Iran's new men offer a path to freedom

The west may be missing a historical opportunity for rapprochement with Tehran, writes Robert Fisk
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President Mohamed Khatami's new government - approved in its entirety by the "majlis" (parliament) in Tehran on Wednesday offers an unprecedented moment for the West to come to terms with the nation which overthrew the Shah and destroyed American prestige in the Middle East almost two decades ago. But already Washington seems set on destroying the chances of a rapprochement.

The initial US reaction to the new administration in Tehran was as predictable as it was misjudged. The US would open a dialogue, according to the State Department, if Iran would discuss nuclear weapons, "terrorism" and the "peace process".

Since Iran will no more talk about its nuclear weapons (if any) than Israel, and since the American definition of "terrorism" is somewhat different to Iran's, and because Iran regards the "peace process" as dead, this was as good as slamming the door on any relationship between Washington and Tehran.

In the Iranian capital, serious men are trying to democratise the Islamic republic and to give their people both intellectual and physical freedom: an end to censorship, to unjust imprisonment and secret executions, an end to dictatorial clerical rule and seventh century punishments.

When I met Ayatollah Mohajerani last year, he spoke at length about the need for unity in Iran, but showed himself well-read in Western literature and politics. Now he is the powerful new minister of culture and Islamic guidance, a department whose name he may well choose to alter, but which has the ability to allow Iranian newspapers and television some real freedom of expression.

Ali Fallahian, the intelligence minister who was named by a German court in April as organising the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, has been sacked, to be replaced by another student of the West, Qorbanali Dori Najafabadi. Mr Najafabadi may not be the happiest choice for the job. But could there be a more obvious symbol than Mr Fallahian's dismissal of Mr Khatami's desire to distance himself from Iran's war against armed opponents of the regime? Europe's ambassadors, who were withdrawn after the German court verdict, will not flock back to Tehran within days. But they may reflect that the country they eventually return to has been changed utterly by the elections of 23 May.

It would be pleasant if Tehran would address the West's immediate concerns: the role of the Iranian secret service in overseas assassinations, the "fatwa" against Salman Rushdie, its support for those who not only oppose the Arab-Israeli "peace process" but do so with bombs.

But President Khatami was elected by 69 per cent of Iran's voters to give his people freedom from the dictatorial rule of clerics whose literal- minded interpretation of the Koran made a mockery of Islamic freedoms (and women's rights), and to open up the economy - not to turn Iran into an American satellite.

Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister, has always favoured intellectual "dialogue" with the US. But this does not mean that Iran wishes to support US policy in the Middle East, least of all Washington's uncritical support for Israel. The new government may wish to engage in talks with the US about the region's future, as it already does with the Arab Gulf states; it is not, however, going to withdraw its support for the Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon so that Israel's occupation of the south of the country is made easier.

After almost 20 years of bestialisation of Iran those Americans who visit Iran invariably find themselves faced with a contradiction. The nation boasts what is arguably the most democratic - or least undemocratic - parliament in the Middle East. Women are forced to wear the "chador", but they can drive cars, take senior jobs in the civil service and work alongside men - something which is not vouchsafed to women in America's much loved ally, Saudi Arabia. Tehran magazines now publish interviews with - and sometimes by - American academics.

The new government is burdened with a history it might wish to forget. It is not easy to make amends without damaging the memory of the man who remains beyond criticism in Iran: Ayatollah Khomeini.

Ironically, the only gesture towards the new government in Tehran has come from the one nation it will not recognise: Israel. Within hours of the Khatami government's confirmation, Israel pulled an anti-Iranian television station off its satellite transmissions, thus preventing the most violent of Tehran's enemies from inciting their countrymen to violence on the screen. The West, meanwhile, continues to support those who wish to overthrow the Iranian government by violent means.