By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 08/09/06):
Ruhollah Khomeini’s house stands at the end of a narrow alleyway in Jamaran, a hot and dusty village assimilated in recent years into Tehran’s northern suburbs. At the entrance, a soldier in a tatty uniform stands lugubrious guard – a photo of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah in Lebanon, stuck to the glass pane of his sentry box. Beyond the gated compound, the Alborz mountains rise dry and overbearing, a bit like the old man himself.
Ayatollah Khomeini – leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, founder of the Islamic Republic, and self-appointed scourge of the west – moved to Jamaran from the religious capital of Qom in 1980 on his doctors’ advice. Here he lived in what was said to be exemplary simplicity until his death in 1989, preaching at an adjoining mosque and occupying a modest set of rooms that still contain a couch, a Qur’an and a very large mirror.
It was from this house on the hill in Jamaran that the imam defied the western powers that had manipulated Persian politics for nearly 200 years. It was from here that he directed the eight-year war against Iraq and its US and European backers, a war that threatened to strangle the revolution at birth. It was from here that he developed his ideas of an Islamic socialism raising up the poorest in society. And it was here that Khomeini enacted his novel theory of velayat-e faqih, a theocracy with democratic underpinnings protected by the guardianship and ethical guidance of the clergy.
Jamaran these days is a spiritual and ideological reference point for the most devout among Iran’s Shia faithful. And Khomeini’s stern legacy provides the key to understanding one of the most prominent among them – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current president, former Basij militiaman, and the new bogeyman-in-chief of the Bush administration.
Since his election just over a year ago, Ahmadinejad has striven to revive the stricter standards of the revolution that he believes were compromised after Khomeini’s death. He has put hardline supporters and clerics in dozens of key government, state-sector and diplomatic posts, purged liberals and secularists from teaching jobs, and put a mullah in charge of Iran’s oldest university.
Reformist parties that dominated the Majlis (parliament) during the middle-of-the-road presidency of Mohammad Khatami are now reduced to a largely impotent rump. Fundamentalist allies control most of the main organs of state. And despite speculation to the contrary, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who tipped the vote in Ahmadinejad’s favour last year, remains firmly behind him.
Ahmadinejad is also emerging as a confident and skilful leader in his own right. During a series of public rallies in Ardabil province last month, he communicated easily and directly with exuberant crowds. Western caricatures portraying him as a “messianic dictator” or “mad mullah” are patently absurd. While his views on Israel and the Holocaust outrage many in the US and Europe, to many in Iran and the Arab world they seem unexceptional. Some observers in Tehran say that by articulating them so uncompromisingly he has actually enhanced his popularity.
But Ahmadinejad is far from invulnerable. By some estimates, only 15% of Iranian voters actively support his form of fundamentalist thinking and the religious parties that promote it. Secularisation of society is proceeding apace in the cities. His executive powers are limited, constitutionally and by the coalition of interests that comprises his government.
For most Iranians the most pressing issues are economic, and in this area Ahmadinejad has yet to deliver on his campaign promises. One embarrassing example is the fact that Iran, Opec’s second-largest oil producer, has been considering petrol rationing this autumn due to a shortage of refining capacity.
Yet Ahmadinejad’s main political resource is not Khomeini’s controversial legacy. Neither is it his personal faith or his common touch. It is the strongly felt, growing sense of national pride found among Iranians at all levels of society.
Every Iranian knows of the machinations of Russia, France and especially Britain that kept Persia in a state of quasi-colonial subjugation for almost two centuries. In fact Britain – “the Old Fox” – is blamed to this day for most of Iran’s external difficulties. Most see hostile US government attitudes since the revolution as a continuation of that victimisation. And the vast majority view attempts to halt or stymie the country’s nuclear programmes as merely symptomatic of unchanging western “imperialist” or “hegemonistic” tendencies.
Ahmadinejad has successfully harnessed the Iranian people’s nationalist passion to the nuclear issue – in many ways an unintended gift from his most powerful enemy, George Bush. His seductive message is that, at long last, Iran is strong enough to reject the demands of the great powers that have for so long bedevilled and warped its nationhood.
The president used another present from Washington – Israel’s war on Lebanon – to tap into the same rich vein of national and religious chauvinism. Wherever he went in Ardabil, the flags of Hizbullah, Iran’s creation, flew alongside those of Palestine and Iran. In his speeches he lambasted the “triangle of evil” (the US, Britain and Israel) that sought to subjugate all Muslim countries.
The US’s complaints about Iranian meddling in Iraq, its claims that Tehran is sponsoring terrorism, its sanctions and insulting talk of “Islamic fascists”, its attempts at democracy promotion in the Middle East – all are used by Ahmadinejad to burnish the image of a brave, exemplary developing country standing up to a bullying superpower.
Viewed from inside Iran, the idea that Ahmadinejad’s government will bow to western insistence that it suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as a precondition for resumed multilateral negotiations seems unrealistic. But at the same time, from this perspective, Iranian hints of significant concessions on its nuclear activities if negotiations resume look more credible.
For Ahmadinejad and the heirs to Khomeini, the nuclear issue is about much more than nuclear bombs. It is about national pride. It is about western recognition of the legitimacy of the revolution. It is about the wrongs of the past and the aspirations of the future. It is about respect. Their message is clear: the problem is not so very complicated, they say, and neither is the solution. Sooner or later, the US, Britain and the rest will have to stop demonising Iran – and start dealing with it on equal terms.