News Date: Monday 3rd July 2006

Tim reports on his trip to Iran

To begin to understand Iran it is necessary to have an appreciation of the importance of the three 'Ms' - martyrs, mullahs and the MKO. Exponents of the Henry Ford maxim that 'history is bunk' need not apply, for this is a country proud of its past, keen to go back to basics and never shy of using its re-interpretation of past events to parry any hint of criticism.

Thus forewarned, six MPs headed to Tehran as part of the first IPU delegation to Iran in thirty years. Our reception was warm, the climate hotter, the itinerary blistering. It soon became clear that the meetings with ministers, parliamentarians and academics were all to follow a similar pattern. We had a checklist of issues that we wanted to raise with the Iranians - human rights and the persecution of the Baha'is; the President's inflammatory comments about the Holocaust; terrorism and of course the nuclear impasse. Yet our hosts all countered with a remarkably uniform checklist of their own, and it usually turned out to be all Britain's fault.

The exchanges went something like this. Iran opposes all terrorism but reserves the right to rename the British Embassy address as Bobby Sands Street, and daily sings the praises of Hamas. Meanwhile Britain is apparently behind recent terrorist bombings in Ahwaz though our motives could not be specified. Most sensitive of all is our alleged failure to condemn the terrorist group, the MKO, and their alleged front organisation the National Council for the Resistance of Iran who have gained access to MPs and MEPs recently. In reality Britain of course added the MKO to the list of proscribed organisations, though recent contact between parliamentarians and the NCRI has hit a particularly raw nerve.

The Bahais are not persecuted, simply a modern fangled sect that does not merit recognition as an established religion and besides don't we discriminate against them in Europe? Meanwhile Iran's Foreign Minister has issued a statement to the European Union calling for action to tackle human rights abuses in European countries, not least in the east end of London where apparently we shoot Muslims at random. And why do we never condemn the Israelis for atrocities in Palestine? Our excellent new ambassador Geoffrey Adams offered to furnish them with a full list of all the condemnatory statements issued by HMG. Next subject?

After a 45 minute diatribe from the Deputy Foreign Minister, the quietly minatory Said Jalili, justifying the President's call for a conference to question the Holocaust because so many in Europe were raising doubts, it was clear that we were on a tough assignment. Sticking to areas of common concern like the heroin trade which transits Iran and has created over 4 million home-grown addicts, was safer ground.

Flatteringly it is the British who are the real bogeymen in Iran. The Americans are seen as mere clumsy cowboys whilst it is us who are the masterminds behind everything anti- Iranian. We have form after all, having backed the coup that toppled the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and returned the pro oil -multinational Shah to power in 1953. It could have been yesterday and it could have been our delegation that masterminded it. Fortunately, we narrowly escaped being fingered for Alexander the Great's torching of Darius's capital at Perseplois back in 331 B.C.!

The truth is that the Iranian administration desperately needs bogeymen. At the moment it lacks both friends and real enemies. Unsurprisingly the country feels isolated. To the east lie a western backed administration in Afghanistan and a pro-western military government in Pakistan. To the north and north-east are former Soviet states increasingly looking towards NATO, and Turkey which is a member in its own right and to whom many moderate Iranian Azeris gravitate. And to the west is of course the allied occupied Iraq which at least during the Saddam years united Iranians in hatred of a despot who used chemical weapons with impunity against Iranian civilians.

The eight year long Iran Iraq war in the 1980's, when the West stood by and supplied the military arms is seen as a particularly low point in relations, and with some justification. Buildings in Tehran are covered in murals honouring the martyrs who have died in defence of the Islamic Republic. In the old capital Isfahan we visited the Rose Garden of the Martyrs Cemetery to pay our respects. Row upon row of pictures of war victims, young and old, pay testament to the toll that Iraqi chemical weapons took and are still taking, as it can take years for the effects of the chemical attacks to manifest themselves. The cult of the martyr looms heavily in so many aspects of Iranian society and it suits the regime to let the people remember.

Added to this the economy is decidedly precarious. Despite the oil boom, production is down a third on pre-revolution levels and $5 billion worth of petrol is imported and sold at just 10 cents a litre. Far from being reinvested into expansion the oil revenues are supporting heavy subsidies of staple products, inflation is rife but incalculable and unemployment is probably double the official figure of 12.4%.With 26% of the population under the age of 15, looking forward to the 21st century and not back to the middle ages, these economic handcuffs surely cannot be sustained indefinitely.

But the third 'M' is to remember who actually runs the country. The parliamentarians of the Majles we met are after all only members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Legislation can be vetoed by the Guardian Council made up of six mullahs and six lawyers. The Council also has the power to veto candidates to the Majles, which it did mercilessly ahead of the 2004 elections when 2500 of the 8200 candidates were barred from standing, including more than 80 of the 290 sitting MPs. Such power the NEC can only dream of!

Ultimately of course the country is a theocracy with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responsible for appointing the heads of the judiciary, military and media. It was on his watch that the hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad who celebrated a year in office last week, was plucked from obscurity, son of a blacksmith and former ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran. And he of course has form, as a founding member of the student union that took over the US embassy in 1979 leading to a 444 day stand-off. His contemporaries and 'students in crime' now occupy many key positions in government and don't take kindly to having their inalienable right to acquire nuclear technology questioned by outsiders.

Iran does not need nuclear power and it probably cannot afford it. Yet reassurances that the ayatollahs have declared a fatwa against nuclear weapons and all WMD inspire little trust in the west given the current state of relations. I have no doubt that the issue is all about posturing and it suits Ahmadi-Nejad to have a new sabre to rattle ahead of the ranks of militant and loyal Iranians. The challenge to us is not to give him any grounds to sharpen the blade and to accommodate an honourable compromise.

Sitting in the dining room at the British Residence in Tehran, around the table from which Churchill dined with Roosevelt and Stalin to plan the final stages of the war in 1943, one can only be intoxicated by the importance of this country's rich history. Ahmadi-Nejad has described Iran as 'a history making nation.' Too often that history is used as an excuse for failure to make progress in the future. We would do well to pursue the wise but firm diplomacy of the players at the Tehran Conference in 1943 rather than emulate the headstrong Alexander of Macedon and risk making history repeat itself with flames over Persepolis for a second time.

Tim Loughton MP

Tim Loughton MP , 2006

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