Waking up to the new man in Tehran

Iran is changing, says Robert Fisk, and the West should take note
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The Independent Online
"Welcome to the new Iran," the petrol station attendant shouted when our taxi topped up yesterday morning. And who could blame the bearded, beaming man as he poured petrol into our battered Paykan?

The new president of the Islamic republic is an Ayatollah with a Website, a cleric who believes that Iranians should recognise the good as well as the bad about its Western enemies, a BA in philosophy and an MA in education as well as a sayed - a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.

Sixty-nine per cent of the 29.1 million votes cast in Friday's election went to Ayatollah Mohammed Khatemi, a man who was once accused of being soft on the West. The conservative parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq- Nouri, a strong pre-election favourite to win, received just 25 per cent. With 33 million Iranians entitled to vote, turnout was an impressive 88 per cent..

But before the West starts crowing about the country's change of heart, it is important to realise what will not alter in the near future: there will be no end to Iran's war against its violent opponents abroad, no desire to re-establish relations with the United States, no end to the claim for Iranian funds frozen by Washington at the time of the revolution and no withdrawal of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Nor has Ayatollah Khatemi been elected to destroy the fruits of Ayatollah Khomeini's victory over the Shah. In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Mr Khatemi was appointed director of the powerful Kayhan press group - only to be dismissed from his later job as Minister of Islamic Guidance by Mr Nateq-Nouri, the man he has just defeated.

It is to his credit that the journalist and former diplomat Eric Rouleau was among the first to spot the sea change that Mr Khatemi could bring about inside Iran. "Iranians have ended up putting into question the godfathers of the regime, if not the regime itself," he wrote last week. That is pushing the envelope of reality a bit far, but the Iran which Mr Khatemi inherits is not the revolutionary junta which overthrew the Shah, whose cities were thronged with millions demanding "death to America".

Tehran today is afflicted with those twin commercial evils of the outside world, the shopping mall and the mobile telephone, and even the massed poor of south Tehran are prepared to see if Mr Khatemi can alleviate their plight.

But it was Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign minister, who stated very clearly that there would be no change in Iran's relations with the West - unless the West first changed its policies towards Iran. While Washington is still locked into the belief that Iran's mission is world Islamic revolution, it is a fact that Iran's foreign policy is infinitely more involved in the future of its nearest Muslim neighbours. Horror at the Sunni Wahhabi (and pro-Saudi) Taliban victories in Afghanistan is offset by intense efforts to end civil unrest in Tajikistan and secure passage for Azerbaijan's oil - as well, of course, as strengthening Iran's influence in the former Soviet Muslim republics.

So if Iranians can expect a more liberal, tolerant regime - Mr Khatemi won much popular support by demanding freedom of expression - what can the West expect? Certainly a more reflective government, which will be keener to respond in measured terms to the West's criticism and suspicion. Although most Iranian leaders have travelled abroad, Mr Khatemi lived in Germany as Imam of the Hamburg mosque in 1977. No German journalists received visas to cover the elections, but Mr Khatemi is likely to look long and hard at the breakdown in relations between his country and Germany following the Berlin court decision to blame the supreme leader of the republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, for the murder of the regime's opponents.

His victory will not please those exiled opponents, many of whom receive US and Iraqi support. His enemies will be within as well as outside the regime. The Qom clerics who have defined every facet of life of post-revolutionary Iran will not give up their power and privileges at the drop of an electoral hat.

Will Mr Khatemi be able to establish viable political parties in Iran, strong enough to make the regime's violent opponents irrelevant? And how much freedom will he give them? It will probably take two years before we discover the answer, but in the meantime Iran will have changed for ever. The real question is whether the West will understand that.