Inside Iran, a Persian paradox
There is a self-assurance in the sentiment here that Iran is not Iraq.
There are civilisations and there are states, but there are few civilisational states, and even fewer civilisational nation-states. India and China represent the latter, and so does Iran which has undergone some remarkable changes in the past quarter century.
A superficial view, especially when things are seen through a Western prism, would conclude that the country continues along a linear extension of the Islamic Revolution. But that stereotype would miss the flashing signs of a society that is successfully reconciling modernity and religion with a government of the people. The apparent paradoxes could be confusing, and hence the need to understand the Persian psyche.
At the root of Iranian concerns are the challenges of economic and social change to ensure that with the rising proportion of youth (70 per cent of the population is expected to be below 28 years of age in a decade), the aspirations of young people are adequately catered for.
Societal changes are taking place in ways that are often difficult to fathom. For example, with over a million young men killed in the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, the majority of the young are women. And this is being smoothly accommodated in various sectors of state and society.
Over 58 per cent of university admissions last year went to women, the presidential office, which used to have less than 10 per cent women on its staff less than a decade ago, already employs double that number. Womens dress code has undergone a subtle change from the earlier monto (similar to the burqa) to designer outfits that still show only the face while suggesting the figure.
And built into the attitudes of the youth is the deep pride in the Iranian-Persian civilisation and history. Bookstores here have now perhaps the most elaborately designed and beautifully printed books on Omar Khayam, Hafiz, Khalil Gibran, and the Sufi poets.
As a senior adviser to the president put it to me when I was there on a recent visit, Iranians want a society with Man, and not God, at the centre. This also produces in the elite a well-defined sense of a unique country all set to pursue pragmatic policies in an increasingly polycentric world. It is comfortable with the contradictions of the world where it sees its own path to its national interests defined in secular rather than religious terms. In concrete terms, it implies an amalgam of Islamic religious culture, Persian civilisation and Western democratic values.
Iranians face the current transitional contradictions, especially in US policies, with sophisticated equanimity. Iran is perceived by Iranians as a glass between two stones Afghanistan and Iraq whose future direction is uncertain, as is the intensity of pressure from US policies.
The sources of security threat to Iran are seen to emerge from Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel, almost in that order, where the Taliban and Pakistan were key factors for the radicalisation of security.
Terrorism is undoubtedly seen as the major threat to peace and stability, and there is unhappiness that Pakistans role in promoting terrorism in the name of religion is almost totally ignored by Washington. But the real problem is that the US is involved in the generation of that threat in each case.
Iranians also see the risks of terrorism rising in the Islamic world, driven by US policies in the region, going back to the 1980s. Iraq is the prime example where, in Iranian eyes, the US has lost all legitimacy, the people are now unwilling to cooperate, and where a traditionally plural society could rapidly regress into fundamentalism.
According to Iranian experts, the Shias (who constitute 65 per cent of the population) in Iraq want their country to be a stable democracy but there is apprehension that such a development would not be acceptable to the US and Israel.
Without any noticeable rancour, Iranians emphasise their cooperation with the US in its war against terrorism and the removal of Saddam Hussein against the backdrop of Iran being termed as part of the axis of evil by the US president.
What Iran seeks is stability in the region to allow it time to sort out its own socio-economic challenges. But peace and stability could be disturbed by the spread of terrorism, the US policy of encirclement and possible military action in the name of counter-proliferation. There is a noticeable self-assurance without bravado in the sentiment that Iran is not Iraq. But how US pressure will shape Irans internal developments is, of course, something only the future will reveal.
The recent build up of the threat of Irans nuclear programme has to be seen in this context. Iranian officials and experts candidly express that there are no difficulties about Irans cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Iran, they assert, has no programme to build nuclear weapons and is not engaged in such activity. They are not willing to say where the traces of enriched uranium on centrifuge cylinders came from, although US and European intelligence sources have clearly identified Pakistan as the supplier.
The IAEA has not found any evidence of a nuclear weapon programme, and Iran seems to be cooperating fully in spite of some past technical inconsistencies. Iran may also not have any problem in signing the additional protocol for expanded safeguards and more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities.
The programme for nuclear energy in an oil-gas rich country (also pursued by USA and USSR), is seen as one of national pride and achievement in science and technology, originated during the Shahs time, a year before the Islamic Revolution, when President Carter had characterised Iran as an island of stability.
The problem may be technical, but the US and Israel seem to be pushing for a confrontationist political approach in the context of a demonising agenda. This in turn is creating problems for the government since it wants Iran to be seen as a responsible state. Outside the government, demands to protect national honour and sovereignty are rising, something most Indians and others would empathise with. Non-proliferation pressure may well achieve the very opposite of what the US and its allies seek, and domestic pressures for withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty may increase. At the minimum, current US policies could be counter-productive. They could strengthen the hardliners, mostly among the older generation, especially the clerics. http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=31620