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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Washington diary: Inside Iran
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Almost exactly five years ago I was lucky enough to be granted a journalist visa to Iran.

I am not being facetious.

Iranian women in Tehran test the limits of dress restrictions
Iranian women must be careful when it comes to clothing
Journalist visas are like gold dust and Iran is a memorable country to visit.

There's the majesty of Isfahan with its blue mosques, giant squares and scented bazaars; the ancient courtyard mansions of Kashan; the sophistication of Tehran, where beautiful women are forced to wear headscarves and anoraks in public and look like supermodels masquerading as spies.

Like all other journalists I made my weekly pilgrimage to the Friday prayer meeting at Tehran University.

Tens of thousands of students and other devotees converged in what could best be described as a giant car-park covered with the kind of roof you expect to find in an aircraft hangar.

We were allowed onto a viewing gallery.

Below us, the veterans of the Islamic revolution, the heavies from the Revolutionary Guard and thousands of students wearing the white clothes of would-be martyrs listened to Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei berate the Great Satan - America - and its understudy the Little Satan - Britain - for their aggression.

'Axis of evil'

Afghanistan had already been invaded. Iraq was next on the list.

Iran had just been named by President Bush as a founding member of the axis of evil.

So, even a cursory glance at the map and American troop movements would have created a lump in the average Iranian throat.

If only the B-52 [bombers] could stop off in Tehran before going on to Kabul
Iranian man
A well-dressed man in his 30s wandered up to me. He looked angry. "How dare you call us an axis of evil?" he said in Farsi and waited for our translator to deliver every word of his diatribe.

"What about your President Bush?" he soldiered on. "He's a top-class aggressor!"

Then he looked around and motioned me to come and stand behind a pillar.

He leant so close to me I could smell the tobacco and garlic on his breath. My personal space was definitely being invaded and I was pondering options.

"There is a joke doing the rounds," he suddenly said in a whisper and in perfect English. "If only the B-52s [bombers] could stop off in Tehran before going on to Kabul.

"After all, it is on the way!" He motioned to the ayatollahs on the podium next to us. "We can't get rid of them without your help!"

Chewing the fat

Later in the day I came across a similar if less brazen view.

The editor of a 'liberal' newspaper which had been shut down no fewer than seven times and reopened under a different name told me he approved of sanctions because they would put pressure on the regime.

Military action, he said, would be counter-productive.

We were invited to attend an editorial board meeting.

The discussion ranged from domestic issues, like the latest arrests of human rights activists, to the turmoil on Tehran's nascent stock market and the war in Afghanistan and how the regime was not sure whether to thank the US for getting rid of its old enemy the Taleban or be afraid of Uncle Sam's designs on the region.

As far as I could tell through the translation, the conversation was sophisticated, funny and relaxed - scribblers chewing the fat. It could have been London or Washington.

Pelted with eggs

Here's the point: Iran is complicated, mercurial and rife with internal divisions.

Iranian students protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by holding his portrait upside-down, Dec 2006
Iran has allowed some protest against President Ahmadinejad
President Ahmadinejad is no Saddam Hussein, even if he has hosted a "Holocaust Denial" conference, and does want to develop a nuclear capability.

Saddam Hussein personally shot people he didn't like.

The president of Iran has been pelted by unruly students with eggs and insults and no-one was shot.

I'm not saying he's been grossly misunderstood. I am saying that Iran is far less monolithic than many in Washington like to think. The trick is to sweat out the differences.

Saddam Hussein on the gallows in an image taken from television, Dec 2006
Saddam Hussein cursed Iran as he neared death, some say
Today Iran is more isolated than it has been for a long time. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are lining up with Israel to work against the thing they fear most - a Persian nuke.

Consider that among the last words uttered by Saddam Hussein, of all people, before the noose tightened around his neck: "Damn the Americans and damn the Persians!"

The Russians are annoyed because the Iranians won't pay their dues on the nuclear reactor at Busher. This is hardly ideological opposition, but it's better than nothing.

The Chinese are voting with the other members of the UN Security Council against Iran even though they can't get enough Iranian light crude.

The pressure may be working but it isn't enough.

Lure with iPods

If I were the US government I would issue Iran with 10,000 student visas and 1,000 technology grants to Silicon Valley.

Iran boasts five million college students with higher degrees, the largest proportion in the Middle East.

Instead of encouraging them to turn into head-bashing extremists I would seduce them into becoming head-banging, iPod-wearing computer geeks.

Faye Turney, one of the British military personnel detained by Iran
Was it wise to detain UK sailor Faye Turney and 14 others?
Unfortunately none of this will ever happen.

Even if the administration thought of it, the Democrats, flexing their muscles on Capitol Hill or positioning themselves to race for the White House, would oppose it.

They were, after all, the ones who kicked up a stink about the Dubai ports deal even though the Gulf States actually quite like America and Dubai is already the biggest US naval base overseas.

But subtlety doesn't play well in election campaigns.

What's more, the rhetoric coming from the US is music to Tehran's ears.

Every time there's a tiff the price of oil inches above $65 a barrel, making the Iranian government a little bit richer still.

So - with US Iran policy struck in a groove, Tehran thriving on adversity, an extra US carrier group in the Gulf, the Revolutionary Guards building IEDs [bombs] for Shia death squads in Iraq and the Israelis feeling distinctly twitchy about the prospect of a nuclear Iran - the stars are dangerously aligned for a show-down, even if the White House and Tehran don't actually want one.

Now imagine "an event", an unforeseen crisis that pushes everyone to the brink - like 15 British sailors being held hostage by the Revolutionary Guard Navy in the Shatt al-Arab waterway.


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