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Big Martyr replaces cult of Big Brother

Iran in the firing line: Proof hard to find in `terror capital'


Fathi Shkaki has joined the street-name martyrs of Tehran. A decade ago the honour was bestowed on Bobby Sands but now the name of the assassinated leader of Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine has been inscribed above the intersections of one of central Tehran's main highways.

He was murdered by Israeli agents in Malta in October, after he had boasted of his organisation's suicide bombing of more than 20 Israeli soldiers at a bus stop near Tel Aviv. So what, asks the visitor to Tehran, should we conclude from Tehran's latest street name? Support for "terrorism"? Or a harmless throw-back to the Iranian revolution's original support for "freedom-fighters"? I met Shkaki not long before he died and, here in Tehran, I found his face above me, painted on an apartment block. In Tehran, it's not Big Brother who looks down upon you, but Big Martyr.

Iran gave money to the families of Islamic Jihad's "martyrs", he told me. He visited Iran several times but insisted Iran gave little financial assistance to relatives of dead Islamic Jihad members and never paid for military operations.

Which was almost - but not quite - what Ali Akbar Velayati said in the Tehran foreign ministry at the weekend when he told us Iran "has not supported - militarily or financially [sic] - the Hamas or Jihad or any Palestinian groups. Was this a terminological inexactitude or economy with the truth?

How easy it is for America and Israel to bestialise Iran as a dark force bent on destroying the peace process. How could it be, for example, that the Iranian Martyrs' Foundation honoured Yahya Ayyash - the Hamas bomb- maker assassinated by Israeli agents on 5 January and whose murder provoked the latest suicide bombings - by a religious ceremony in Tehran a few weeks ago? But when an Iranian asks why Israeli settlers turned the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, the settler who massacred 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque, into a place of pilgrimage, the answer does not seem so clear- cut. If a single Iranian group is supporting "terrorists" by honouring Ayyash, are Israeli settlers not doing the same thing by honouring Goldstein?

The longer one stays in Tehran - supposedly the capital of "world terrorism" and a focus of Wednesday's US-Israeli-European-Arab summit - the more difficult it is to believe in the scenario espoused by the Israelis, the US State Department, CNN and others, a scenario of which European ambassadors here have grave doubts. It's not that Iran has a clean slate. It is a matter of record that four years ago, Hamas, Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine and all manner of Lebanese kidnappers met in Tehran for a conference supporting the Palestinian intifada. Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Mehdi Kharoubi and the other radical clerics were there. Mr Velayati also turned up and so did the President, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Then, he was in no position to stay away from a such meeting. But today, Mr Mohtashemi and his friends are isolated,unable even to participate in last week's parliamentary elections.

Yet, in reality, this is not a monolithic state: there is no one overriding authority.There is Mr Rafsanjani, trying to improve the lot of women, gain acceptance in the West and break free of Washington's trade embargo. And there are more conservative clerics like Ali-Akbar Nateq Nouri, who favours a more closeted, Saudi-like, repressive but still economically open society. And behind them, within some elements of the security apparatus, are men watching for any sign the country's leaders may betray the revolution, by forgetting allegiance to militant Islam, to the "oppressed", to the martyrology of the Palestinians.

It's the old story of walking a razor blade. Ignore the rubric of the revolution and you are doomed. Maintain the idiom and the world will accuse you of all its sins. Mr Rafsanjani addresses the world's press this morning and will once more have to walk the razor blade.