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America and Europe should listen to a whispered message

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Joined: 03 Feb 2005
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PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2005 8:33 am    Post subject: America and Europe should listen to a whispered message Reply with quote

America and Europe should listen to a whispered message from Isfahan

Visiting Iran, I found a regime wedded to violence and a society eager for peaceful change. We must address both

Timothy Garton Ash
Thursday November 24, 2005
The Guardian
thru freeandseculariran yahoo group

The young lecturer in Isfahan was visibly frightened. "Keep your voice down," he muttered to his friend as we talked politics in one of that magical city's many teahouses. Mahmoud, as I shall call him, went on to blame his people's troubles on American and European skulduggery - an old Iranian pastime. So what, I asked him, did he think America and Europe should do about Iran? Mahmoud gulped. There was a long silence as he communed with his tea-glass. Then, leaning towards me and lowering his voice, he said with quiet intensity: "Stick together. Understand what is happening in Iran. Have a consistent policy."

As the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency meets again to consider the Iranian nuclear programme, we need to work out what to do about Iran. The crunch will not come quite yet, mainly because the Bush administration has so many other problems on its plate. The last thing Washington needs is another Iraq. But some sort of a crunch will probably come in the first half of next year, perhaps with Iran being referred to the UN security council. So, don't be scared - be prepared. And that whispered message from Isfahan is a good place to start our preparation.

First, understand what is happening in Iran. This is much easier for Europeans than Americans. We have embassies there. We do business there. We can travel there. As senior American officials freely admit, there is no country in the world they have less contact with. So there's a particular obligation on us Europeans to go there, to look and listen, and then to share our findings with our American friends. The weakness of western policy is so often that it does not start from a realistic analysis of the country the west is trying to change. That's why I travelled round Iran for two weeks earlier this autumn, having many uncensored conversations with people like nervous Mahmoud. (My longer report is on www.nybooks.com).

If you see it at first hand, you will have no doubt that this is a very nasty and dangerous regime. I will never forget talking in Tehran to a student activist who had been confined and abused in the prison where Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten so severely that she later died of her wounds. Half the Iranian population are subjected to systematic curtailment of their liberty simply because they are women.

Two homosexuals were recently executed. The backbone of the political system is still an ideological dictatorship with totalitarian aspirations: not communism, but Khomeinism. The Islamic republic's new, ageing-revolutionary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a subordinate but still important part of that power structure, has just revived Ayatollah Khomeini's call to wipe Israel off the map. According to an official spokesman, some 50,000 Iranians have signed up in a recruitment drive for "martyrdom-seeking operations". Elements connected to the regime have almost certainly supplied weapons across the frontier into southern Iraq, where they are used to kill British soldiers. And, yes, the mullahs probably are trying to get nuclear weapons.

So, as this argument about Iran develops, let's have none of those confused and/or dishonest apologetics on the European left that, out of hostility to American policy, try to pretend that the other side (Pol Pot, Brezhnev, Saddam) is not half as bad as Washington says it is. Taking our lead from George Orwell, it's entirely possibly to maintain that Saddam Hussein ran a brutal dictatorship and that the invasion of Iraq was the wrong way to remove him. Now it's right to say that the Iranian mullahs run a very nasty regime and that it would be a huge mistake to bomb them.

For the second thing you find if you go there is that many Iranians, especially among the two-thirds of the population who are under 30, hate their regime much more than we do. Given time, and the right kind of support from the world's democracies, they will eventually change it from within. But most of them think their country has as much right to civilian nuclear power as anyone else, and many feel it has a right to nuclear arms. These young Persians are pro-democracy and rather pro-American, but also fiercely patriotic. They have imbibed suspicion of the great powers - especially Britain and the United States - with their mother's milk. A wrong move by the west could swing a lot of them back behind the state. "I love George Bush," one young woman told me as we sat in the Tehran Kentucky Chicken restaurant, "but I would hate him if he bombed my country." Or even if he pushed his European allies to impose stronger economic sanctions linked to the nuclear issue alone.

Our problem is that the nuclear clock and the democracy clock may be ticking at different speeds. To get to peaceful regime change from within could take at least a decade, although president Ahmadinejad is hastening that prospect as he sharpens the contradictions within the system. Meanwhile, the latest US intelligence assessment suggests that Iran is still a decade away from acquiring nuclear weapons. But significant, non-military action to prevent that outcome clearly has to come sooner; for as soon as dictators have nukes, you're in a different game. Then, as we have seen with North Korea and Pakistan, they are treated with a respect they don't deserve.

This is where we need to hear the other half of the message from my friend in Isfahan: stick together and be consistent. If Europe and America split over Iran, as we did over Iraq, we have not a snowball's chance in hell of achieving our common goals. To be effective, Europe and America need the opposite of their traditional division of labour. Europe must be prepared to wave a big stick (the threat of economic sanctions, for it is Europe, not the US, that has the trade with Iran) and America a big carrot (the offer of a full "normalisation" of relations in return for Iranian restraint). But the old transatlantic west is not enough. Today's nuclear diplomacy around Iran shows us that we already live in a multipolar world. Without the cooperation of Russia and China, little can be achieved.

And we have to be consistent. Consistent in our policy to Iran, embedded in a kind of Helsinki process for the whole region. Consistent in advocating an international set of rules governing the use of nuclear power, not just for Iran but for others as well. Consistent, too, in recognising that our policy must be addressed as much to the people as the regime. For every step we take to slow down the nuclearisation of Iran, we need another to speed up the democratisation of Iran. At every stage, we need to explain to the Iranian people, through satellite television, radio and the internet, what we are doing and why. Isfahan is not just the increasingly notorious location of a nuclear processing plant; it's also a beautiful city where many critical citizens live. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a reckless leader, but there are many other Mahmouds in Iran. We must listen to them. In the end, it's they, not we, who will change their country for the better.

The Sun Is Rising In The West!Soon It Will Shine on All of Iran!
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