29 September 2005

Suspicious minds

By Marguerite Finn

"We can't go on together
with suspicious minds
and we can't build our dreams
on suspicious minds"

Thus sang Elvis Presley when I was a youngster. I was reminded of it again last Saturday when the Iranian President spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York. I was intrigued by the hostile reporting of his speech, and by the fact that the American delegation walked out in the middle of it and the British Foreign Secretary called it "unhelpful". So, I read the speech for myself. What I discovered was a respectful and honest appraisal of the current global situation - albeit delivered in a language using a more religious vocabulary than is usual at such events. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caught the mood of the Summit precisely in his opening sentence: "Today we have gathered here to exchange views about the world, its future and our common responsibilities towards it." No disagreement there. "Truth will shine the light of faith and ethics on the life of human beings and prevent them from aggression, coercion and injustice". Yes, OK - but are some delegates beginning to shift uneasily in their seats ?

Maybe a smidgen of 'aggression, coercion and injustice' had crept into the foreign policy of some of the powerful countries attending the Summit, enabling them to acquire weapons and power that they wished to deny to other countries - not all countries, just certain countries.

Let us imagine why President Ahmadinejad would go out of his way to try to establish a level playing field in international affairs. He may not have had much confidence in the playing field's existence but he spoke in the fervent hope that one might develop.

A quick look at the history of Iran might help us understand his suspicions. Iran is not a motley colonial confection like Iraq, but a proud and ancient country three times the size of France, with a population of 70 million. It is OPEC's second largest oil producer and has the world's largest reserves of gas. Back in the 1950s, Iran was ruled by the Shah and with his acquiescence, British Petroleum produced and controlled Iran's main source of income: its oil - and therefore, its destiny.

BP's oil revenues were greater than those of the Iranian Government, which was paid royalties of 10% to 12% of the profits. The British Government received as much as 30% in taxes alone.

A few Iranian parliamentarians profited handsomely from this arrangement and were persuaded to maintain the status quo. Then Dr Mohamed Musaddiq became Prime Minister. His government was democratic, popular, nationalist, anti-communist and as the British Ambassador privately admitted, "free from the taint of corruption". In 1951, Dr Musaddiq nationalised Iran's oil operations. He offered to compensate the British. His offer was rejected. Iran's nationalisation and offer of compensation were perfectly legitimate under international law - but that was irrelevant to the UK government of the day.

Britain boycotted the purchase of Iranian oil in the hopes of bankrupting the country and causing a revolution. In 1953, the CIA and MI6 jointly organised a military coup overthrowing the popular government of Dr. Musaddiq and replacing him with the pro-western General Zahidi. The British Foreign Secretary at the time believed this was "evidence that United Kingdom interests could not be recklessly molested with impunity". The Shah, backed by Britain and America, thenceforth used repression and torture to institute a dictatorship that lasted until the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic of Iran today has good reason to mistrust Western Powers. It is sandwiched between nuclear Pakistan and nuclear Israel, with nuclear Russia to the north and nuclear America everywhere in the skies above. Far from posing a threat to anyone, Iran is surrounded by nuclear states of which at least one is openly hostile. Israel is determined that Iran can not be allowed to develop a civil nuclear programme - let alone nuclear weapons - and the smart money is on any future attack on Iran coming from Israel - not America.

Mistrust and Suspicion thrive in such arenas. President Ahmadinejad focussed attention on Iran's predicament and on the "nuclear apartheid" preventing it from developing nuclear technology for peaceful use.

America and Israel - even Britain - can't overcome their suspicions about what Iran might do next. Perhaps they feel Iran couldn't forgive them and the only way to assuage their guilt is to label Iran the perpetual 'enemy'. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: "if it is fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared"

If only we could exist without the need for an 'enemy'.