Monday, August 21, 2006

Ignoring the Propaganda in Tehran

Cameron Abadi, Spiegel Online:
The government of Iran appears set to reject the European incentive package on Tuesday. A show of strength? A diplomatic blunder? Iranians themselves don't know what to think.

"No, don't worry. We are peaceful people," Arash says. His voice is calm, yet forceful enough to be heard over the Los Angeles-produced pop music blaring from the speakers of his beat-up taxi cab. Outside, Tehran's chaotic, congested traffic seems almost impenetrable -- and positively life threatening. For the moment, though, Arash is more concerned with Iran's reputation in the world.

Like most of the people one meets in Tehran, population 15 million, Abash is disarmingly friendly and hospitable. Indeed, even the lawless, lane-less highways are absent of road rage. But next to the highways, one sees evidence of the other Iran -- the Iran that concerns many in the West. On the left, a steady stream of posters passes by depicting Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah thrusting an automatic rifle into the sky. On the right, painted murals flash by glorifying Iran's young martyrs who died in the country's devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Arash, though, continues with his proclamations of Iranian good faith. You just have to "ignore that propaganda," he says. READ MORE

With Iran likely on the eve of rejecting a European Union incentive package meant to encourage Iran to abandon its nuclear program, ignoring the propaganda is becoming an increasingly tall order. Indeed, on Monday, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei provided a taste of what is apt to come. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has made its own decision," Khamenei said according to Iranian state television. "And in the nuclear case, God willing, with patience and power, (Iran) will continue its path."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though, has promised to provide a "multifaceted response" to the offer -- officially presented to the Iranians in early June -- by Tuesday. Western leaders are hoping that response might indicate how to move forward with negotiations launched out of concern that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran continues to insist it is only interested in nuclear technology to produce electricity.

And the Iranian population, it seems, is caught in between -- not knowing who to believe. Nima, a student at Tehran University who preferred not to give his last name, insists that "Tehran has an inalienable right to clean air." It wasn't hard to sympathize with him; Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world. By mid-day, the Alborz Mountains in the north of the city are hidden behind a veil of impenetrable haze. Nuclear power, Nima suggests, might solve that problem.

Ahmadinejad, of course, has done his best to foster this interpretation of Iran's nuclear program. He routinely emphasizes that Iran has an "inalienable right" to develop nuclear technology -- and so too, do many Iranians. It's an easy argument to digest: populist nationalism wrapped in legalese.

But does Nima really think that his government is motivated by environmental concerns? "No, no," he says. "They want the bomb."

Visaj Naderi, a law professor in Tehran, agrees. "Of course, the whole point is to build a bomb," he says. "Why else would they have been hiding the program for so long? It's obvious. Nuclear weapons mean the mullahs are safe."

The mullahs, of course, are short hand for the religious clerics who came into power when the Shah was overthrown in 1979. The ultra-conservative religious sensibilities that have been imposed on Iran since have rankled many. Periodic attempts at reform have so far made little headway.

According to Naderi, then, the quest for nukes is a move aimed at consolidating power irrespective of the wishes of the Iranian population. But even so, the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran is one many in the country find somewhat attractive. The more the international community -- represented most starkly by the bellicosity of the United States -- seeks to isolate Iran, the more sensitive the Iranians themselves seem to get. Indeed, the EU incentive package is commonly referred to by Iranians as an "American" package -- providing a basis for its summary dismissal. The specific incentives offered by Europe have remained secret of course, but most Iranians are still convinced that the terms are unfair.

And they tend to have long memories. Britain is remembered with bitterness for opportunistically draining Iranian oil in the 20th Century while providing little compensation in return. And Muhammed Mossadegh, the popularly elected Prime Minister who tried to wrest the oil industry away from the British a half century ago, and was later deposed by a CIA-organized coup in 1953, serves as a popular symbol of the omnipresent influence and bad intentions of the United States. Over the years, often legitimate claims of Western injustice have evolved into an important part of the Iranian national identity.

And it's a part that Ahmadinejad understands all too well. Masood Rohani, an accountant who says he would never consider voting for Ahmadinejad, nonetheless admits that Ahmadinejad "has beautifully sold the nuclear program to the Iranian public." And though he criticizes the government for "giving its money away to Arabs" in Lebanon -- a reference to Iran's presumed support for Hezbollah -- he is pleased to see Iran's increased role in the world. He smirks with delight as he watches a broadcast on state television of Ahmadinejad defiantly responding to questions from the CBS journalist Mike Wallace.

For many, it seems, the desire to see an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is merely an extension of this urge to stand up to the United States and the West. Plus, Iranians consider their country -- with its rich political and cultural history stretching back to ancient times -- to be the natural leader of the Middle East. "Why should Pakistan have the bomb and India have the bomb, and not us," asked an incredulous Ashofteh Tehrani, professor of sociology?

The United Nations Security Council, of course, sees things a bit differently. It has promised to consider punishing Iran, presuming it responds negatively to the EU package, for its intransigence at the end of the month. Arash the taxi driver might advise the West to be careful. "Actually," he says as his drive through the choked streets of Tehran comes to an end, "we already have 10 or 15 bombs." There are no doubt many who wish that were true.