[Mb-civic] Defiant Iran Economist

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Sun Sep 5 10:30:53 PDT 2004


Defiant Iran 

The world of the ideologues

Sep 2nd 2004 | TEHRAN
>From The Economist print edition


Seldom has a bargain between Iran and the West seemed so out of reach

 IRAN'S continuing progress towards becoming a producer of nuclear fuel was
confirmed this week in a report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Unless it abandons that aim, and
allays the suspicion that its atomic ambitions are military in intent, Iran
may be referred, before the end of this year, to the UN Security Council for
violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. UN sanctions could
follow. Forget those high hopes that encouraged the world when reform-minded
Muhammad Khatami was elected president in 1997; the Islamic Republic is
firmly back in the international doghouse.

 Deservedly so, say a growing number of countries, led by the United States
and by three members of the European Union: Britain, France and Germany. Two
years after an exiled opposition group began revealing the scope of Iran's
undeclared programme, the Iranians have continued to try to hide awkward
truths, notably those concerning their experiments with the fuel
technologies that involve enriching uranium and making plutonium.

 The country is inching towards being able to master the nuclear-fuel cycle.
During the summer, the Iranians, defying an appeal by Mr ElBaradei, produced
experimental amounts of the gaseous uranium that, when fed into centrifuges,
can be turned either into low-enriched uranium suitable for civilian
reactors, or into high-enriched uranium useful only for bombs. Now they have
told the IAEA that they are set to produce much more‹enough, if Iran so
chooses, to produce high-enriched uranium for several nuclear weapons.

 Iran also revoked an earlier undertaking to stop making centrifuge
components. And it has so far ignored appeals to suspend work on a
heavy-water reactor that is not well suited for producing electricity, but
is well suited for producing plutonium.

 Such misdeeds apart, this week's report also reprimands Iran for not
divulging more about a second, secret centrifuge programme that came to
light early this year. The story that Iran had designs for more advanced
enrichment machines in 1995 but stuck them in a cupboard for seven years,
strikes inspectors as implausible.

But there might be one point, at least, in Iran's favour. Mr ElBaradei
confirmed that some traces of high-enriched uranium detected by his
inspectors do not constitute yet more evidence of secret uranium enrichment,
but rather, as the Iranians have said all along, that equipment bought on
the black market was already contaminated. Other such traces are still being
investigated, as are low-enriched ones that seem to indicate that Iran has
done more experimenting than it has owned up to.

Do what we say, or else

After the report has been discussed by the agency's governing board, America
and the European trio are expected to try and muster support from their
fellow governors for a resolution that lays out the demands that Iran must
meet. Iran may be asked to suspend its feedstock experiments and (once
again) to stop making centrifuge components. The governors will urge Iran's
parliament to ratify a protocol that provides for intrusive spot inspections
of suspected nuclear sites. If Iran fails to meet these demands, they will
press for it to be referred to the Security Council.

It is far from certain that the Iranians will accede to these requests. Last
October, they bowed to pressure from the European three, undertaking to
provide the agency with a complete account of their nuclear history. They
suspended uranium enrichment and went on to sign (though not yet to ratify)
the protocol. But their account turned out to be full of holes. Further
evasions came to light. Yet Iran now angrily demands that the Europeans
press for its nuclear programme to be removed from the IAEA's agenda.

 In the past year, the country has changed in ways that point not to
accommodation, but to recalcitrance. As Mr Khatami sits out a final, dismal
year in office (Iranian presidents are allowed two terms only), his hardline
opponents and their supporters in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
(IRGC) are gathering untrammelled power. In February's parliamentary
elections, conservative candidates benefited from the disqualification of
more than 2,000 reformist candidates, and thus won control of the chamber.

 The previous, reformist parliament favoured co-operation with the IAEA; its
foreign affairs committee supported the October deal. The new chamber is
packed with little-known hardliners, many of them drawn from the ranks of
the IRGC. Without a strong shove from their patrons in the clerical
establishment, they are unlikely to ratify the protocol.

Revolutionary bravado

Ever since Mr Khatami was first elected, his conservative opponents have
been itching to reverse his internationalism: his conciliatory policies
abroad and his liberalising measures at home. Determined to bolster the
country's old revolutionary zeal, conservative ideologues are prepared to
promote core revolutionary ideals from behind a wall of isolation. The
alternative, as they see it, is to cave in to pressure on the nuclear issue,
liberalise the economy, and submit to creeping western values.

 That message was discernible in an isolationist speech that Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, delivered in June. Mr Khamenei
expressed frustration at what he called the ³apeing² of western mores, and
castigated the ³Zionists² who control the West's ³sham² democracy. Alluding
to Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology, he attacked those who advocate
³going down on our knees² before ³the powers of global arrogance². He
predicted that Iranian technology would soon outstrip the West's.

