It is time to forget Iran's past
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
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
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
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
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
Peter Temple-Morris is Labour MP for Leominster.
Martin Woollacott is away
©Copyright 1999, The Guardian
Page last updated/revised 011500
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page