2 Feb 2010

Iran: both democracy clock and nuclear clock ticking

There are two Iran clocks – a democracy clock and a nuclear clock. But which is ticking faster? Lindsey Hilsum blogs for Channel 4 News.

Today marks the beginning of the Ten Day Dawn, the period leading up to the anniversary of the Revolution in Iran on 11 February 1979.

Last year, the 30th anniversary, we were in Tehran watching President Ahmadinejad giving an interminable speech to his bussed-in supporters.

This year we cannot get visas – foreign journalists will not be invited to see what’s promising to be a day of protest, and possibly of violence.

Meanwhile, western diplomats seem to be flagging slightly on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.

They are apparently more worried about keeping the Chinese on board than pushing on with punitive sanctions. This is probably because after the exposure of Iran’s secret nuclear site at Qom, it seems that the Islamic Republic may not be moving ahead as fast as it would like on enriching uranium.

There are two clocks – a democracy clock and a nuclear clock. Which is ticking faster?

Last night, I went to a discussion on Iran. “Chatham House rules” mean I can’t quote anyone who was there, but the highlights are worth noting.

Someone who is well in with the Obama administration told us that when the president started his “hand outstretched” policy towards Iran it was “100 per cent about the nuclear and external policy and zero per cent about Iran’s internal issues.”

After 12 June, and the turbulent post-election crisis, there’s been some recalibration – he’d now put it at 70/30.

The difficult thing for the Obama administration is working out how to help the opposition without tarnishing it, and several at the meeting last night felt “do nothing” was the best approach.

Another (close to a European government) said: “We must ensure we do no harm. This is not our moment, and not our movement. But we must ensure the opposition is not subjugated to the nuclear issue or business interests.”

The Iranian government is keen to portray the Green Movement as lackeys of the imperialists, and that’s one reason the opposition leadership shuns American intervention.

But many of the young people on the streets see it differently. They like America.

“History may look back and say there was an important moment when we could have championed democracy in Iran, but instead we concentrated on the nuclear issue,” said one participant. “We have to be on the right side of history.”

But no-one knows, of course, how fast history moves nor exactly where it is going. Will it be like Tiananmen Square or the Berlin Wall? Or neither?

The Iranian government is dithering – one example being how they started a TV debate programme, as a sop to the opposition, and then withdrew it after a week because they were afraid of what was being said. But they’ve started to execute protesters and the fear is there will be more bloodshed.

No-one at last night’s meeting was predicting a quick overthrow of the Iranian government. But everyone felt that these are historic times in Iran.

“Everything has changed,” one person said. “Things can never go back as if nothing has happened.”