Ahmad Batebi, Tehran's 'most wanted' breaks cover
CATCHING up with Ahmad Batebi - the Iranian student leader who shot to prominence during the Tehran University uprising of 1999 - is no easy matter. After being pictured on the front cover of The Economist waving the bloodied clothing of an injured contemporary, the 21-year-old undergraduate was sentenced to death in camera by a Revolutionary Court for sullying the name of the Islamic Republic. The tariff was subsequently commuted to 15 years in prison.A must read.
Given temporary release following an outcry from human rights groups, Batebi skipped bail four months ago and is now on the run. He moves from safe house to safe house, swapping mobile phones and e-mail addresses every 48 to 72 hours. Half a dozen attempts to hold an interview are aborted as the Revolutionary Guards seem to be closing in on him. READ MORE
Like so many dissidents who have suffered under tyrannical regimes - he testifies that he was held under a drain full of excrement till it seeped into his mouth - Batebi appears to be quite without bitterness. Along with Akhbar Ganji, the investigative journalist now ill from being on hunger strike, he remains one of Iran's best-know symbols of protest.
The lack of more big-name dissidents is one of the Iranian freedom movement's greatest problems in drumming up overseas support - which helps to explain why Batebi is taking the risk to speak out.
Batebi had hoped that this year's election of the militantly Islamist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would clarify the true nature of the regime in the eyes of the West. No one could hide any more behind the fiction that standing up to the Mullahs's nuclear aspirations would undermine 'reformists' such as ex-President Khatami.
So he is shocked and disappointed at the West's almost conciliatory reaction. Batebi is particularly critical of the EU's engagement with Iran, now stalled over the Islamic Republic's flagrant resumption of uranium enrichment. His differences with the EU do not concern individual human rights cases, including his own, which the British government and the EU have pressed with the Iranians. Rather, he differs with them over political grand strategy.
France, Britain and Germany - negotiating on behalf of the EU - have sought to diffuse the dispute by getting Iran to stop its uranium enrichment programme permanently in return for a supply of nuclear fuel and economic and political incentives.
"Everyone knows how much the EU's wheelings and dealings with Iran have strengthened the lifeblood of the Mullahs," he says. "The majority of people see the EU as allied to the government of Iran and usually as contradicting in spirit what the US might do. They think that the EU is mainly looking after its short-term economic interests, rather than democracy."
Batebi says the one consistent aim of the Mullahs has been to secure legitimacy and so take regime change off the table. This is exemplified by indications of their renewed interest in signing a non-aggression pact with the West as part of a set of complex trade-offs on the atomic issue. And, he adds, everything in the backgrounds of the ascendant faction in Tehran indicates they will not "moderate": he cites the replacement of Hassan Rouhani, a favourite of EU negotiators, with Ali Larijani as new secretary of the National Security Council. As head of Iranian broadcasting, Larijani was a notoriously 'vigilant' censor.
But is not Western pressure counterproductive - exemplified by the bitter memories of the Anglo-American inspired coup of 1953? Batebi believes that the majority of the population - the under-30s - are not haunted by these ghosts. On the contrary, even now, it would have a seismic effect on the morale of the Islamist regime if President George Bush were to surprise everyone by denying Ahmadinejad a visa to attend the UN General Assembly next week, he suggests.
Far from resulting in worse repression, whenever the US and the EU pressure the Mullahs, things get better internally. And pressure perpetuates a virtuous cycle: it encourages Iranians to speak up.
Batebi urges Prime Minister Tony Blair to use his influence with the other EU countries to push a harder line in Brussels, rather than expending his capital on Washington to go "softly, softly".
Even now, the British are still playing games with the Iranians. Only this week, the government has supplied armoured vests to the regime for "anti-narcotics" operations against opium coming out of Afghanistan. Ludicrously, the foreign minister Chris Mullin stated that the Iranians had guaranteed that they would not transfer them to the armed forces of the Islamic Republic.
Iran, of course, pioneered the modern ideology of suicide attacks during the war with Iraq and in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Now that Britain has suffered its first suicide attacks, what effect would a collapse of the regime have on the burgeoning global martyrdom movement? Batebi thinks that there would be little in the way of an immediate symbolic impact - such 'warfare' is now taught in so many countries - but he thinks the regime's demise would have considerable practical effect.
Under the patronage of the Revolutionary Guards, Islamic Jihad openly advertises for "volunteers". Iran also sends increasing numbers of roadside bombs to Iraq.
"If the regime fell, you wouldn't see an immediate end to suicide operations," Batebi concludes. "But it's like destroying an ants' nest. At first, the ants are still running around the house. Then, when the nest goes, they eventually find it much harder to come back."
Despite recent riots in the Kurdish areas and signs of labour unrest, Batebi is not very optimistic that change will arrive soon. But he also knows that when popular uprisings come, they can do so very suddenly thanks to years of apparently fruitless labour, as Lebanese and Ukrainian democrats demonstrated during the Cedar and Orange revolutions. Only then will he feel free to go back to his rudely interrupted first love - film studies.