17 Jun 2013

Experiencing Iran at a potentially devastating moment in history

For a moment I thought she was going to tear her head scarf off. She was at the front of a surge of people who had come out of the shops and cafés on Kaj Square, a non-descript shopping centre in one of Tehran’s middle class residential areas.

She was a large woman, colourfully dressed, she didn’t speak English but somehow in the excitement of the celebrations of Saturday night, she shouted “We’re so happy, we’re so happy.”

It was fortunate that she kept her head covering in place, for in the shadows at the north end of the square I spotted some 20 policemen in a group watching.
This was just an hour after the declaration that Dr Hassan Rouhani had won, Iran’s presidential election. I found myself standing in the square besieged by honking horns, V signs, a sea of vehicles, as tens of thousands were gathering on the streets across the city, thrilling to the tiny whiff of change in the air.
The day before, I had encountered uncharacteristic hope amongst many voters. “Peace, peace, and not in enmity with anyone – that’s what I want”, one young woman told me in the long queue of voters outside the Hosseini-e Ershad mosque in north Tehran.

In Dr Hassan Rouhani, she has secured a president who will be, at the very least, less verbally aggressive and abusive than outgoing president Ahmadinejad. He will also seek change in Iran’s relations with the outside world.
Rouhani’s senior aide, Dr Mohammad Akrami, told me that the new president will seek to “improve women’s’ rights, and ease the dress code”.

Real power stays with Iran’s security service

But others here have told me, despite the election, the real power will remain entrenched in Iran’s vast and complex security system.

The sunglassed Basij on their motorbikes will still enforce the will of the clerics, alongside the unattractively powerful Revolutionary Guard.

Change, if it comes as a result of last Friday’s vote, will be gradual indeed. “I don’t believe a word of it,” a well-dressed woman in North Tehran exclaimed when I asked her about her vote. “I didn’t vote’, she added, ‘they are all conservatives, they are all the same’.
Nevertheless Dr Rouhani would appear to be a something of a post Islamic revolutionary phenomenon. He has three political feet. One is planted close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah al-Khamenei.

A second is rooted in his own track record as head of Iran’s National Security Council and one time nuclear negotiator.

 The third is newly germinated in elements of the reform movement that was so violently put down after the last presidential vote four years ago.

Why did Iranians vote for Rouhani?

No sooner had the votes been counted on Saturday than those close to the Supreme Leader started to deny that Dr Rouhani had ever been anywhere near a reformist thought.
So why did over 18 million Iranians vote for Dr Rouhani? “The economy”, a taxi driver cried. A woman in a black hijab and chador was more direct. “Sanctions” she said, “we can’t carry on with inflation like this, I won’t be able to live.”
It is clear that Iran’s theocratic leaders felt badly bruised by both the challenge and the violence required to put down the Green Movement in 2009.

On Saturday the Supreme Leader even talked about it “the people suffered from the lawlessness of 2009. Then there was passion and excitement. but along with insults. We have progressed a lot in four years.”
Not far enough for the wife of Mustapha Tajzadeh who protested, wearing green, outside a polling station in north Tehran.

Political prisoners a touchy subject

She told me, “my husband was a minister under President Khatami. He’s been in prison for four years. He refused to defend himself, he regarded his trial as unfair.”

No one knows how many such political prisoners there are but diverse researchers speak of “many hundreds”. Mentioning them is not popular with the authorities here.
Indeed swathes of the security apparatus do not like foreign journalists being here at all. They resent the Ministry of Guidance for letting us in.

Last Tuesday, working on the effect of sanctions on cancer drugs here in Tehran, we were arrested outside a pharmacy in which the price of bowel cancer drugs had increased tenfold in six months.

The eight young plainclothes zealots from the Revolutionary Guard refused to identify themselves. But they made it clear who they were, and that they disliked us reporting the effects of sanctions at all.

Colliding interests of the factions

 Three rather more charming police joined our throng, and after an hour of negotiation, the officers took us off to a distant police station.

 We lost three hours reporting time, but gained a sharp insight into the colliding interests of the factions that make up Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary governance.
And yet beyond the bugs in your hotel room, the arrests, and strange individuals taking photographs of you as you go about your business, there is something continuously absorbing and intriguing about Iran that renders the paranoia it provokes entirely bearable.

 The country is spectacular, the people are approachable, friendly, and remain westward looking.

Many are highly educated and skilled and six thousand years after they started, they are still building. In short, they are people we used to, and should still do business with.
Last Thursday we drove 100 miles south out of Tehran to the Holy City of Qom.

Direct links between Qom and Damascus

It is a booming city in which tower cranes wrestle in the air with minarets. The glorious Fatema shrine is being re-gilded and expanded. The gold leaf, the mosaics, are the match of what went before. 

An extravagant monorail is being constructed between new high-rise hotels and the shrine.
It was on that day on the eve of the Iranian vote that America determined to stride into yet another theatre of war in this region.

As in Iran and Afghanistan before, Syria is within Iran’s considerable sphere of influence. You only have to be in Qom observing the festivities for the Third Imam, Hussein, to understand the very direct links between Qom and Damascus.

Hussein’s sister, Zeinab was taken prisoner of war here in the seventh century and carted off to Damascus to serve her sentence and later die.

Does Mr Obama know any of this? Did Messrs Bush and Blair understand the vast and intricate traffic of Shia pilgrims to and from Kerbala in Iraq, Damascus in Syria, and Mashad here in Iran?

Very delicate cultural issues

The determination of the US and others to reshape and interfere in this region seems to ignore the tender centuries-old cultural sensibilities involved.
Strangely, this week, Iran finally received its written invitation to the illusive Syrian peace talks in Geneva. One senses now that with no diplomatic relations for 34 years, the US has no one in the State Department who has ever even set foot in Iran.

 Tragically, Britain with three hundred years of diplomacy with Iran is now headed the same way. China is more than present in both commerce and oil exploitation, much resented here for ignoring Iranian cultural norms.
By midnight on Saturday, the Chamran highway that leads to the centre of Tehran was sporting a noisy three car abreast five mile queue of families desperate to join the celebrations.

 But, with my seven-day visa expiring,  as I passed them on my way toward leaving Iran, I found myself thinking about the potential horror that lies ahead for them in this troubled region.

For all her faults, Iran remains a haven of peace, surrounded by wars in which we are somehow involved.
Today, as Iranians gather they’re thoughts, they and we are confronted by a new and dangerous reality. In Syria, a great western power has joined the larger Sunni Islamic faction in a war in which the other, the Shia, is the enemy. In nearly forty years of reporting, to me this feels a most terrifying hour.
Perhaps Mr Rouhani has just earned Iran a break.

On the ground here there does seem to be a very slim chance for an opening, but the regional timing is far worse than challenging.

Perhaps President Obama would consider using the “open hand of friendship” he extended to Iran in his Cairo speech four years ago.

Perhaps he should come and shake Mr Rouhani’s hand and recognise Iran for the vital and enduring regional power that it is.

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