Tehran tries to come in from the cold

'Titanic' is a video hit and newspapers look to Hollywood, but old ways die hard, writes Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online

IN TEHRAN, the authorities have allowed a video screening of Titanic. It's not difficult to see why.Westerners dying because they trusted their own technology to protect them from the forces of nature is atheme to warm the heart of any revolutionary who believes God (in this case, presumably the iceberg) willpunish hubris.

IN TEHRAN, the authorities have allowed a video screening of Titanic. It's not difficult to see why.Westerners dying because they trusted their own technology to protect them from the forces of nature is atheme to warm the heart of any revolutionary who believes God (in this case, presumably the iceberg) willpunish hubris.

But it is more than that. Teenage women in Tehran now carry tiny pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio in theirwallets, the American film star - playing the fictional Jack Dawson - being one of the Titanic's martyrs.

Even the government newspaper Iran was moved to carry a full-page story on the ship's sinking,headlined "The Greatest Maritime Tragedy of the Century".

True, the Titanic's fate embraces a lot of revolutionary Iran's favourite obsessions: mass death,self-sacrifice, the collapse of Western self- confidence and the corruption of wealth. Kate Winslet's fiancein the film employs a butler who spies on her and DiCaprio - like the Iranian morals police. And when thebutler loses sight of them, they drink alcohol and make love. What a message for an Iranian audience.

But bootleg copies of the movie, illegally videotaped in cinemas, are now flooding the black market. AndIran's own film industry is blossoming. One of the stars of the Cannes festival was Samira Makhmalbaf,who plays the heroine of The Apple, an Iranian movie recording the story of two sisters whose motherwas blind and whose father - fearful that they would be corrupted by the outside world - kept them in acage until neighbours released them. What is more, their story is true.

Three of four years ago, such cinema-viewing would be inconceivable. So would the advent of a real,competitive, aggressive afternoon newspaper. But the new Jamiyah (Society) - circulation higher than130,000 - campaigns for human rights, covers sport and Hollywood, and has even asked PresidentClinton for an interview. It has talked to former White House man Geoffrey Kemp on Iran (Mr Kemp isconservative to the point of dullness) and to the Iranian journalist Faraj Sarkuhi following his release fromprison after being charged with denigrating the government.

When the Mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Kharbashi - a friend of President Mohamed Khatami - wasjailed for corruption, Jamiyah cartooned the unfortunate civic leader chained to a flower-pot - an allusionto his dramatic creation of public parks and flower-beds in central Tehran.

Mr Kharbashi is secretary-general in the new Servants of Construction party, which has been set up as apolitical platform for Mr Khatami in an obvious attempt to provide democratic credentials to all those whooppose the conservative "Supreme Leader", Ali Khamenei. In the new party can be found the governor ofthe Iranian Central Bank, Mohsen Nourbakhsh, the bright and liberal Islamic Guidance minister, AtaollahMohajerani, and Faizah Hashemi, daughter of the former president.

The new party was set up on the first anniversary of the election of the highly educated, German-speakingand even humorous Mohamed Khatami as president. The Servants of Construction mouth the samecomfortable policies as Mr Khatami; civil society and "transparent" politics - the latter a clear insult to thehighly untransparent politics of Ayatollah Khamenei and his supporters.

But the Supreme Leader has not lost his power. When Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, a supporter of MrKhatami, called a demonstration to show support for him at Friday prayers last week in Isfahan, wherethe unfortunate prelate is under house arrest, Ayatollah Khamenei denounced the protest as a conspiracy"by US arrogance and its Zionist elements." Mr Khatami's attempts to secure improved relations withWashington resulted in an exchange of wrestling teams; the Americans were welcomed as friends inTehran - the Iranian team arrived in the United States to be photographed and finger- printed likecriminals.

Old habits die hard. The Americans are prepared to talk to Iran if it abandons "terrorism" - a reference tothe killing of Iranian dissidents abroad and Tehran's support for the Hizbollah guerrillas fighting Israelioccupation forces in Lebanon. Last week, Iran issued its own four conditions for talking to Washington:an end to American "interference" in Iran and the return of Iranian assets frozen when the Shah wasoverthrown, a halt to support of opponents of the Tehran regime and to accusations of "terrorism",because "America itself supports terrorism, including Israeli state terrorism."

Although Europe appears to have softened the Helms-Burton sanctions against foreign companies doingbusiness with Iran, the US Senate has imposed a sanctions Bill against firms which sell militarytechnology to Iran, claiming Russia is advancing an Iranian missile programme. Moscow says it is merelycompleting a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power station at Bushehr - "no secrets, no hidden agreements,"according to President Yeltsin's spokesman.

An Iranian delegation led by Gholamreza Aghazadeh was in Russia last week to discuss delays in theBushehr construction, which Ukraine refused to honour; Mr Aghazadeh is likely to visit Peking nextmonth to discuss nuclear co-operation with China. American suspicions will not have been softened bythe theft in Isfahan of a truck carrying parts from the Bushehr plant.

At the same time, Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian Foreign Minister, has been visiting the Arab Gulf tocontinue building relations between Tehran and the kings and emirs of Britain's former protectorates.

Iran's claim to three islands in the United Arab Emirates - in dispute since the early 1970s and memorablycalled Abu Moussa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs - continues to stifle trust between Arabs andIranians. Iranian mediation in Afghanistan has meanwhile failed to unite two factions opposed to the"Black Taliban" Islamic militia supported by Saudi Arabia.

The 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires - for which the Argentines fingered anIranian diplomat called Mohsen Rabbani - has led to the recall of most of Argentina's diplomats in Tehranand a demand from Buenos Aires that Iran reduces its embassy in Argentina to a single envoy."Baseless," Mr Kharrazi responded to the claims, which were, he said, "based on the antagonisticpatterns of the ... propaganda machinery of the Zionist regime".

Routine rhetoric, perhaps, but not particularly upsetting to the people of Tehran who, amid theirKharbashi-installed public gardens and new shopping malls and cinemas, care little about accusations ofterrorism or even about Salman Rushdie. The economy - which is quite another story - will perhaps bePresident Khatami's greatest challenge; some call it, too, a Titanic.But Iran itself shows every sign ofbecoming - horror of horrors for the United States - a normal country.