11 Jun 2013

Trying to understand the stand-off with Iran

Read more from Jon Snow in Iran

Few foreign journalists are based in Iran these days. Those Iranians who file reports to western media outlets are careful in their reporting. The normal everyday lack of information and news coming out of Iran has assisted the western powers in their demonisation of the government and of Iran itself.

For George Bush, Iran was part of his “axis of evil”. For Barack Obama, Iran’s nuclear programme has found the US and its allies triggering no fewer than nine separate sets of intensifying sanctions regimes. The latest sequence of sanctions trips in later this month and involves an assault on Iran’s currency, which the American administration has effectively said it wants to destroy.

In one of the most war-torn regions on Earth, Iran’s capital is an oasis of apparent calm. That calm suffered a moment of unease last night as, not for the first time, people attending a rally for one of the presidential candidates – Dr Mohammed Reza Aref – started chanting for the release of political prisoners. We saw a degree of security forces activity around the meeting place. Several thousand Aref supporters had packed into a large hall to hear the man who served as President Khatami’s vice president.

This morning Aref stepped down and said he would not contest the election, having been asked to do so by Khatami so as not to divide the reformist ticket. It leaves the path clear for Dr Hassan Rohani, a cleric seen with the strongest reformist candidacy. This is not least because Dr Rohani has changed his colours somewhat since serving in government here.

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For the most part this short, low-key presidential election campaign has been calm. Posters remain few, campaign appearances by the candidates are taking place in cities across the country. It’s a vast state with some 90 million citizens. This renders it both hard to cover the process and difficult to predict what will happen. Few, if any foreign journalists have been to any of the rallies outside Tehran – which makes fully comprehending what is happening all the harder.

Most of us have visas for seven days, expiring the day after the election on Friday, leaving Iran largely unreported. In so many ways this influential power needs reporting. Iran is a country with massive potential.

Beyond its oil, it sports a significant educated population. It has a raft of  accomplished scientists and engineers, at least four of whom have been assassinated in their quest to enrich uranium, ostensibly to generate nuclear power. Iran’s film industry is the third biggest in the world.

One of the abiding tragedies is that in this region of conflict, so big a player is so ostracised and excluded. There is no question that the Iranian authorities’ resentment of domestic political protest is enhanced by the way in which the country is treated by the outside world. Of course, fear of Iran’s nuclear programme sits at the heart of all this. For Iran it is a matter of national sovereignty and pride. For the west it is determination not to allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon.

We gloss over the repeated assertions by Iran’s supreme leader that nuclear weapons are against the teaching of the Koran.

It is not easy to see how this presidential process can change this. America hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran for over 30 years. Britain hasn’t had full relations for several years either. The UK closed its embassy after violent protests outside its gates. Britain and America are seen here as the major agents of external pressure and tension. It is not easy to see how the stand-off benefits the UK or the US or indeed human rights generally.

It’s hard to imagine a geopolitical crisis in greater need of dialogue beyond nuclear matters, at the very least.

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