil deals, they insisted on my naïveté.

I asked them if they thought that America would try and invade Iran as some politicians had suggested, if they thought this threat was real. ‘It’s just a rumour, I don’t believe it,’ said the man with a beard who ran a clothes shop at Istanbul crossroads. ‘Before they were buying petrol at $38 a barrel and now the price is $25 – why should they attack us?’ argued the owner of the restaurant who had a bushy comb-over and a walrus moustache, cogently enough. Oil and money, after all, are at the bottom of everything.

And then the clothes-seller thought again, wiped all theories away with a swipe of gesticulation, ‘We’re not in a position to take something from this situation,’ he said. ‘People don’t think it is our business any more. There was a time when Saddam’s name was followed by curses; but now the government doesn’t pay any attention except to it’s own pockets. They don’t care if it is Saddam in power or someone else.

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