Iran - Will there be a thaw?        February 2014

In a region that recently has produced virtually nothing but bad news, the 4th August 2013 swearing in of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope. Voter turnout was not high, 70%, and the expectancy that a "moderate" would be elected president was definitevly lower, especially given Rouhani's criticism over the country's trajectory under his predecessor Ahmadinejad. Political infighting among the conservatives resulted in several competing candidates, while a reformist candidate withdrew in favour for Rouhani, can also be seen as an explanation for Rouhani's victory, besides the voters will for change.

So far he has lived up to his promises of "change" - well, given the maneouverability the president of Iran has. Supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say and unprecedented power. The Supreme leader controls all security functions and has shown his willingness to use it in the most brutal ways, one reason the masses celebrating Rouhani's victory chanted "Thank You, dictator" on the streets after Rouhani's election victory.

                                           Iranian girl drinking beer at a café, non-alcoholic, of course.                                                          Snow in Teheran

Ahmadinejad had a confrontational style, to say the least, towards the West, embarrasing for most cultivated Iranians. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, among others and his running of the country was a disaster: sanctions imposed, an economy in tatters - and isolation. Rouhani's style is quite the opposite, given his background as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator which resulted in Irans - so far - only agreement with the West. Already after his swearing in, Rouhani sent conciliatory messages to the West and his openness for dialogue did produce the November 2013 temporary agreement in Geneva, whis has to be fully settled within a six-month time frame.

             Paintings of the wall of the former US Embassy, Teheran. Now called "US Den of Espionage". Here the 1953 CIA coup was plotted and later the hostage crises occured.

But questions arise over this new stance. Clearly, something needs to be done in Iran. Unemployment is massive, official figures is 23%, inflation is about the same, standard of living has fallen and people are forced to have several jobs, all low-paid. Salaries for teachers are not enough to cover even half the costs for an apartment in Teheran. Millions of well-educated youth have left the country, taking the authorities stance "if you don't like our Islamic state, just leave" by the words. State-owned corporations, without any tax burden, outcompete private companies, corruption and businesses owned by shadowy "religious foundations" are also factors that do not contribute to a thriving market.

Feel like shopping some hevy-duty valves?

The priesthood has the right to get the 10% zakat all righteous muslims are supposed to pay and that means fortunes under their control. Of course some of this has to be passed over to the Revolutionary Guard and other security functions for them to be loyal.

Khomeini's arrival in January 1979, descending the Air France jumbojet, allegedly paid for by the BBC. Khamenie waves.

. And Iran's young population will not forever tolerate to live under internet censorship, risk arrest and torture by the ubiqous security forces or plain-cloth secret police. Iran will implode if nothing is done, if the economy is not revived and that means easing of the sanctions. The recent willingness to dialogue can well be seen only as a way to preserve the Islamic state.

Patrolling the streets outside of the old Bazaar.

The Geneva temporary agreement resulted in Iran's commitment to enrich uranium only lower than 5% and in return the European Union and USA have eased parts of the crippling sanctions. But don't expect that Iran, in further negotiations that will start Feb 18th, will give up on it's peaceful nuclear program. That is the bottom line that neither Rouhani, nor Khamenei or the Iranian population will thread under. The question is just to give full access to the IAEA inspectors so that the outside world can be fully confident that Iran is not producing any nuclear weapons on it's own

But even that can probably be seen as an insult. Try to see it from another perspective, the Iranian one.

Falafel stand and Teheran subway, the Red line.

Iran has a more than 6000 year old history and was a cultivated empire well before we crawled out of our caves in Europe.

The Marble Throne and a portal at Golestan Palace, Teheran

A winter garden and tiles at Golestan Palace, Teheran

Then later on dominated by Western powers, Great Britan, who more or less ruthlessly stole the worth's of the country. The struggle to control it's own oil resulted in a coup 1953 where a democratically elected government was crushed. The western imposed ruler, the second Shah, even though he tried to modernize the country like the first Shah, selled out Iran's oil for underprize, mismanaged the little that was paid and brutally crushed all opposition. The West was just happy about that.

The Parade Grounds and exterior of the Foreign Ministry, Teheran.

I can fullII can fully understand the anti-west sentiments that raged the streets in 1978-79 and Khomeini's total distrust and distaste towards the USA, but the outcome of the Islamic Revolution didn't result in much good in the long run for the Iranians, as we all know.

Access to the BBC home page or Facebook? Forget that.

Still, Iran has a 80 million population, a huge land area, strategically locatedaround the Persian Gulf (of course..) and - not just for it's culture and history - should not be treated like a pharia. The resulting isolation is a product from both sides and the view that Iran has no right to a peaceful nuclear program because it will automatically produce weapons, is not productive. One can look at the neighbours: Pakistan is more or less a failed state and Israel, created in blood, with some leaders more than happy in subdueing the Palestinians in all ways, both have nuclear weapons, even though the latter does not admit that. Still Israel enjoys all support and no demands are raised for control of it's weapons arsenal.

Teheran in February, 2014

So, how to move on from here? Clearly, raising the question of reciprocity between Iran and Israel when it comes to possession of nuclear weapons, will obviously lead nowhere. As well as demanding from Iran a more civilized behaviour against it's own population, like stop executions and release political prisoners etc. But a total lifting of sanctions against a total inspection of Iran's nuclear program will mean much for stability in the long run.

But be sure there will be hurdles along the way.


Teheran street scenes.

The Swedish Foreign minister Carl Bildt's visit to Iran was one of the first, a signal of support for the new openness of Iran's government under Rouhani. Other visits have preceeded him, and others will follow.

Press conference foreign ministers Bildt and Zarif, 4th February 2014.

The outmost goal of the Iranian regime is of course to survive. A total regime change will instantly lead to life-long imprisonments for the ruling elite, in the best case. Other possibilities can include fragmentisation and internal conflicts that can escalate into a "Syrian scenario". But it is in the interest of the conservatives to produce an environment in which the growing young population can find work and decent lives, and a somewhat degree of freedom, otherwise will surely uncontrolled unrest follow. But we should not take for granted that all Iranians immediately will abandon the "religious council" - Velayat e-Fakhri - or that all women will be happy to thow away their veils. Iran is much different from what we think and we have to play according to that.

Whatever, the best option for the West is to try to positively engage Iran in all areas where there is a mutual interest. There are such in Syria as well as Afghanistan, where both parties can gain from stability in those countries instead of trying to fight proxy wars. An easing, or lifting of sanctions will mean much for integration of Iran into the world, stimulate our economies and lead to more contacts and understanding between us. For this to happen means we have to see our actions- past and present - from Iran's perspective, and Iran from ours. A restart, hopefully.

The gold exchange, Teheran


© Lennart Berggren / Axiom Film     February 2014


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