Saturday, March 01, 2003

Tehran: Life in the midst Fire

During daytime, Baghdad television that covers southern and western Iran broadcasts footage showing fortifications set up in the streets of the Iraqi capital and people burning American flag to prove their loyalty to the country's dictator, Saddam Hussein. However across the Iranian territory to the East, just a few kilometers away from the watchful eyes of revolutionary guards, one of the most sophisticated military complexes is under construction by the United States, which settled there after the fall of Taliban.

Throughout the region, extending from the European frontiers in Istanbul to Hindu Kush Mountains near China, from cold southern steppes of Russia to hot African deserts, America has a presence that is defined by oil and gas, except in Iran where throughout the past quarter of the century the cry of death to America has been loud. However in both Washington and Tehran, there is a belief that Iran's turn will come after US is finished with Iraq.

In the foot of snow-covered mountains in north of capital, Tehran, a retired professor of history is showing others around him in a coffee shop an article in the Time magazine about the CIA-incited coup against the nationalist prime minister, Dr. Mosaddeq. The magazine says that the coup in August 1953 was the first such action taken by the American intelligence agency after the Second World War. A photograph of the former Shah returning to Iran after the coup decorates the article. Asghar Kashani, who is 74, believes that after half a century nothing has changed. Americans used the threat of communism to justify the coup. They are now using threat of terrorism to launch a military attack on Iraq.

A few meters away, a group of university students carrying bread and cheese and a few textbooks in their knapsacks are talking about a demonstration that is to be held to protest the imprisonment of one of their friends, a student arrested by special forces during another demonstration against the recent death sentence passed on an outspoken university professor, Hashem Aqajari.

In the early hours of the polluted winter morning, middle aged men, wearing sport outfits returning from their mountain climbing, talk about economy while having their breakfast with great crave. On the other side, a group of women, covered from head to toe as a protection against both the cold weather and the revolutionary guards who impose the Islamic dress code, hijab, talk about a play in an arts festival in which for the first time after the Islamic revolution, two actresses appear without the official hijab.

These three age groups have no interest in the daily news about the crisis in Iraq. Most of them think about the reform movement in Iran which started six years ago and has since been struggling hard against the fundamentalist and extremist self-proclaimed defendants of Islamic state.

This is a general description of Iranian society that has tried to keep away from crises in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq for the past fifteen months. But the dilemma the government faces cannot be imagined by the young generation interested in political progress. The current crisis in a region where Muslim fundamentalism is ripe might not give the religious government in Tehran the chance to stay neutral in the midst of fire and continue its slow and exhausting democratic process.

Almost two million Afghans have taken refuge in Iran as the result of the long civil war in their country. Even the end of Taliban era has not lessened their numbers. At the same time Iranian government has been setting up refugee camps near the Iraqi borders to the west for the one million refugees expected in case America attack on Iraq. And this is only one of the sparks of the Middle East fire that might find its way into Iran.

Intensification of Iraqi- American crisis has put foreign policy of Iran in the same difficult position that it found itself during last year's Us-led attack on Afghanistan. After the war against the traditionalist Sunni Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Tehran tried to participate in the celebrations without cheering its great enemy, the United States. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, was the first foreign official to congratulate the new leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. However Iran didn't join the military alliance and continued with its slogan of death to America.

Meanwhile, Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, who was scheduled to visit Tehran a few weeks ago, was forced to cancel his trip after some MPs, who had lost at least a relative in the war with Iraq that raged for eight years, threatened to impeach Mr. Karrazi if Saddam Hussein's representative set foot on Iranian soil. The same MPs advised the government to extend its relations with Europe to bypass the US.

The government's attempt to improve relations with Europe, surrendering to the their demands on human rights is one of the policies adopted to keep the country away from the crises over its borders. Freeing the most prominent dissident cleric, Ayatollah Husseinali Montazeri, from house arrest after five years; the verdict of life sentences and long imprisonments passed by the military court on those secret agents who brutally killed four anti-government activists five years ago; and relative pause in the activity of controversial courts set up to prosecute outspoken journalists, political activists and students defending political reform in the past few years, are all in line with the course of action taken to please Europeans just before the visit to Tehran by EU's high officials.

Iranian television's evening news programs, that these days begin with a few announcement in relation to the anniversary of the Islamic revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, show extensive footage of demonstrations held in Europe in protest to American military plans against Iraq. Anti-American slogans are being magnified, but Tehran is the only capital where young people do not show any interest in protesting against such a military attack.

Most of the streets and alleys in Tehran still carry the names "martyrs", those who were killed in the war that started by Saddam Hussein in 1980. More recently death of a general was announced who had been wounded in an Iraqi chemical attack, living the past twenty years in pain and agony.

Despite all this, the question that occupies the mind of Tehran's politicians and decision- makers is whether after the expected fall of Saddam Hussein, the fire sparked by Islamic fundamentalists on September 11 and have already destroyed Taliban extend to other oil-rich countries with an anti-American position. This is a difficult question that nobody in Tehran seems to have any answer for. Will the Iranian Foreign Minister who is scheduled to visit London next week receive an answer from British government?