Inside Iran

IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made a major overture to the US by writing to President Bush proposing ‘new’ solutions to international problems. This could pave the way to a defusion of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities — if the West stops making knee-jerk responses and overcomes its reluctance to engage Iran seriously.

By Praful Bidwai

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sat 13 May 2006, 10:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

Iran faces a US Security Council resolution asking it to suspend uranium enrichment. If the motion is passed, Iran could consider walking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That would greatly aggravate the crisis. If Russia and China, which oppose the resolution, hold firm, and the West pursues diplomacy, there might be a solution.

What does the situation look like from Teheran, from where I write this? Here, people go about their business normally. There are no anti-US demonstrations, nor celebrations of Iran’s claimed nuclear prowess. In fact, the Iranian establishment seems to want an honourable compromise with the West. It’s following a two-track strategy. At one level, it’s defiant on enrichment. At the other, it’s quietly sending out signals that Iran wants a peaceful resolution of the issue.

This assessment is confirmed by many strategic experts. Professor Nasser Hadian-Jazy of Teheran University says: "Most Iranian policy makers believe that the gap between what Teheran wants and what Western pragmatists will concede on the nuclear issue is not unbridgeable. They want to avoid a confrontation".

There is a strong domestic consensus for a civilian nuclear programme, not for developing nuclear weapons. This doesn’t argue that Iran’s intentions won’t change, but that the world’s best bet lies in an arrangement under which Iran accepts strict IAEA inspections to ensure that no materials are diverted to military uses.

Under such a deal, Iran would suspend uranium enrichment and create a joint venture with Russia to have its uranium enriched there. Iranian scientists would have access to all the joint venture facilities. Iran would stick to the NPT and the tough IAEA Additional Protocol. In return, the West would offer Iran non-aggression guarantees, and access to gas and oil production technologies. At the moment, the US is hostile to such a deal because it sees Iran as an abnormal, revolutionary state bent on exporting "terrorism". It believes Iran is an un-free, closed, pathologically disturbed society. For the West, Iran is Taliban Lite, a fanatical anti-pluralist society destined to go downhill.

My visit, during which I met social scientists, strategic analysts, bureaucrats, artists, feminists, theatre people, environmentalists and social activists in Teheran, Shiraz and Isfahan, suggests that this characterisation is wrong.

Today’s Iran has indeed been shaped in the crucible of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 against the Shah, a US puppet. But Iran isn’t pathologically anti-Western. Almost a million Iranians live in the US, and have close interaction with their families at home. Like in many Westward-looking societies, jeans and the latest Hollywood films are widely available in Iran.

Many Iranians fear, distrust or dislike the US because it’s remembered as an overbearing power, which overthrew elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, supported Iraq in a brutal 8 year-long war, and punished Iran with sanctions.

Iran is not a ‘revolutionary’ power which wants radical change in West Asia. Rather, it’s status quoist and seeks normal relations with the West. The Shia-majority Iran has scrupulously avoided collaboration with al-Qaeda or Talibanist Islam. Iranian society is not some clone of Saudi Arabia, with a doctrinaire Islam. Nor is it monolithic. The Persian ethnic group accounts for only half the population. The rest are Azeri, Turkman, Kurd, Armenian, Tajik, etc.

The country is a pluralist mosaic, and has drawn from different cultures —Greek and Mediterranean, Zoroastrian and Arabian, Indian and Caspian. Iran’s Islam is more ritualistic than doctrine-driven. In Teheran, portraits of various prophets and Shia imams are routinely sold. Fewer Iranians pray in mosques than Americans attend Church. Many people say Iranians have become less religious under clerical rule. When the mullahs ban customs, for instance the celebration of Navroz or Spring Festival, people defy them.

Yet, Iran isn’t an open or free society. There are draconian restrictions on the press. More than 110 publications have been shut down in the last five years. Public debate is banned on security and nuclear issues. There’s no freedom of political association. Political parties are registered only if they follow Islamic tenets.

The most obnoxious aspect of Iranian life is discrimination against women. Women are excluded from certain offices (including judicial ones) and must follow a dress code. The hijab must fully cover their hair and ears, and arms and ankles must be invisible. But many women defy the code. They wear short scarves, routinely use lipstick, expose their ankles, and cover their heads only partially. At home or in classrooms, they are even more casually dressed like modern women anywhere. There is a growing feminist movement in Iran, which is supported by reform-minded clerics.

Young Iranians loathe regimentation and defy and subvert rules. For instance, liquor is officially banned. But it flows freely in middle-class drawing rooms. Imported and locally made spirits and wines are discreetly delivered at home in 4-litre jars. The government bans access to liberal and radical web sites, including those about women’s rights. But Iranians jump such barriers.

Iran is an imperfect democracy, without adequate rights. But it’s one of the few countries in the Middle East with universal franchise and fair elections. Official Iran’s paranoia is traceable to the sense of being cornered by the US. The more acute the sense, the greater the restrictions on freedom. To become a more open, free society, Iran should not be targeted. The world, including the US, has much to gain by normalising relations with Iran. Today, there’s an opportunity to resolve the nuclear crisis through diplomacy. But will the West summon up the will? The ball is in Washington’s court.

Veteran Indian journalist and commentator Praful Bidwai is currently on a visit to Iran. He can be reached at

More news from