 Last month, Mr Khamenei's nationalistic sentiments were given legislative
weight when parliament redrafted a liberalising development plan that had
been approved by the previous parliament. The amendments, said one deputy,
were designed to prevent ³foreign dominance of the economy². Parliament axed
those bits of the plan that bound the government to speed up Iran's sluggish
privatisation programme and would have let foreigners into the banking and
insurance sectors. Among other things, they scrapped foreign energy
companies' hard-won right to exploit the oil and gas that they discover.
Saeed Leylaz, an economist, calls the amendments ³a challenge to the process
of liberalisation that started at the beginning of the 1990s. In the past,
our route was fixed, and people argued about the best speed to travel along
it. Now, no one is sure what route the economy is to take.²

His words could just as well apply to the course of Iran's politics. In Mr
Khatami's heyday, reformists were able to use the immense public support
that they enjoyed to force small liberalising measures past the unelected
conservative institutions that stood against them. Now, the old platforms
for reformist ideas‹parliament and the press‹have been silenced, the former
by a rigged election process, and the latter by judicial bans and jail

 Debate has all but died, and the public mood is one of apathy and fatalism.
No longer can the EU count on reformist parliamentarians and public figures
to echo its calls for Iran to treat its citizens better and behave more
responsibly in foreign affairs. Foreigners are bereft of allies.

 The demise of the reform movement

Take the instance of some 35 journalists, politicians and intellectuals who
languish in jail for uttering contrary opinions. Earlier this year, one of
Mr Khatami's ministers was busy negotiating their release with the hardline
judiciary. The previous parliament pressed for better jail conditions. But
the negotiations have lost momentum. And the new parliament is indifferent
to political detainees: the 35 remain behind bars.

 The demise of the reform movement means a sharp decrease in Iran's
susceptibility to international pressure. In July, the judiciary brazenly
cited ³lack of evidence² when closing an investigation into the murder of an
Iranian-Canadian journalist while she was in detention last summer. On a
recent trip to Iran, human-rights delegates from the EU were treated to an
aggressive lecture by the official they were talking to.

 Searching for further ways to show their new influence, some conservatives
favour tightening social restrictions. In the mid-1990s, unmarried couples,
and women who broke the Islamic dress code, were terrorised by vigilante
patrols and floggings at the hands of the judiciary. After tolerant Mr
Khatami was elected, the restrictions lightened. Now some are attempting to
reverse this trend. A militia that tries to enforce the old rules is again
patrolling the streets of Tehran at night. Rather than a flogging, offenders
may be fined and hauled off to ³morality classes².

 Amir Mohebian, a well-connected conservative columnist, attributes the new
zeal to the desire to make Mr Khatami's final year in office as
uncomfortable as possible. After next summer's presidential election, when
most people expect the conservatives to manoeuvre one of their own into Mr
Khatami's vacant chair, he predicts that ³things will calm down².

 Bursting with confidence

It is hard to be sure. The supreme leader may be more pragmatic than his
public persona suggests. But he is under pressure from ideologues whose
confidence is growing fast. Observing the quagmire in Iraq, they feel less
threatened by America than at any time since George Bush included Iran in
his 2002 ³axis of evil². A curious bravado pervades Tehran.

 Nothing exemplifies this better than the IRGC's closure of Tehran's new
international airport in May, in protest at the government's decision to
contract foreigners to run it (IRGC warplanes buzzed a commercial airliner
that wanted to land, diverting it to Isfahan). The airport remains closed.
The IRGC seems wholly indifferent to the price that Iran is paying in
international prestige.

 The bravado is encouraged by oil. As the second-biggest exporter in OPEC,
Iran has benefited hugely from the high oil prices of the past five years,
with its GDP growing at about 6% a year. The boom could hardly have been
better timed. Every year since 2000, the labour market has had to
accommodate some 1m first-time job seekers. The government's response has
been to prop up loss-making factories, launch infrastructure projects and
dole out cash to private companies that hire workers. In this way, much oil
wealth has been frittered away, but the spectre of mass unemployment has
receded. People are better off: the newly affluent wear western brand names,
invest in property and buy at least $5 billion-worth of smuggled consumer
goods every year. But the good times will last only as long as the high oil
prices. There is nothing to guard Iran against the calamitous consequences
of a sharp drop. There is no Plan B.

 In July, the authors of a report sponsored by the New York-based Council on
Foreign Relations, a respected think-tank, observed that, ³despite
considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not on the
verge of another revolution. Those forces that are committed to preserving
Iran's current system remain firmly in control.² This prognosis is hard to
refute. Depoliticised and cynical, Iranians increasingly question their
ability to affect their own destiny. Among young people, a shallow
materialism holds sway.

