A little silence, please

I SUPPOSE a round of applause is due to the Iranian president for allowing women to watch soccer matches. Although a small step towards joining the rest of mankind, it was long overdue. But seriously, what do you do when your country is being charged daily of secretly working towards achieving nuclear weapons capability, and threatened with sanctions and possible military action?

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 27 Apr 2006, 10:29 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

When faced with such a scenario, most rational leaders would try and strengthen their country’s defences, rally diplomatic support, and strive for national unity. And what did Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do? He launched a crackdown on women wearing ‘un-Islamic’ dress.

London’s Guardian of 20 April informed us that henceforth, Iranian police will arrest women "failing to conform to the regime’s definition of Islamic morals by wearing loose-fitting hijab, or headscarves, tight jackets and shortened trousers exposing skin." It would appear that women who wear tight jackets or loose-fitting hijab distract those manning Iran’s defences and therefore must be locked up.

And if this doesn’t bring Western imperialists and the Zionist enemy to their senses, President Ahmadinejad has also proposed a bill in parliament to raise the fine for owning a satellite dish antenna from $100 to $ 5,000. Obviously, Iranians cannot be allowed to know what’s happening in the rest of the world.

To make sure the dress code is strictly observed, the government has made taxi drivers responsible for ensuring that their female passengers are suitably attired. The police has been authorised to impound cabs carrying women not conforming to the law. Spearheading this campaign for morality and properly worn hijab is Nader Shariatmaderi, a Teheran city councillor and close ally of the President’s. In his view, young people have been too relaxed in their appearance, and these trends were "damaging the Islamic and revolutionary principles... We are looking for a social utopia but in the last couple of months, our attention has wavered... In the present international situation, people must unite under known principles."

As a final measure to strengthen national unity, the police have been authorised ‘to confront men with outlandish hairstyles and people walking pet dogs’. I’m glad this level of hysteria has not yet reached Pakistan as I confess to having a head of untidy (if thinning) hair, and to walking a pet dog.

When faced with huge problems, politicians in the Third World often shelter behind a cloud of woolly rhetoric and swat at flies while the wolf strolls in through the front door. Iran, despite its enormous oil and gas reserves, is suffering from severe unemployment and poverty. The cause is simple and endemic in developing countries: corruption and mismanagement at every level. But in Iran’s case, the rulers do not have the excuse of not having any natural resources. By all accounts, the mullahs have been fattening their bank accounts while the infrastructure is crumbling.

According to a recent study titled ‘Understanding Iran’ commissioned by a London think-tank called Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), 65 per cent of Iran’s population of 70 million is younger than twenty-five. 900,000 jobs need to be created every year to absorb the population increase, and prevent the rise in the official unemployment rate of 16 per cent. Unofficially, the number of jobless Iranians is put at 20 per cent.

The report goes on to make the point that these statistics carry the seeds of change. Young people are increasingly disenchanted with the theocracy that has ruled Iran with an iron rod since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Despite official disapproval, they log on to the Internet to bypass the tight censorship, and view smuggled DVDs. The day is long over when governments could control all access to foreign influence.

Given time, there is little doubt that common people will force a change in government. But the one thing that would certainly unite them behind the mullahs is an American-led attack on Iranian nuclear installations. The Iranians are a proud people, and their experience with Western powers in the last century has produced an understandable degree of suspicion. But I am sure few Iranians would support their government’s backing for the ongoing drive to recruit suicide bombers.

Ahmadinejad has made it a pastime to boast publicly about Iran’s nuclear programme. And his daily threats directed at Israel have raised the spectre of a unilateral attack against his country. The FPC report makes it clear that such a step would spell disaster for all concerned. Iran would surely retaliate against Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and oil prices would shoot up to well over $100 a barrel.

Alas, political and military decisions are not always made on the basis of logic and rational analysis. After 9/11, the US has openly declared that it will not allow biological or atomic weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists. So when Iran announces that it has embarked on a uranium enrichment programme to generate electricity, nobody takes it at its word. As the country is sitting on 15 per cent of the world’s petroleum reserves, it would be a naïve man who believed such claims.

But Iranians, even those opposed to the mullahs, believe they have every right to own atomic weapons. After all, Iran has Pakistan and India to the east as nuclear neighbours, Russia to the north, and Israel to its west. And in Afghanistan and Iraq, it faces the US. Thus, from Teheran’s perspective, it makes perfect sense to develop a nuclear deterrent.

However, its export of Islamic militancy and its threatening rhetoric makes people jittery about the possibility of a nuclear Teheran making good on Ahmadinejad’s threat to ‘erase Israel from the map’. Instead of adopting a low profile, Iran has been throwing its weight around. It has probably calculated that with the mess in Iraq and steadily rising oil prices, the US will not be foolish enough to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

Unfortunately, banking on good sense in today’s Washington is like betting on a snowstorm in the Sahara. Bush is quite capable of embarking on a popular adventure to shore up his sagging popularity and the Republican Party’s electoral prospects in November. If, as seems increasingly likely, the party loses control of either or both houses of Congress, Bush will be the lamest of lame ducks for the rest of his presidency. In this scenario, a series of ‘surgical strikes’ against Iranian nuclear installations before the elections cannot be ruled out. Indeed, the Guardian of April 20 also carries an article by Timothy Garton Ash in which he projects a future American attack in 2009, and the subsequent Iranian retaliation.

Given this possibility, one would imagine that the dictates of prudence and survival would serve to restrain Iran’s firebrand president. But far too often, politicians like the sound of their own voices too much to allow mundane things like reason curb their tongues. Woody Allen once wrote: "God goes about His business silently. So why can’t mankind shut up?"

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator based in London. He can be reached at irfan.husain@gmail.com

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