Adrian Hamilton: Stop telling the Middle East what to do

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So now we know. Iran, a nation, according to the President of the United States, "held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people...sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon - and that must come to an end". It is, says George Bush, "defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons".

Nor is Iran alone in the President's list of the lectured. The "leaders of Hamas must recognise Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace, the Egyptians should "open paths of peaceful opposition", while Saudi Arabia has to press forward with its efforts at reform.

Note the word "must". For more than a century, the West has interfered in the Middle East, always telling it what it "must" do, and never listening to what its peoples had to say. And now we're at it again, with Bush - the man who told the Iranians in their last elections not to vote - now berating the people whom those countries have voted in as if they were wayward adolescents to be hauled into line.

Supported, it has to be said, by our own Jack Straw, who yesterday declared how right the US President was and that Iran must not only accept the West's demand that it stop uranium enrichment but that it "ends its support for organisations they say are freedom fighters which frankly are terrorist organisations". The West can finance and advise the successful Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, but woe betide Iran if it shows any support for the Hamas movement in Palestine.

When are we going to stop telling the Middle East what to do? These are politicians, after all, who were around when the Shah fell, know all about Suez and have seen the disasters of post-invasion Iraq. Yet still they go on like this. Iraq is partly at the centre of it. The worse things have got there, the more the US, with Britain trotting along behind, has had to find outside influences to blame and new enemies to keep its domestic audiences in fear.

In the American case, too, there is bad history as far as Iran is concerned. It's not just the siege of the US embassy and the humiliations of the failed rescue attempt that still rankle in Washington, it is that the whole religious revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini challenged American assumptions and understanding in ways with which it has never come to terms.

Iran is not a happy country nor a "nice" one in Western political terms. Anyone concerned about the welfare of its people should want the regime to change, if not its form then its practice. But Iran is not "held hostage by a small clerical elite" as Bush would have it. That is entirely to misunderstand the situation there. Its theocratic structure produces a particularly complex, and ambiguous, political structure in which there are no clear lines of hierarchical power - rather a series of shifting and competing groups, in which the democratic part is important but not always paramount. That may be hard for America, with its commander-in-chief structure, to understand, but it is real and, in its own way, as pluralistic as many Western democracies. Just as Washington overestimated the importance of Iraqi exiles in its invasion plans, so it is in danger of doing the same with Iran (and Syria) today.

Nor is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president, the simple tool of the clerical establishment of Straw and Bush's mythology. Just the opposite. A well-educated technocrat, he is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, forged at the time when Iran could look for nothing but indifference from a West which was happy to see Iraq and Iran slug it out with more than a million casualties.

A man from a poor background (his father was a blacksmith), he was never the candidate of the conservative clergy (who wanted Ali Larijani, the man now put in charge of nuclear negotiations in deliberate exclusion of Ahmadinejad). He came through as the "clean" candidate, the voice of the ordinary people excluded from the economic growth of the country and fed up with the corruption they saw at the centre.

If it is ever to understand the Middle East of today, the West needs to understand Ahmadinejad's popularity and the electoral success of Hamas. They are more than just anti-corruption upsurges - although revulsion against corruption is now becoming the most important single factor in revolutionary politics in the Third World. They represent a desire, and not just in the Middle East, of a new generation that wants to take their own destiny in their hands, that feels humiliated by being the constant victims of Western policy and laissez-faire economics.

Western warnings of sanctions or the withdrawal of aid will merely produce the opposite effect of what is intended. Bush's pathetic attempt to appeal over the heads of the regimes to their people won't help either. Whatever feelings Iranians may have about their own regime, they are solidly behind a policy of gaining nuclear technology to put them on a par with the West. However mixed may be the motives of Palestinians in voting for Hamas, few of them feel that recognising Israel will do them any good until and unless Israel agrees to give up the occupied territories.

The election of Ahmadinejad and Hamas are not flashes in the pan, they are the genuine voices of popular feeling. You may fear what their inexperience might bring for their own people. But you might also hope it is through them that the Middle East regains some of the sense of self-worth that is needed if we are ever to see peace and stability in the region, in spite of the West withits "musts" and "or elses".