Ayatollahs bring back the old enemy

Iran/ war of words
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HE WAS a businessman - let us call him Hossein - who likes America and was educated in the United States, but he was shaking in anger, his right fist banging into the palm of his left hand. "You know, I think Clinton is even more stupid than Carter - doesn't he realise that his damned economic sanctions are going to hurt us more than they will hurt the regime? Our mullahs love this - they need it - because they can prove again that Iran's real enemy is Washington."

The man lifted his coffee cup but returned it to its saucer, his words more explosive than his need to drink. "The regime here wants to recapture its popularity and blame the Americans for the economic mess. Clinton wants to be re-elected - so we have to pay the price for both of them."

And it's true, President Rafsanjani and his fellow ministers are back on the international airways and satellite channels, their prayer leaders predicting a Soviet-style fragmentation of the United States, their technocrats - especially the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, Reza Amrollahi - insisting that Iran has no nuclear programme for the next 10 years save for the completion of the Bushehr power plants and the erection of two nuclear reactors with Chinese help. The Americans have broken the free market exchange of the riyal, Iranians are told, so no wonder prices have risen; an equation only broken by those who remember that the 100 per cent rise in the price of meat began a year ago.

Not that anyone in Tehran is going to hear about the latter on the television channels upon which the Ayatollahs Hajatolislams are now happy to appear. The ban on satellite dishes has effectively deprived most Iranians of overseas programmes for at least a month; and if only one per cent of the population actually enjoyed the privilege of watching BBC World Television or CNN - the statistic is the government's - their absence has cut off one of those lungs through which the Tehran middle classes felt they could breathe.

President Rafsanjani is said to have opposed the restrictions, arguing that Iranians were too mature to be influenced by Western news values. Indeed, much of the foreign news film shown on the Iranian state television service is in fact stolen from the very satellites which the public are no longer able to tap, and then edited for internal consumption - you can still see the BBC and CNN logos at the top of the screen during Iranian news broadcasts.

Music and entertainment channels appear to have been the target of the mullahs' fear and suspicion and, since you cannot separate "good" satellites from "bad", they all had to be dismantled. Instead of free choice, the public has therefore to turn to Iranian television which this week was reverting to its old diet of war movies, feature films about the Iran/Iraq war, many of them using veterans re-enacting their roles on the battlefields on which they once fought.

Some of the films, which use captured Iraqi tanks and far too much ammunition, are made with some skill; last week's main feature, The Scent of a Flower, told the story of a rural schoolteacher near Isfahan who suddenly discovers that one of his pupils is the son of a war-time comrade who dies in his arms. A new cinema production on the war is currently being shot in Kerman, its producer a war-time doctor and its weapons and extras supplied by the Revolutionary Guard corps.

But like the British and Soviet films produced after the Second World War with ex-soldiers in the starring roles, their appearance acts as a nostalgic if bloody distraction rather than a focus for the future of a nation. Even the Tehran Museum of Modern Art has largely abandoned war art; its only current reference to the Iran-Iraq campaign is a sculpture by Ibrahim Maqbeli entitled Halabja the Bombardment, a block of brown twisted stone that evokes the gas clouds which envelop the Kurdish town under Saddam Hussein's air raids. "The effect of the war on art has been broken," one of the museum staff explained. "Our artists don't want to repeat their old things now."

But as the pressures again mount against Iran, it will be difficult for the country to avoid a return to the cloying introspection which marked the immediate post-war years. Some of the old slogans against the West are reappearing on the walls. But predicting the collapse of the United States is about as sensible as returning Iran to pariah status in the run-up to an American presidential election.