The A-Z of World Politics #I: Iran

by Jackie_South on November 24, 2013

File:Flag of Iran.svgOur round-the-world alphabetical trip brings us to the letter I.

The Iranian Revolution was the first revolution I was aware of as it happened. As a nine year old, there was plenty I did not understand at the time but it did leave some powerful impressions: of a corrupt regime, crumbling as some of the world’s most massive demonstrations took to the streets (dwarfing anything in the Arab Spring: in December 1978 a fifth of the entire population demonstrated against the Shah’s regime).

Then, the rise to power of the Ayatollah – treated as a messiah by the crowds but seeming distinctly sinister and scary to the young Jackie. That got worse when they took the staff of the American embassy hostage. With the benefit of hindsight, this was probably the time I first started to question the certainties of religion as I witnessed faith seeming to send a nation to fervent madness.

Later, I learned that the revolution could have taken different paths: many of the revolutionaries of 1978-79 Iran were of the same  leftie variety that I would meet as a teenager and at university. Understanding how their revolution ended up somewhere that many of its own participants did not want and, in many cases, were indeed victims of, taught me the danger of revolution and made me a confirmed believer in a Parliamentary route to socialism.

Iran was the irrational, fanatical state to be feared. That fear of this Islamist state only heightened when the aging Ayatollah Khomeini issued his lethal fatwa against Salman Rushdie. None of this improved when the deeply anti-Semitic, and frankly bonkers, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to two terms, started a nuclear programme and denied Israel’s right to exist.

So, the Iranian Revolution has been important in both shaping my political outlook and my atheism and, for as long as I have known of its existence, Iran has been a nation that has worried me.

But, things have changed. In June, the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president. He announced a willingness to seek a thawing of relations with the West and negotiate over the nuclear programme.

This ought to have been somewhere we had got to a dozen years ago, shortly after those planes flew into the World Trade Centre. After all, Al Qaeda and the other radical Sunni Islamist terrorist groups are no more friends to Iran than they are of us. Radical Sunni Muslims even deny that Shi’ites are Muslims at all. In the turmoil of Iraq, those radicals sent car bombs into Shia areas. But the sabre-rattling of both Bush and Ahmadinejad prevented any kind of rapprochement. Whilst Tony Blair could bring Colonel Gadaffi, of all people, out of pariah status, one of the few democratic states in the Middle East (albeit in a highly compromised theocratic framework) remained beyond the pale.

And now, there is also Syria. Whatever the sins of Assad (which we have railed against frequently), we now have a situation where the main actors are Al Qaeda-alikes on one hand and Syrian minorities on the other, most prominently Shi’ites and Christians. That does not put Iran and the West on the same page, but it does blur the boundaries unless the West is really willing to stand by and let the country’s Sunni majority exercise genocide.

So, the current negotiations between the West and Iran present a historic opportunity. Iran has no less right to develop a peaceful nuclear power programme than we do – what is important is that there are safeguards to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms.  Finding a way to build bridges with Iran is critical to finding solutions to the many problems of the Middle East, not least because it is the region’s second-most populous nation (after dangerously unstable Egypt).

After almost 35 years of fear, it is time for us to rethink our relationship with Iran. We can only hope that John Kerry and William Hague grasp the opportunity this weekend.

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