“And if you are angry with us, then all I can tell you is to keep angry and die from this anger.”
– Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, March 14
TEHRAN – What was an open secret is now official: the Bush administration is after regime change in Iran – or “resistance to the theocracy”, as some elegantly put it. So how does the theocracy in question feel about it?
They don’t care.
News of the “regime change” optionSee Inside the US’s regime-change school, Asia Times Online, March 14. came only a few days after US President George W Bush had declared Iran “a grave national security concern” – prompting Iranian clerics in their Friday mass prayers to denounce Bush’s use of the nuclear issue as a weapon of regime change.
Hamid Reza-Asafi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, a calm and ponderous man not devoid of a sense of humor, has had to perform quite a few somersaults these past few days.
Informally, businessmen living in north Tehran – its “Upper East Side” filled with condos and satellite dishes, somewhat Westernized and boasting a stream of underground parties soaked in good scotch – swear it does not matter what the ministry says: the ultimate arbiter on the nuclear row – and many other rows – is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Anyway, it’s up to the Foreign Ministry to convey the Iranian position to global public opinion.
But something is not quite right. The press conferences at the crowded, cramped, rectangular room in the ministry building in downtown Tehran are basically an Iranian affair. They are always delivered in Farsi – and subject to misunderstanding when translated. The Western foreign media are virtually absent, apart from British Broadcasting Corp, Reuters and Associated Press cameras and microphones.
There’s no concerted effort to try to convey the Iranian point of view to public opinion in America and Europe, even now, as Iran’s case sits with the United Nations Security Council, waiting to see what action the council will take.
Iranians always refer to their nuclear stance as “logical” – and to the US and European stance as “illogical”. But suggestions that the Iranian point of view and its multi-layered argument be delivered in a daily press conference, in English, directed to global public opinion, are brushed aside.
Asafi does the best he can. Even an official at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said that “the situation changes all the time, and very few people know what really is being negotiated”.
On Sunday, Asefi said that negotiations with Russia over a possible compromise on Iran’s nuclear program, that Iran be allowed to conduct limited research and uranium-enriching activities on its own soil, had come to a dead end.
But a fresh round started on Monday. Then on Wednesday Asefi said that Iran was (again) talking to everyone, the Russians and the Europeans. That evening it emerged, via Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hossein Entezami, that Iranian-Russian negotiations in Moscow had been “successful” – but no details were provided.
As for the Europeans, Asefi would not name which countries were talking to Iran. A Western diplomat from one of the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain – the three countries involved in earlier negotiations with Iran) in Tehran says it’s most definitely Germany, as relations with Britain and France have considerably soured the past few months.
The secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezaei, confirmed that the Iranians were having close talks with the Germans. He said he had met with the German ambassador in Tehran, Baron Paul von Maltzahn, and they had agreed that the nuclear issue must be solved within the International Atomic Energy Agency, and not the Security Council.
There’s a possibility Italy is also involved, as the Italians, who want to invest heavily in Iran, had always complained they were not included in the EU-3 negotiating team.
With the US “regime change” program now fully on the table, the official rhetoric is more than ever in sync. Ahmadinejad, currently touring his country to adoring crowds – it’s the chador-clad women who do the screaming – said that “the technology to produce nuclear fuel today is in the hands of the youth of this land and no power can take it back from us”.
Practically in tune, Energy Minister Parviz Fattah announced that Iran would start building its first indigenous nuclear power plant in the next six months. This is part and parcel of the Iranian leadership’s argument that the country needs nuclear power to generate electricity; its current fuel resources are not up to the task.
Finance Minister Davoud Danesh-Jaafari said, “I’m not worried about sanctions. It is unlikely that the Europeans decide on sanctions against us, but even if that is the case, it would rather harm them.” According to the minister, Iran has put aside almost US$20 billion from its Oil Stabilization Fund in case it has to face sanctions imposed by the UN, or countries acting unilaterally.
He complains that up to eight international financial institutions – including the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), Credit Suisse and ABN Amro – have been restricting Iran’s dollar transactions. Nobody in Tehran can actually evaluate the amount of Iran’s foreign holdings; the figure goes from a minimum of $25 billion to as much as $600 billion, which would be held mostly by the Iranian diaspora.
The most important point was inevitably made by Khamenei, who said the civil nuclear program was “irreversible”. There will be no retreat; that would mean “breaking the country’s independence”. To drive the point not home but abroad, Khamenei summoned all Iranian ambassadors across the world for a special briefing.
When the Supreme Leader says that “the use of nuclear technology is a national obligation and demand”, everyone listens. Lily Sadeghi, a BBC producer, said the response varied from region to region, and between peasants and urban intellectuals.
“But when you go to the countryside, they just repeat ‘we need nuclear power’ like a slogan. They are not aware of the implications or the consequences. The government does not explain it to them. So yes, the nuclear program is popular, but very few people know what it actually means,” said Sadeghi.
In this sense, the US strategy of trying to “separate the [Iranian] people from the regime” seems doomed to failure. Nationalist fervor regarding Iran’s nuclear rights is at a peak – and cannily manipulated by the government.
Moreover, even the average Iranian is an avid analyst of Iraq’s political situation. For many, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying, “We do not have a problem with the Iranian people; we want the Iranian people to be free”, reeks of the 2002 mantra, “We do not have a problem with the Iraqi people.”
Iranians know how the “Iraqi people”, jobless, insecure to death and without water or electricity, are mired in a sorry wasteland three years after the US-led invasion.
By proclaiming the nuclear program “irreversible”, the Supreme Leader might be thought to be referring to the Islamic Republic’s regime as well.