Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ordinary Iranians fearful as Prospect of International Sanctions Looms Closer

Kasra Naji, The Times Online:
The middle-aged housewife lugging her food shopping in a white plastic bag had a lot to say about her worries for her three grown-up children living here. With the fighting over in Lebanon, many here fear the world’s attention may now focus on Tehran — and that international sanctions will be imposed if Iran does not suspend its nuclear research programme by the end of the month.

Like many people here I am worried,” said the woman. “Sanctions cannot be a good thing. Just look at how the people in North Korea are living.”

The woman would not give her name for fear of persecution, even though what she said would not normally be rated as subversive by the authorities.

Just look at how prices have gone up in the past eight months,” she said looking at her shopping bag of bread, milk, yoghurt, olive oil and vegetables.

Imagine how far up the prices would go once sanctions are imposed. I am really worried for my children.” READ MORE

Yet at the same time she could see why Iran was searching for alternative sources of energy. “Even today there are some parts of the country which, under the scorching 50 degrees heat, are facing power cuts,” she said, reflecting Iran’s argument that its nuclear programme is aimed at making not bombs but electricity.

Across the road in a middle-class area of central Tehran, a young graduate student was even more worried.

Sanctions mean isolation,” said the student of metallurgy who preferred not to give his name, “just like what happened in Iraq before, and in North Korea now.”

He said Iran had managed to build a consensus in the world against itself by its rhetoric.

I think we have to do everything to avoid sanctions even if it means suspending our uranium enrichment activities,” he said.

The UN resolution was approved after five permanent members of the security council and Germany lost patience with the Iranian government. Iran had been offered a package of incentives to abandon its pursuit of nuclear energy — but had failed to respond.

Now as a showdown looms, the fears and concerns of ordinary Iranians on the streets are largely absent from the official media; newspapers are all the mouthpieces of factions within the Islamic establishment.

Journalists say that Iran’s supreme national security council has put out an order censoring any item that might be seen to weaken the resolve of the nation as a whole, or needlessly create anxiety. As a result there is no dissenting voice on the issue even from the opposition reformists.

“Don’t worry too much about the sanctions,” the council’s chief, Ali Larijani, told reporters this week. “They won’t happen, and if they do, sanctions will harm those who impose them more.”

Access to other sources of news was curtailed this week when the police began raiding rooftops in Tehran to remove satellite dishes.

Watching satellite television has been illegal as it is seen as the conveyor of decadent western culture. But the ban had not been enforced for a few years and the new campaign has angered many among the 1.5m owners of satellite receivers in Iran who had been drawn to BBC, CNN and others.

Hardline Iranian leaders say that sanctions will not cause Iran many more problems than there are already as Iran has been under US sanctions for many years. They say that Iran will be able to weather a new round of sanctions just like it did during a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s under most stringent western sanctions.

The war in Lebanon has emboldened Iranian leaders who see the outcome as a victory for Hezbollah, which they helped to create in the 1980s.

Posters of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, have appeared all over Tehran and other big cities as the face of the new hero of the Islamic republic.

“Your victory is the victory of Islam,” said Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a message to Nasrallah. “It shattered the myth of the Zionist army’s invincibility.”

While they have been celebrating Hezbollah’s “victory”, the Iranians also suspect the fighting may have been a dress rehearsal for an attack by US or Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities.

One senior cleric reminded Israel this week that Iran’s Shahab-3 missile has a range of 2,000km, considerably longer than those owned by Hezbollah. The Iranian army has also begun a series of military manoeuvres throughout the country “to show off Iran’s military power to the enemies”.

The celebrations are also being marked by the opening of an international exhibition in Tehran of cartoons mocking the Holocaust — which, according to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a myth. The cartoons were solicited by a newspaper here on its website to counter what it calls “western taboos about the Holocaust”.

The exhibition is aimed at questioning the right of Israel to exist. So does Ahmadinejad — he has called for it to be wiped off the map. No wonder ordinary Iranians, as they go about their shopping, are quietly fearful of the future.