From Irish Political Review: August 2007
A Visit To Iran
The British Influence
Within two days of arriving in Iran I was struck by the influence of Britain on the country. It was to be one of many surprises. Wherever groups of flags are displayed, such as hotels, they include the Union Flag, though of course not the Stars and Stripes. The UK Embassy is the biggest and most "in-your-face" that I've seen in any country. The compound is about 500m x 500m behind a not very high wall and quite recently built. It has a giant British flag at the front on Ferdowsi Avenue, in the heart of Tehran.
Not on Bobby Sands Street which is a lane at the back. Photography in the vacinity is forbidden. There are only five guards—only one, so far as I could see, is armed. This implies that demonstrations are by permission only and spontaneous ones are not expected.
There is another imposing compound in Sulubrious North Tehran which is used as accommodation but whose main purpose is to act as the base for the British Council. This has got its message, its version of British and Iranian history, into every level of the society beginning with the schools.
The story peddled by the Council and the Embassy is that Britain is a natural friend of both the Iranians and the Arabs and that Blair was an unusual exception and anyway he is going. They can glibly badmouth the Americans and, for some reason the Germans, and distance themselves from them.
The English language papers, The Tehran Times and Iran Daily, give every impression of being produced by English people. An example is a story about the English living in India being referred to as "ex-pats"! Another story objecting to Blair's appointment as some kind of envoy to Palestine said he does not represent the historic pro-Palestinian position of the British. Many articles are supplied by Western agencies such as Reuters.
(By the way I see that Condoleza Rice has denied that Mr. Blair is the Quartet representative to Palestine. She is and says that his role is to help her out in some matters. So there!)
The assumption is that Britain was recently taken in by the Americans with no notion that the British are the ideological force behind everything that the Americans are doing. There seems to be a particular influence on some of the top leaders, especially the very rich Ali Akbar Rafsanjani who the British and the "International Community" hoped and expected would win the last presidential election He was thoroughly beaten by President Ahmadinejad—36% to 61%.
The President and the Supreme Religious leader, Imam Ali Khamenei, seems to be largely immune from British, or any other, influence. But they are fighting a daily battle with their opponents with the President going public in the press alleging, it seems to me reasonably, plots to undermine him.
Rafsanjani is openly lining himself up to replace the ailing head of the Assembly of Experts which has very wide powers, not least of which is the power to remove the Supreme Leader. It is a kind of stronger version of the US Supreme Court.
Rafsanjani is also conducting a public campaign for widespread privatisation. He has toured the universities telling the students that they would be the beneficiaries of privatisation and had a duty to study the subject and then go out and campaign for it. He claims that he is acting in the spirit of Article 4.4 of the Constitution. So I decided to see what that particular Article says:
"The economy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to consist of three sectors: state, cooperative, and private, and is to be based on systematic and sound planning. The state sector is to include all large-scale and mother industries, foreign trade, major minerals, banking, insurance, power generation, dams and large-scale irrigation networks, radio and television, post, telegraph and telephone services, aviation, shipping, roads, railroads and the like; all these will be publicly owned and administered by the State. The cooperative sector is to include cooperative companies and enterprises concerned with production and distribution, in urban and rural areas, in accordance with Islamic criteria. The private sector consists of those activities concerned with agriculture, animal husbandry, industry, trade, and services that supplement the economic activities of the state and cooperative sectors. Ownership in each of these three sectors is protected by the laws of the Islamic Republic, in so far as this ownership is in conformity with the other articles of this chapter, does not go beyond the bounds of Islamic law, contributes to the economic growth and progress of the country, and does not harm society. The [precise] scope of each of these sectors, as well as the regulations and conditions governing their operation, will be specified by law."
Hardly a ringing endorsement of privatisation! Also the question has to be asked: who in Iran has accumulated the money to invest in such enterprises? Rafsanjani is not talking about small businesses. It is street gossip that several in the administration, though Rafsanjani himself was not named, are on wages from the British.
Unlike the Americans they do not usually dole out large sums of money but keep their puppets on a string. That is how they dealt with their Soviet agents and with the large number of Franco's generals who were on the payroll.
On a recent Newsnight programme, a former CIA operative explained that democracy was not only to do with voting but with liberalism. I assume he meant economic as well as social liberalism. In practice it is only economic liberalism that is meant.
It is not as though Iran has a general policy of being nice to countries which are also friendly to America. Not far from the British Embassy is the more modest German Embassy—where photographs are allowed. Directly in front of the building is a large stone monument with pictures of dead and dying victims of poison gas. But dominating the monument is the following inscription:
"In the Name of the Most High
To the Iranian people, the name of the German government is associated with the horrible catastrophe of chemical massacre perpetrated by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime during the war which was imposed on Iran. The German government, then, generously supplied Saddam's regime with chemical weapons and the technology for production of such weapons to slaughter Muslims in Iran and Iraq (Halabeheh). Iranian people who have been continuously witnessing the martyrdom of their beloved sons who had been the victims of such lethal weapons shall never forget the German government's complicity and undeniable role in this atrocious crime."
