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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 09:04 GMT
Iran's mixed feelings on looming war
Hardliners protest against a reformist newspaper
Hardliners still have great influence in Iranian politics
As Tony Blair meets Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi for talks in London, BBC Tehran correspondent Jim Muir assesses the mood in Iran about the prospect of attacks on neighbouring Iraq.

Among both government officials and ordinary people in Iran, there are distinctly mixed feelings about the prospect of an American attack on Iraq.

Both the potential combatants are no friends of the Islamic Republic.

We absolutely hate Saddam Hussein. For us, America and Saddam Hussein are one and the same thing. But the people of Iraq are our brothers, and we don't want to see them being hurt

Iranian veteran of the Iran-Iraq war
Iran was drawn into eight devastating years of war with Iraq after Saddam Hussein sent his troops into western Iran in 1980, hoping to puncture the Islamic revolution.

The bodies are still coming home to Tehran and other cities, as border minefields are cleared. The existence of hundreds of thousands of "janbazan" (war wounded) also helps keep the war alive in the minds of all Iranians.

The 'Great Satan'

But for many, the United States remains the Great Satan.

It is widely believed here to have pushed Saddam Hussein into attacking Iran in 1980, and helped him through the ensuing war.

Anti-American protest in Tehran
Some Iranians see a war against Iraq as an opportunity to improve ties with US
Iran and the US have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Last year, President Bush bracketed Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil".

So it is not surprising that on the streets of Tehran, there are many different views on the issue of an American attack against Iraq.

Concern for Iraqis

The common factor is that there is no sympathy at all for Saddam Hussein - but among most Iranians, a great deal of concern for ordinary Iraqi people.

"We absolutely hate Saddam Hussein," said Mohammad Talebipour, who lost a leg to an Iraqi bombardment in 1982.

My belief is that the Americans did a very good job in Afghanistan. They saved all the people there after about 20 years of hell, and now I'm sure they're going to save both the world, and the Iraqi people

Iranian engineer
"For us, America and Saddam Hussein are one and the same thing. But the people of Iraq are our brothers, and we don't want to see them being hurt."

"I feel that some people who have done nothing wrong will be killed, and that peace in the region will be disturbed," said one medical student.

Many others are on balance also opposed to an attack, out of concern for ordinary Iraqis. Others are worried about the regional economic disruption that might ensue.

Support for US

But other ordinary Iranians, interviewed at random in the streets, were inclined to favour an American attack.

"My belief is that they did a very good job in Afghanistan," said one engineer. "They saved all the people there after about 20 years of hell, and now I'm sure they're going to save both the world, and the Iraqi people."

With such mixed opinions prevailing among ordinary people, there is little chance that a US attack on Iraq would produce any serious unrest or dissent in Iran.

Ritual official condemnation and establishment-authorised anti-US demonstrations might happen, as they did over Afghanistan, but would be unlikely to get out of hand.

The precedent in Afghanistan - another of Iran's neighbours - is also cited by some senior Iranian officials who are not against US intervention to change the Iraqi regime, although official government policy is against.

Afghan model

"The new Afghan Government, of Mr Karzai, is better for us than the Taleban Government was, and it hasn't created any problems for Iran," said Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, the country's Vice-President.

Afghan refugees in Iran
Iran can expect large numbers of refugees in the event of a war
"For Iran, there is no serious concern about any future government in Iraq, because no Iraqi Government can ignore Iran's role."

Another well-placed official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was even more emphatic.

"Our first goal is an Iraq without Saddam Hussein," he said. "He is the worst enemy of Iran. If he feels free and powerful, he may invade again. Iraq with a democratic government, even a pro-western one, is better for us than Saddam."

That is not the government's declared policy, which opposes war on the grounds that it would cause regional instability, but which also insists that Baghdad must comply fully with the UN and its inspectors.

"As the government of Iraq is co-operating with the UN inspectors, we think there is no need for war, and we have to avoid it," said Kamal Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister.

"Despite everything our country has endured from Iraq, Tehran does not favour a military attack against Iraq," added President Mohammad Khatami.

Iran encircled

Some hardliners, especially in the Revolutionary Guards and at the right-wing end of the Islamic clerical spectrum, have bitterly opposed the idea of an American attack, arguing that it would complete the US strategic encirclement of Iran itself, and that the Americans are intent on dominating the region's oil resources.

Both sides of the political divide in Iran [reformists and conservatives] have decided that we should solve our problems with the US at the right time, but hardliners on both sides are trying to cause obstructions

Senior Iranian official
But most of the country's complex power system seems to have concluded that an American attack, or regime change under the pressure of its threat, are inevitable, and that Iran's best interest is served in doing nothing to hinder it or provoke US hostility towards Tehran.

On the contrary, officials say, Tehran has given the green light to the Iran-based Iraqi Shia opposition group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to involve itself in US-encouraged discussions on a post-Saddam Iraq.

SCIRI leaders attended recent opposition meetings in both Washington and London.

Iran also enjoys close relations with the two main Iraqi Kurdish opposition factions, the PUK and the KDP, which currently control the northern part of Iraq itself under western air protection.

Given these ties, and their long border with Iraq, the Iranians seem confident that their interests cannot be ignored by anyone involved in establishing a new government in Baghdad.

US-Iran honeymoon?

In 1991, fear of Iranian intervention in a fragmenting Iraq was one factor dissuading President Bush Senior from pressing on to Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein.

Now, US officials seem confident that Iran will remain on the touchline, while their Iranian counterparts appear to regard it as unlikely that the Americans would later turn their sights on Iran itself.

At the big December meeting of the Iraqi opposition in London, there was even talk among delegates of an "Iranian-American honeymoon".

Relations with Washington are an extremely hot potato in Iranian politics. But a rapprochement in the wake of the Iraq crisis clearly cannot be ruled out.

"Both sides of the political divide in Iran [reformists and conservatives] have decided that we should solve our problems with the US at the right time, but hardliners on both sides are trying to cause obstructions," said one senior Iranian official.


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