February 2004 will see the next parliamentary elections in Iran. Already the municipal elections that took place in February 2003 were significant for the Islamic Republic, in which turnout hit rock bottom - in the capital city Tehran, only 9% of eligible voters did so. This clearly indicates a loss of faith in the Islamic regime and its potential for change, as people have become increasingly frustrated with the reformists’ legacy of broken promises. A fierce struggle has broken out within the reformist camp to prepare themselves for the 2004 parliamentary elections, yet so far they have failed to produce any new ideas that could inspire the electorate.
At the same time they look to their European allies for support, who in recent years have helped them in any and every way one could imagine. However, public opinion has soured against the Europeans as well as against the reformists. If one wants to understand the frustration and negative opinions of the Iranian public with respect to the European Union - in particular Britain, Germany and France – it suffices merely to stroll through the streets of Tehran and listen to people’s complaints. We know that during the last 4 years the European Union has tried everything possible to support the reformist camp in Iran lead by Mohammad Khatami, trying to defuse the chaotic political situation in Iran as well as in the international arena. Nonetheless it has not produced any positive results. The public scepticism is palpable.
I reflect back on British Foreign Minister Jack Straw’s numerous visits to the Islamic Republic, as well as those by his foreign counterparts, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. The latest and only constructive support has been their efforts to defuse the problem that has arisen from nuclear arms production in Iran and the enrichment of weapons grade uranium. The general assumption in the west, particularly in Europe, is that the reformists are a distinct breed from the conservative camp. Yet it must be emphasised that the in Iran the perception is quite the opposite, and that in the eyes of the people there is no difference between the conservatives and reformists: both camps have joined forces in order to prolong the life of Islamic Republic and each camp has a vested interest in doing so.
At the same time the war in Iraq, led by the United States, has created hope amongst the Iranian public. A hope that sooner or later, once the Iraq issue has been resolved, the west will realise how deeply and strongly the Iranian people wish for radical change in Iran, and will therefore help those Iranians who are struggling to restore democracy, freedom, and a secular regime in this ancient land. Both the reformist and the conservative camps in Iran are fully aware of this feeling and have thus set in motion new tactics in order to distract public opinion at home and abroad. They are trying to destabilise Iraq as much as they can with the help of radical Shiites, by facilitating easy cross-border travel for international terrorists in the hope that the US will pull out its forces from Iraq and thus ease the pressure on Iran. The fact that there are troops in all the surrounding Emirates in the South of the Persian Gulf, such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, and in Central Asia and Afghanistan has given Iran’s Mullahs a fearful insecurity and a sense of being trapped in a pincer. Therefore they are trying their utmost to destabilise Iraq and Middle East, including their funding for the radical Palestinian groups who help sabotage the Middle East peace process.
So what next?
In Iran the most dynamic group are the young, who make up approximately 70% of the country’s nearly 70 million population. The regime is fully aware of this fact and has shown their anxiety through heavy-handed repression. One example of such maltreatment was the tragic saga of the 1999 street protests, where hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets in a peaceful show of defiance. Siavash Fakhravar, Ahmad Batebi, Manuchehr and Akbar Mohammadi and many other students were condemned to torture and imprisonment for their involvement in the demonstration.
If the free world, and Europe in particular, want to help the Iranian people restore their freedom then they should reassess their policies, change their attitudes and realise that the present Islamic regime has done nothing but poison Iran and its people.