 Some choose to ignore the Islamic Republic. Most city-dwellers no longer
vote; in Tehran, a mere 34% of voters turned out at February's election.
Eschewing dreary state television, they tune in to about 25 illegal
satellite channels, most of them broadcast by Iranian exiles in California.
But, according to one satellite aficionado, they are no longer interested in
the politicised, anti-regime channels: ³people now prefer music videos and
shows that tell you how to lose weight.²

As recently as last summer, televised appeals by Los Angeles-based
dissidents brought several thousand Tehranis on to the streets in angry
commemoration of an attack that vigilantes launched on reformist students in
1999. This summer, similar appeals were greeted with indifference. All in
all, conditions are not conducive to the Iranian meltdown that some
Iran-watchers close to the Bush administration, along with the more fanciful
sort of Iranian exile, have been predicting.

American policy towards Iran is predicated on the belief that sustained
pressure will make the Iranians change their ways‹or their regime. As well
as its concerns on the nuclear issue, the United States wants Iran to hand
over the al-Qaeda operatives in its custody (Iran has offered to do so in
exchange for members of the Iranian armed opposition based in Iraq, but this
deal was refused). America also wants Iran to restrain Iranian-supported
groups‹the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad‹which
violently oppose Israel. And unless Iran publicly disavows its (largely
rhetorical) ambition to eliminate the state of Israel, the Bush
administration is unlikely to moderate its tough stance towards what it
considers a rogue state.

 But America's own policy has made it harder to quarantine Iran. The wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq‹respectively Iran's eastern and western neighbours‹have
put Iran at the heart of the region that Mr Bush hopes to transform. As a
result, the Americans are expecting co-operative behaviour from a regime
whose neighbourhood they have occupied, and whose legitimacy they do not
accept. Mr Bush rewarded Iran for helping to oust the Taliban from
Afghanistan, and for shoehorning its Afghan allies into Hamid Karzai's
interim government, by including Iran in his axis of evil.

With increasing explicitness, Iran's resurgent conservatives are contending
that Iranian co-operation with America's regional policy depends on a change
in American attitudes towards Iran. A few weeks ago, the Iranians quietly
suggested that, in exchange for Iran's help in calming Iraq, America should
adopt a more lenient attitude towards their nuclear programme. America
rejected Iran's attempt to link the two issues‹and the Iranians are now
making mischief across the border.

 Western journalists who have crossed the Iraqi border into Iranian
Kurdistan maintain that Iran has given refuge to a group of Sunni militants
who are sworn enemies of America and Iyad Allawi's interim government.
Others assert that Iran gave important support to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia
firebrand who challenged the Iraqi government. Clerics close to Ayatollah
Khamenei are said to have been on hand during the negotiations between Mr
Sadr and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent cleric, that led to Mr
Sadr's withdrawal from Najaf's shrine.

 None of this amounts to what Iraq's defence minister has described as an
attempt ³to kill democracy² in Iraq. In fact, the Iranians have much to gain
from the authority that their fellow Shias, by dint of their numerical
superiority, expect to gain when the Iraqis go to the polls in January.
Moreover, the Iranians expect victory to go to clerics and their protégés,
many of whom have close associations with Iran's theocratic regime.

 On August 18th, Ali Shamkhani, Iran's defence minister, was asked how his
country would react to a putative American attack on its (sole and
uncompleted) nuclear reactor. He replied, ³We will not sit still. America is
not the only one present in the region. We are present from Khost to
Kandahar in Afghanistan; we are present in the Persian Gulf; we can be
present in Iraq.² Being a Shia theocracy in a predominantly Sunni
neighbourhood, it is not in Iran's gift to provide stability. But, in the
event of military action against it, Iran could become a serious spoiler.

 A grand but unlikely bargain

Recent Iranian statements have been bellicose. The conservatives are already
treating the EU‹which the reformists used to value as a diplomatic buffer
against America‹with scant respect. They are willing, as the reformists were
not, to capitalise on regional anti-American feeling. Some harbour
unrealistic designs of converting China, their second-largest trading
partner, into a strategic ally. The old Iranian urge to antagonise friends
and provoke enemies is far from dead.

 Yet, Iran's more thoughtful conservatives shrink from confrontation,
fearing that the Islamic Republic might not be able to survive a reprise of
its old global isolation. Although they do not admit it, pragmatic
conservatives have long been interested in some sort of grand bargain with
the United States. Under this, the Americans would publicly disclaim any
intention to destabilise Iran, and would move to end economic sanctions. For
their part, the Iranians would offer to help in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
(perhaps) abandon their nuclear plans.

 But such a deal, never viewed with favour by the Bush administration, is
now slipping out of sight. The more his ideological allies stoke
anti-Americanism, the harder it will be for Mr Khamenei to forgo
revolutionary precepts. In the United States, Democrats too doubt the wisdom
of being seen to reward Iran for its brinkmanship. It would take
extraordinary imagination‹on both sides‹to seize on such an unpropitious
moment. Meanwhile, the nuclear clock ticks on.

  Copyright © 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
rights reserved.


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