TEHRAN – “Nuclear power is our right,” the boys go. And the black-clad girls immediately sing along: “Independence and freedom is the belief of our people!” It sounds great in Persian, flowing “like a poem”, comments a smiling observer. This – how to call it, an Islamic revolutionary rap? – goes on for a while. The show is live, under the blazing sun, at three in the afternoon in the most crowded area in central Tehran, a literal traffic-stopper. And it happens to be right in front of the French Embassy.
And there are some banners too. “Recognition of our peaceful nuclear technology – an obligation of the IAEA”. “NPT – We will leave you soon”. These are references to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory.
Then there is the perennial “Down with the USA”. The nuclear rap fades out, and two speakers take over, amid a solid diplomatic police presence. It’s a simple operation – roughly 200 people plus a truck customized with loudspeakers. The boys and girls are of course segregated – boys ahead, girls behind the truck, all wearing full-length black chadors, some brandishing photos of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
One speaker reads a concise story of neo-colonial exploitation – saying essentially that rich countries now oppress developing countries not directly, with their physical presence, but by preventing them from becoming technology-savvy. Another speaker makes it clear: “No negotiations on Isfahan” – a reference to the uranium conversion plant in historic Isfahan that transforms yellowcake – concentrated uranium – into gas, then introduces it into the centrifuges of the Natanz plant, 100 kilometers north of Isfahan. Iran recently resumed its uranium conversion after suspending activities while negotiating with the EU-3 – Britain, Germany and France – over its nuclear program. Tehran says that it has the right under the NPT to develop nuclear technology for energy purposes. The US suspects that Iran wants to develop the bomb.
The speaker goes on: “We are not afraid of sanctions,” as has been threatened if Iran’s case is taken to the UN Security Council. Then comes the chant, very loud: “Death to the evil governments of France, Germany and England!” Unless he’s using earplugs, the French ambassador is not having a proper nap today. Suddenly it’s time to move. The boys, the truck and the black-clad girls start marching, singing their song under the blazing sun along the conveniently blocked streets toward the German and British embassies, which happen to be only a few minutes away. Repeat of the whole operation. In one hour and a half it’s all over, and central Tehran resumes its own, polluted, hyper-congested self.
The man in charge of all this is Ibrahim Motavalian, a soft-spoken surgeon, who crucially happens to be in charge of all university bassijis in Tehran. The bassijis are everywhere – in the Revolutionary Guard, among students, workers, office employees. They have all carried at least one week of military training. And they all respond to Khamenei. Their motto, inscribed beside their logo, says it all: “The 20 million army”.
Motavalian says that the message today is that “we have the right to develop nuclear technology by ourselves.” He emphasizes the moment is important, “The University of Tehran is closed, because of the summer holidays, and you see the students here.” He is unfazed that the demonstration might not go down very well in Europe. “We are protesting against the French Foreign Ministry, which said that Iran should abandon fuel enrichment, and buy enriched uranium from Europe. Nuclear technology is our right.” If the nuclear negotiations with the EU-3 collapse, and sanctions are imposed, “we will monopolize the media”. He believes this could be the beginning of a true, nationalist, popular movement.
The Iranian population is extremely well informed about the nuances of the current nuclear impasse between the EU-3 and Iran – certainly more informed than Europeans or Americans. Every night on prime time on government-owned Channel Three there’s a 15 minute-program, a kind of crash course on the nuclear fuel cycle, where everyone learns the difference between water and heavy water, the meaning of yellowcake and what centrifuges do.
But this is the first coordinated demonstration in front of the embassies of the three EU countries involved – after roughly 4,000 people demonstrated last week in both Isfahan and Natanz, threatening to build human chains if sanctions are applied or if Washington entertains plans of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.
Why this demonstration right now, running the risk of alienating public opinion in France, Germany and Britain at the same time? Cynics say it’s because of the ongoing debate in the majlis (parliament) on the cabinet nominees appointed by new President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The televised morning debates are making it plain to most Iranians that many of the candidates are not up to the job, and practically none have managerial experience. According to the majlis energy committee chairman, Kamal Daneshyar, no fewer than 10 of the proposed ministers are seriously running the risk of being rejected by parliament: in this case Ahmadinejad will have to propose alternative candidates. Officials at the Ministry of Culture say at least the proposed ministers of education, health and oil will be vetoed.
Whichever way one looks, this is already a setback for Ahmadinejad. So this demonstration comes in handy, diverting public attention from what’s happening in parliament. Nevertheless, the all-important nuclear issue simply won’t go away. Soon the boys and girls will be back in the streets singing their nuclear rap. Not to mention the rest of the “20 million army”.