The killings of Christian clerics in Iran belong to a bygone era, says the Foreign Office. Is the new president a man with whom it should
do business, asks Simon Caldwell, or is reform merely a mask
behind which the mullahs hide the same old terror and repression?
NEW EVIDENCE that incriminates the intelligence services of Iran in the murder of three prominent Christian clerics in 1994 looks unlikely to
compel the British Government to reverse its new policy of "constructive engagement"with the Middle East's most fundamental Islamic state.
The inaction of the Foreign Office is justified on the grounds that Iran is undergoing "reform", or so it is claimed, under the leadership of the "moderate" faction of President Muhammad Khatami, who last month was returned to power for a second term in the nation's somewhat dubious general election.
The apparent changes taking place under President Khatami for a fleeting moment seemed to foster greater openness, more liberal attitudes and a few tentative steps towards democracy. And so it was that newspaper publisher AbdoIlah Nouri (who is now serving five years in jail), last autumn felt brave enough to ask a few pertinent questions about the killings of Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, the Rev Taratous Michaelian and Pastor Mehdi Dibaj.
AT THE TIME, their
deaths were blamed on the People's Mojahedin, which has waged an armed struggle against the theocracy since the early 1980s. But the recent ferment in the Iranian Press prompted former Revolutionary Guard commander Akbar Ganji to confirm the suspicions of Amnesty International and the Jubilee Campaign; last December he admitted that the Ministry of Intelligence had not only killed the clerics to smear its enemies, but had also bombed pilgrims at Muslim shrines (such as that in Imam Reza) to achieve the same objective.
This and many other outrages and atrocities (such as bus bombings in Iraq in 1999), should come as an embarrassment to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his much-vaunted ethical foreign policy; it was only last year that Britain sought to improve bilateral relations with Iran.
Indeed, last month Mr Blair was put on the spot over Government policy on Iran by Lord Alton of Liverpool.
"Does Her Majesty's Government intend to condemn these crimes?" wrote Lord Alton in a letter to Mr Blair. "A practical step would be to call for the formation of an international fact-finding mission in coordination with the United Nations. The international community should prepare the grounds for an international tribunal to prosecute those who ordered these killings so as to thwart the continuation of this horrific trend.
"Please let us know if HMG is willing to take such an initiative. Neutrality and silence will bring disrepute upon all who cherish and uphold a belief in democracy and human rights. What representations does HMG intend to make for the files to be kept open and for appropriate prosecutions to be initiated as more evidence emerges?"
r-rHE FOREIGN Office Minister, Peter Hain, responded on behalf of Mr Blair. He spelled out the Government's
position and praised President Khatami for the free discussion (which has since been suppressed) that made it possible for the truth about such violations to see the light of day.
"Such opinions about previously taboo subjects has been made possible by the reformist policies implemented since the (first) election of Khatami in May 1997," wrote Mr Hain. "It is a welcome reflection of how far Iran has come in such a short space of time that these horrific acts of the past are now being brought into the open. I know you have been sceptical in the past of the value of the policy of engagement but we have evidence that it yields benefits, not least in the field of human rights."
ACYNIC MIGHT say
that the real benefits to be reaped are in the fields of commerce, industry, political influence and economic advantage. 11 spinoffs to these primary benefits include the advancement of democracy and universal human rights, all well and good. But what if the policy of engagement instead serves to strengthen and perpetuate a despotic regime that might otherwise collapse under the weight of its own inadequacies and iniquities?
The truth about Iran is that reform is largely superficial: its sole purpose is to allow the authorities to keep an iron grip on a nation descending into poverty and civil unrest. Indeed, besides market forces, pressure for change is initiated from below — it comes from the ordinary people on the streets and in the universities and not from the mullahs, who, squabbling between themselves, have offered a series of hollow gestures: political spin, Iranian-style.
It is equally true that President Khatami is no moderate . He is in fact supported by Iran's more obvious hardliners simply
because the tottering velayate fayih, the rule of the supreme religious jurist, has its best chances of survival in his hands.
Iran is in the midst of a struggle. The problem is that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields absolute authority. President Khatami is trying to wrestle some of that temporal power from him in order to preserve religious Rile.
HIS PROJEC1', for example, began with promises of a "civil society" and the "rule of law", but has since seen him declare that "the law means the defence of the velavat-e faqih". Strange for a "reforming moderate", it is a fact that
torture, murder and repression have grown worse in Iran since he was elected.
Within two years this reformer presided over more than 320 hangings, the assassination of 28 Iranian dissidents abroad and gifts of $270m to Islamic terrorists, including Hezbollah, for strikes against the West and Israel in particular.
THERE HAVE ALSO been nine stonings for adultery; a reinvented tradition in which men are buried up to the chest and women up to the neck before they are pelted to death with rocks carefully selected to inflict serious, painful and horrific damage but not to kill instantly.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Khatami has tightened up the rules of compulsory veiling. and has introduced gender apartheid in the health and education services, which is particularly bad news for women given that most medical professionals are men.
And in an effort totally to exclude women from public life, he has also lowered the female age of marriage from 16 to eight years and eight months. Since no male boys can afford to keep a wife, these child brides invariably go to adult males. Repression, of course, but this is also nothing less than institutionalised sexual abuse.
In the face of such evidence it is hard to see how Khatami can be considered a moderate reformer. As Newsweek pointed out, "success as he defines it which means reforming the system — would only mean prolonging its life". The mullahs would rather follow in the footsteps of the Chinese Communist Party than those of Mikhail Gorbachev.
This is a reality not lost on most of our MPs, some 330 of whom last March, after the Government announced its new policy, called for the NCRI — which has a parliament in exile and seeks to establish a secular, liberal, and tolerant Iran — to be recognised as the democratic alternative to the theocracy.
THE "ALL-PARTY majority" asserted that the Iranian people had the right to resist their rulers under the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in a joint statement said it was unacceptable that a government that proclaimed its belief in an ethical foreign policy should seek to improve relations with a regime that sponsors international terrorism.
"The UK should not give any trade concessions, credits or loans to a regime which is incapable of change and which is under increasing social and economic pressures from the people to whom it brutally denies basic rights and democratic representation," they said.
"For Britain to change its policy now over Iran, without evidence to support claims of greater freedom of expression and better human rights, is to run the risk of repeating the last days of the Shah."
Yet in its policy of engagement, Britain is bolder even than America, which is not willing to reestablish trade with Iran and, last month attempted to block World Bank loans to the mullahs until they pursued economic reform and abandoned their support for terrorism.
And the question remains. Will the British policy of "engagement" one day bring to justice the killers of three Christian clerics whose only crimes were to appear useful in an ugly campaign to discredit those who battle against one of the most bizarre tyrannies in history?