Love the revolution, shame about reality

Iran's public enemy number one is no longer Salman Rushdie or even that 'Great Satan', America. Now the battle is with inflation and corruption. Robert Fisk reports

The revolution's over. You only have to look at the street graffiti. "Death to America - Death to Rising Prices", one double-edged slogan in Tehran proclaims. We all know about America, but "rising prices" is a code for President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the man the people blame for inflation and the collapse of the Iranian riyal, and - the word is on everyone's lips - for corruption.

Two months ago, Ahmed Khomeini, the Imam's only surviving son, wrote a long article in Omid newspaper, castigating those who, behind the shield of the Islamic Republic, had stooped to venality, taking money from the poor to give to the rich. Then Omid was shut down. And now Ahmed lies beneath a slab of marble covered in black cloth, in his father's shrine south of Tehran, dead of a mysterious "heart attack" within six days of his published assault.

Did he die of natural causes or was he murdered? Most certainly the former, but the fact that thousands believe otherwise - cyanide poisoning is the favourite rumour - tells you a lot about Iran 16 years after the revolution. In the April riots over price rises, the mobs accused Mr Rafsanjani of killing Ahmed Khomeini.

Perhaps it was inevitable; it is even tempting to blame the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. For it was when the millions of Iranian volunteers returned from their war with Iraq in 1988, after eight years of blood and fire, that the illusions were stripped away. They came backto find that their country - far from a land fit for heroes - was to be a place of unemployment and economic collapse.

The Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, the very backbone of Iran's war effort, the men who led the suicide attacks, discovered that the centres of power had been touched by graft and profiteering.

They blamed Mohsen Rafiqdoost, their own former minister - whose Foundation of the Oppressed now controls millions of dollars of foreign investment and whose brother, Morteza, is charged with involvement in the embezzlement of $70m from the Iranian Bank Saderat. And they blamed Mr Rafsanjani himself, who is, they point out, president of the Supreme Council of Free Trade Zones, Iran's highly profitable trading bases in Qeshm and Kish, where the government-imposed rate of 3,000 riyals to the dollar doesn't exist.

In Tehran over the past few months, Revolutionary Guard leaders have met to discuss the cycle of kickbacks and commissions which, they say, now drives the regime. These men, irrational though their demands for "purity" may appear in the West, are clean; and for this same reason, they are angry.

"You wouldn't believe how furious these guys are," one of their associates said. "One of their commanders is a guy who'd wipe out half of Tehran to destroy corruption. These are tough men - and they're getting more and more upset." The government has tried to buy off this anger, offering Revolutionary Guard veterans shares in newly nationalised industries, jobs in the civil service and the conventional military forces; a pasdar officer is now commander of the navy.

But for the vast majority, there are no rewards. A student in a Tehran University arts department expresses their views bleakly: "We were told to capture Najaf and Karbala and we didn't make it. We lost so many lives. But when we came back after the war, we saw the people who had made money while we suffered. We sacrificed ourselves, but nothing happened when we returned.Now we blame these people for our misery."

It is all a long way from the distorted, obsessive view of Iran peddled back in Washington, where President Bill Clinton's speeches to Israeli lobby groups - in which he has portrayed the Islamic Republic as a "terrorist rogue state" - have been obediently supported by almost all the New York columnists. Naively dividing the Iranian theocracy into "hawks" and "doves", they do not realise that Iran's greatest enemy is its own mafia - and that the mafia's survival may depend on the continued hostility of the United States. European Union ambassadors in Tehran now visibly lose their temper when describing the latest Clinton diatribes. "Mistake number one, he treated Iran like a Third World country - which it's not," one of them said last week. "Mistake number two was to push this stuff at the Jewish lobby; the Israelis want to screw Iran and destroy the Hezbollah so they can have an easier time in Lebanon. But what kind of US president makes foreign policy for a lobby group? Mistake number three - where's the real evidence for the charges that Iran wants to possess nuclear weapons?"

The Russians say publicly that there is no such proof. The Americans claim secret nuclear research is being carried out by Tehran's Sherif University and ask why Iran would want nuclear power stations when it has massive oil and natural gas reserves.

Dr Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Foreign Minister, responds in kind. "Making nuclear weapons is not a process you can hide," he told the Independent last week. "Hans Blix [head of the International Atomic Energy Agency] has been here several times. He and his assistants went everywhere. They went to the Sherif University, where they train in nuclear energy. They inspected there and at Tehran University and at Bushehr [site of an unfinished, war-damaged power station].

"There are other countries which use nuclear energy even though they have oil and gas - the United States and Russia. Is there any mention in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, that any country with oil or gas reserves should be deprived of nuclear energy? We have increased our petrochemical products about 10 times since before the revolution - this is in our national interest - and our oil is going to finish, maybe in 30 years. Who is the threat to this region, Iran which has signed the NPT and which is open to inspection? Or Israel, which has not signed the NPT, which is not open to inspection and which has around 200 nuclear bombs?"

The "terrorist" charges in Mr Clinton's anti-Iran electioneering are more difficult for the Iranians to refute. They can claim - correctly - that armed opponents of their regime receive succour in Western countries. But it is a fact that the Iranian who assassinated a Kurdish official in Vienna last year now holds a responsible job in a state concern in Tehran; that one of the gunmen who originally tried to kill the Shah's last prime minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar, has a house in Tehran; that a channel exists in Iran for its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to approve of the liquidation of the regime's opponents without the conventional government of Mr Rafsanjani even being informed.

Yet America's own dirty tricks department muddies the waters even here. How dare Iran threaten the security of the United States, Washington asks? Yet it is less than two months since the CIA publicly asked the US Congress for $19m to destabilise Iraq and curb Iran's supposed expansionist ambitions. According to CIA officers quoted in the New York Times, much of this money "is intended to finance secret programmes to sabotage or to gather intelligence about dangerous weapons programmes or purchases, terrorist groups and activities and drug trafficking". Is it any wonder, then, that the Iranians suspect American involvement when a bomb goes off in Mashhad - as it did last year - or in Tehran?

Washington has taken no interest in the fact that Iranians are now freer to speak their mind than they have ever been since the revolution. Indeed, Mr Clinton's apparent hatred for Iran is blamed by many in Tehran for the survival of their regime. Once more, it seems, the government has a foreign enemy to unite the population behind them at a time when the internal power struggle is about money rather than ideology.

Why is the family of one powerful man in the government apparently in charge of the importation of South Korean cars, they ask. Why is another family figure involved in the construction of the Tehran metro? Why did a popular and uncorrupt general in the armed forces die last year when his aircraft mysteriously suffered a failure in all four engines near Esfahan? These are the questions people ask in the streets of Tehran, where the name of Salman Rushdie now invites weariness rather than anger.

Indeed, it is a sign of the times that a joke now doing the rounds of Tehran can break more than a few taboos while mocking the plight of the country. President Rafsanjani, it goes, is so worried about the collapse of the Iranian economy that he decides to telephone the Ayatollah Khomeini in Heaven for advice. But when he gets through to Heaven, God tells him that Khomeini is in another place. Mr Rafsanjani phones Hell, finds the Imam and chats to him for two hours about the state of the nation.

Three weeks later, the phone bill arrives: $100 for the one minute call to Heaven, $10 for the two-hour call to Hell. Mr Rafsanjani calls the post office to query the bill. "Why so much for a short call to Heaven and so little for a long call to Hell?" he asks. "Simple," replies the Iranian post office accountant. "Heaven was an international call. Hell is local."

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