The Iranian political football is passed to the adults

Democracy in Tehran
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The Independent Online
As the world's Muslim leaders flew into Tehran last night for today's Islamic summit, they could see beneath their aircraft the great golden-domed shrine of the Imam Khomeini. Visible under the arc lights over a 20-mile radius, it has been built to last for ever, an eternal memorial and place of pilgrimage to the man who created the world's first modern theocracy. But the aircraft making their final approach to Mehrabad airport over the shrine are carrying the presidents and princes of a world which has no more interest in the export of the Islamic revolution - Khomeini's creation - than the new government in Tehran.

For at the conference today, the hard men of the Iranian revolution - the Revolutionary Guards and the morally zealous komittees - will have no status. Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Hizbollah and the other armed Islamist groups whom Tehran has supported, will have no representation. And despite all the promises to "liberate" Jerusalem from a nation - Israel - which Iran pledges never to accept, the Arab-Israeli crisis will be left to the Arabs to resolve. The truth is that Iran is far more interested in securing the friendship of its neighbours, in securing a lasting ceasefire in Afghanistan, in trade relations with the former Soviet Muslim republics and the Arab nations of the Gulf which Washington has for so long tried to line up against Iran.

True, Iran is happy to see the Arabs turning upon Turkey, whose new "security zone" in northern Iraq - every bit as oppressive an occupation regime as the Israeli version in southern Lebanon - constitutes a strategic threat to Iran itself. Turkey's military alliance with Israel - which allows Israeli fighter-aircraft access to Turkish airspace - means that for the first time ever Israeli jets can now fly along Iran's far north-western border. Iraq, whose 1980 invasion of Iran cost one and a half million lives in an eight-year war, has sent its foreign minister to Tehran where - grateful to Iran for its stand against Turkey - he is busy negotiating deals to exchange thousands of secretly held prisoners captured in the 1980-88 war.

Iran has just released 496 Iraqi soldiers held since the war. Iraq - which previously claimed it held only one Iranian pilot - now admits to having another 64, which it is ready to free. Iraq wants another 18,000 prisoners allegedly in Iranian hands. Iran is demanding 1,114 POWs still in Iraq. But the negotiations have begun and Iraq is even suggesting that it may close down the camps of the Iranian opposition outside Baghdad, which are still funded by the CIA.

The conference itself contains some typical contradictions. Iran has agreed to disagree over the compromises made by Egypt, the PLO and Jordan - which it regards as nothing less than their recognition of an Israel that Iran still calls the "Zionist enemy". Conference officials, as the Tehran newspaper Kayhan delicately put it, "emphasised the continuation of the compromise trend with Israel", while Iran insisted on "the total abolition of the Qods [Jerusalem] occupying regime".

And Iran's request for a Muslim human rights resolution is not going to condemn Saudi Arabia's vicious "Islamic" punishments, nor Yassir Arafat's brutal secret police, nor Iraq's mass executions, nor torture in Algeria - the bloodbath there, we are wearily told, remains the country's "internal affair". And delegates, who are being invited to visit Iran's stunningly beautiful shrines at Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashad, are not going to be offered conducted tours of the notorious Evin prison in north Tehran. Discussion of human rights abuses will centre, needless to say, on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. In other words, Iran is acting very much like other states in the region. As Yassir Arafat, who hasn't been here in 15 years, and Crown Prince Adullah and the emirs of the Gulf arrived last night, they must have been asking themselves one question: what happened to the revolution?

It was, in reality, Khomeini's child. The Ayatollah wanted to cleanse Iran of the Shah's corruption and so he invented a dream: a pure and perfect society, humble only unto God, whose obedience was supposedly both innocent and childlike. And that, in a sense, was what Iran became - a nation of children. Through the system of velayet-e-faqih, Khomeini created a Supreme Leader, a kind of spiritual headmaster, never to be crossed or criticised or questioned. In the classroom of the streets, the "children" were taught simple chants containing supposedly ultimate truths: Death to America, Death to England. As at school, girls and boys were strictly divided; women became "sisters". Friends who did not always support the "children" became instant enemies. This was not childlike - this was childish, sometimes dangerously so. Foreign nations that dared to criticise the innocence of Khomeini's children were - naturally - devilish, evil, Satanic. Those who sought to overthrow this infants' paradise had to be liquidated. And thus Ayatollah Khomeini did not just recreate "innocence" - he juvenilised a society. There was obviously no place in the classroom library for books that suggested the teachers were wrong.

Now that society is growing up. Clerics and intellectuals are at last daring to question the divine right of Ayatollahs. President Khatami won in what was - horror of horrors for Washington - a fair election. Even the "children" of the villages who sent their sons to martyrdom in the war against Iraq ignored the 300,000 mullahs who naturally supported Ali- Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the candidate of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the current Supreme Leader. True, Khamanei has created a semi-parallel structure of government; the old foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, has become the Leader's "senior adviser in international affairs", ex-president Rafsanjani now leads an "expediency council". But Khatami retains the support of the people - the children matured - and the tens of thousands who gathered in the streets to celebrate Iran's football victory last week were sending him a simple message: remember us. It was people power - not Islamic tracts - that secured the 1979 revolution.

It will take time for this enormous transformation - in its way as titanic a change as the revolution - to sink in. Khatami is as yet far from honouring all his promises on human rights. The courts are weighed down by anti- feminist judgments, the morality police still cruise the streets, the satellite dish is still illegal.

Nor should we forget that tragedy stalks the good in Iran. If President Khatami does create pluralism, his will be the only democratic nation in the Muslim Middle East. And we in the West prefer tyrants. We like our Muslim kings and generals because they do what we want - and are punished if they break the rules. Does Washington, for example, really want a de- bestialised Shiite Muslim nation, democratic - at least by Middle East standards - and powerful and rich as well as anti-Israeli? It is difficult to see how the US and its Israeli friends could tolerate such a state, which is why - when the US turns against Khatami - it will be proof that he has won his battle. Even the Americans, however, will be unable to deny that the first hairline cracks have appeared on the polished marble of the Imam's tomb.