Friday, June 17, 2005 News - Opinion - Iran fiercely faithful to religious authority News - Opinion - Iran fiercely faithful to religious authority: "Iran fiercely faithful to religious authority

THE front page of the pro-regime Tehran Times is in no doubt about the contribution of today's Iranian presidential elections to the greater cause of freedom. A story boldly headlined "Nation teaches world about democracy" proudly relays a message from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denouncing the "Zionist" critics who insist the whole thing has been a sham. Unlike the United States and its allies, he says, democracy in Iran has no "overt and covert limits". Nor, he adds somewhat oddly, does it involve "demagoguery".

In any other country, one might expect the Tehran Times' letters page to be packed with protest missives tomorrow. Iran's elections, after all, have been criticised precisely because they do have glaringly overt limits. The Iranians going to the polls today have just seven candidates to choose from, a list whittled down from around 1,000 after a mass vetoing session by the all-powerful guardian council, a clerical organisation controlled by Khamenei himself. And anyone who calls himself Supreme Leader is also, presumably, on slightly shaky ground criticising demagogues.

Yet to this day, Iran's religious head can get away with such Stalinist utterances largely unchallenged. Criticising the candidates in the election is one thing. But questioning the authority or wisdom of the country's religious head remains the "red line" past which can still land ordinary Iranians in trouble.

Flawed or not, though, Iran today is proud of its elections, so much so that these days it is happy to let newspapers less cheerleading than the Tehran Times to come and watch. The official spin fed to visiting foreign journalists is that it is not the US-hating, fist-shaking, fanatical turbanocracy of yore, and to some extent it is hard not to agree. Yes, there are still the "Down with the USA" montages, the "Den of Espionage" bookshop glorifying the hostage-taking at the old US embassy and the honorary Bobby Sands Street at the back of the British Embassy. But there are also no end of western-style shops, and - crucially - plenty of internet cafés and millions of satellite TV dishes in people's homes.

True, the internet cafés sometimes flash up the message "this page is forbidden" - even The Scotsman's website. And officially, satellite TV is forbidden, in the same way as not having a TV licence is in Britain. But if Iran's mullahs were really that intolerant of outside ideas, it is unlikely that either would be allowed at all. The penalty in Saddam Hussein's Iraq for having access to either, by contrast, was six months in jail.

A similar detente has also applied to the country's political discourse during the past few years. Notwithstanding the fact that large numbers of their colleagues have been banned from standing, reform-minded presidential candidates are quite happy to openly criticise the regime, as are most ordinary people on the streets. Young middle-class Tehranis, especially, show a degree of political sophistication and knowledge virtually unheard of in neighbouring Iraq or Afghanistan, scarcely a mark of people blinded by tyranny. The choices on offer in Iran's elections may not be as free as those in Iraq last January or Afghanistan last October, but they are at least reasonably well-informed.

Despite that, the polls today are a far cry from what George Bush, the US president, has in mind in his much-vaunted programme of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Only a candidate free-for-all, and the sight of Iran's guardian council folding up the robes of power for good, would presumably satisfy that. Last night, he marked the eve of the polls by saying it "ignores the basic requirements of democracy". Yet even many reform-minded Tehranis still take offence at his constant exhortations to rise up, take to the streets and kick the mullahs. Iran's days of totalitarianism are definitely over, they say, and the more relaxed regime of today needs only step-by-step change rather than the kind of violent revolution that kicked out the shah 27 years ago.

And why, they ask, is Mr Bush always singling them out? After all, other regional powers, such as Egypt, are planning elections which will offer even less choice. Yet thanks to its status as one of Mr Bush's allies in the war on terrorism, all the Egyptian government gets is a few mild mutterings about hastening the pace of reform.

There are, of course, other reasons for Mr Bush's concerns, mainly the on-going game of nuclear hide-and-seek and double-bluff over whether or not Iran is planning to build an atom bomb. Late last month, having finally agreed to a deal with Britain, France and Germany to maintain its suspension of nuclear activities, Iran was tacitly rewarded with an invite to take part in membership talks for the World Trade Organisation, something that would do its isolated economy no end of good. Yet few western diplomats feel genuinely reassured by the Iranian promises, a gut instinct that was confirmed on Thursday when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reform-minded mullah who is the current front-running presidential candidate, admitted in an interview that Iran had not always reported all nuclear work as required to UN inspectors.

IF, AS is now widely predicted, Mr Rafsanjani becomes president, the nuclear issue could go one of two ways. While the bomb has always been a pet plan of his more hardline colleagues, Mr Rafsanjani's pragmatic ambition to resume relations with the West could lead to a fairly speedy resolution of the situation. Some observers go so far as to say that he has stood by and let the negotiations founder for the last couple of years so that he has a trump card to play once he gets into power. But few are willing to take his word for it that he is now only interested in nuclear power for civilian purposes. It was, after all, only four years since he made a speech rhapsodising about the need for an "Islamic bomb" to counter outside threats. With US troops now camped on Iran's eastern and western borders, that ambition is unlikely to have died.

Where Mr Rafsanjani may succeed, however, is in eroding the power of the mullahs. As a former revolutionary who fought alongside Khomeini to kick out the shah in 1979, he is scarcely the obvious man for the job: he is aged 70, clad in cleric's robes, and has an unsavoury history dotted with allegations of murdering opposition figures. But his long years as a survivor in what was once an undoubtedly brutal regime have also taught him the merits of bending with the wind, which, right now, lies in courting the youth vote.

With 50 per cent of the country's 70 million population under the age of 25, he has performed one of the most spectacular "rebranding" exercises ever, joking around with youngsters on MTV-style promo videos, hinting at youthful indiscretions and even suggesting that he might scrap the compulsory wearing of headscarves for women. Such tactics might be laughed out of court by western youngsters, but in Iran, having a bearded, elderly cleric on your side makes you feel empowered, not patronised. "We have had other candidates saying they want reform for the past seven years but not much has been achieved," says Ali, an 18-year-old Rafsanjani supporter. "But Rafsanjani has respect among the mullahs. If he says we need reform, they will listen."

But what if they don't? The talk among the educated youth of Tehran is of an Orange-style revolution à la Ukraine and Czechoslovakia. But whether that will happen remains to be seen. Toppling a regime whose leaders are simply reconditioned communists is one thing. Toppling one whose members represent the religion that every Iranian still faithfully lives and breathes is another."