Everywhere in Iran I came across references to the "Nest Of Spies". This is a reference to the former US Embassy which was seized after the overthrow of the Shah and the "diplomats" held prisoner for over a year. The reason for the seizure was the CIA control room in the basement and the fear that it would be used again to overthrow the new Government.
It is now occupied by a self-styled elite group of protectors of the revolution. They looked to me like a bunch of poseurs and I'm sure are not much depended upon by the Government.
The term Nest of Spies goes back to the overthrow of the Government in 1952. Then the Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, decided to nationalise the oil industry. He was overthrown by the CIA with the aid of dirty tricks, such as bombings blamed on Communists and $5m. That is the official story and it is true as far as it goes.
But the coup was actually thought up and arranged by the British SIS. Britain controlled Iran's oil through the Anglo-Iranian oil company—now that cuddly British company British Petroleum (BP). The plan to overthrow the Government came as a complete surprise to the Americans—who nevertheless went along with it. The coup organiser was one H. Norman Schwarzkopf—father of the leader of the more recent war with Iraq.
Another myth is that this was the beginning of the Shah's rule. The Shah was already in place but ran away when the coup ran into some initial difficulties, just as he ran away when Imam Khomeni returned, And he was in place because the British had overthrown his father,
There is a real Nest of Spies in Tehran. But it is not the former US Embassy. It is Dick Dalton, Matt Gould, Graeme Thomas and their merrie men at 198 Ferdowsi Avenue.
5th July 2007
Fuel Rationing In Iran
The one time I managed to see BBC World in Iran was when the petrol rationing was introduced. The reporter was happily excited to report trouble at some filling stations in Tehran. She explained that the 15 litres a day allowed would not get people to work as the distances were great in that city and there was little in the way of public transport.
This last statement is a lie. Public transport everywhere in Iran is second to none. It is based on the shared taxi system which will be familiar to anyone who has known Belfast over the last thirty years. You stand by the road and within a minute or two a taxi will be going wherever you are going—and all for less than a penny a ride. Taxi petrol allowances are far higher than those of private motorists.
There is also an extensive bus and minibus system. There is a wide rail network, and there is the ever-extending and very efficient Tehran Metro. Air fares between cities are a joke: they're really cheap. I suppose that for the BBC lady the system is so lower class that it might as well not exist.
She also made a fuss about the unfairness of the Government giving only two hours' notice of the introduction of the rationing. The idea had been mooted some time ago but then dropped so that most people believed that it would not happen.
She wasn't the only one to make a fuss. There were, of course, the near-rioters in Tehran with their 20 litre drums. And there were members of Parliament and even members of the Government who said they weren't warned either. They weren't warned because they were bent.
The reason for rationing as opposed to price rises was to avoid inflation and a reduction in living standards, as well as avoiding favouring the rich. If notice had been given, the profiteers with the money would have bought up and hoarded almost every available litre of petrol and sold it at ten times its value to the motorists. Fine for the type of Iranian people that BBC reporters hob nob with. Not so fine for everyone else.
In one go petrol distribution would have moved from the public to the private sector and its price would have soared; to no one's benefit except that of the profiteers.
Why was petrol rationing needed? Iran has a superabundance of oil but it has only a tiny refining capacity, while the Iranians use the cheap oil like water. (There is a general rule that anything that is extensively used by the public is ultra-cheap—petrol, food, transport, cigarettes though frowned upon, accommodation for pilgrims, electricity, telephones, and so on.)
So most refined fuel has to be imported. Apart from the cost and inconvenience of this, it means that petrol is always vulnerable to US sanctions and worse. The Government building new refineries in the present climate is not considered a good idea.
What is being done is to get foreign private companies to build them. Then at least it will be their refineries that get shocked and awed. And, of course, there is the accelerated development of nuclear power. That answers the Western Media's question: why does an oil rich country need nuclear power?
There is also the matter of pollution and health. With every Tom, Dick and Ali driving around all day, Tehran has become one of the smog capitals of the world. And there are 16 million Toms, Dicks and Alis in and around Tehran. The largest mountain in the country looms over Tehran. Mostly it is invisible.
The Chelsea Tractor or SUV problem is not yet great here but I can see them in the showrooms. With the price of petrol here it was an inevitable move by the rich. With petrol rationing they will have to stay where they are 'til they rust. So all in all, and in spite of the BBC, petrol rationing day was a good news day.
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