The Cartoon Controversy


Universe Column for March 5th 2006

by David Alton

For those of us who have been  closely following the developments in Iran for more than two decades, these are critical times. Critical, because Western governments, including our own, are facing a test of historic proportions in the way they deal with the Iranian challenge. An already explosive situation has been accentuated by the outrage over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed and by the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Whether the stand-off with Iran turns out to be another Munich , with all the disastrous consequences that appeasement of a fascist regime, this time in a religious guise, would entail, or a triumph for our policy-makers, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Iran under its fanatic, apocalyptic, totalitarian rulers presents a grave threat to peace and stability in the region and the world.

The options before Western governments have already been dramatically narrowed by Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment and the dangerous rhetoric of the country’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What is heartening is that the great powers – including China and Russia and well as Western |Europe and the US – have at last stared to speak with one voice. What a tragedy they failed to do this earlier when it might have made a real difference.

As the crisis with Iran deepened it is particularly important not to be lulled in to a false sense of security by soothing platitudes and dishonest assurances about the bemign nature of Iran’s intentions. Just look at their track record.

Iran flagrantly violated a November 2004 agreement it struck with the “EU-3” – Britain, France and Germany – by breaking of seals at its Natanz nuclear plant. The move marked the climax of a continuous pattern of non-compliance and lack of transparency that has characterized Tehran’s nuclear policy for over a decade. The Islamic Republic kept critical parts of its huge nuclear program concealed from the whole world until two top-secret sites in Natanz and Arak were revealed by the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran in August 2002. Those revelations triggered international scrutiny into the country’s nuclear program and finally led to the current stand-off.

Tehran’s unilateral breach of its agreement with the Europeans has convinced even the most ardent supporters of “constructive engagement” with the radical Islamist regime that economic and political concessions to Iran will not encourage the Iranian rulers to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

On the contrary, Europe’s dogged pursuit of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic over the past few years, and our repeated offers of carrots to the mullahs, have been interpreted in Tehran as a sign of weakness. Reassured by Europe’s apparent complacency, emboldened by the U.S. predicament in Iraq, and bolstered by unprecedented oil revenues, the hard-line Islamists around the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went on the offensive. First, they installed a former Revolutionary Guards commander in the presidential office, and then consolidated their power through massive purges and a crackdown inside the country.

But a deeply unpopular religious tyranny at loggerheads with a young and demanding population needs to generate crises beyond its borders to overshadow problems at home, and motivate its protracted radical base. These crises came in abundance, thanks to Tehran’s growing meddling in Iraq, Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, and an intransigent nuclear policy that projected to Muslims around the world an image of Iran thumbing its nose at the West with impunity. We have played into their hands again and again.

Mr. Ahmadinejad  recently told a gathering of Revolutionary Guards that his calls for the destruction of Israel and his denial of the Holocaust were “part of a deliberate strategy” and were winning the hearts and minds of “young Muslims around the world”. His senior adviser, the head of Iran’s Presidential Office for Strategic Analysis, recently described the president’s outrageous statements as a “Shock and Awe strategy”.

This brings us to the essential question: what should we do? Now that it has become clear that international efforts to stop Iran’s atomic programme have failed, the West had no choice in the immediate future, but to push for Iran’s case to be referred to the UN Security Council. Failure to take this crucial step would have eliminated the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the crisis, as it will enhance the arguments of those in Washington and Jerusalem who see no viable alternative to a military option to halt or seriously impede Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons.

Security Council referral was an essential first step, but it will not be sufficient to defuse the crisis. To succeed, the West needs to craft a bold, new initiative on Iran that makes a clear break with appeasement policy of the past and provides an efficient alternative to the military option. The key to a successful Western approach to Iran lies in our recognition of the democratic aspirations of the millions of Iranians chafing under the ayatollahs’ repressive rule and the movement that has embodied these aspirations in the past quarter-century, the coalition National Council of Resistance of Iran and the principal opposition movement inside Iran, the People’s Mojahedin. These courageous Iranians deserve our full support no less than the Poles who challenged totalitarian communism in the 1980s.

We would be sending the wrong signal to the hard-line leaders in Tehran and to the Iranian people if we continue to brand the mullahs’ most active opponents as terrorists. The Iranian resistance has garnered considerable support among Parliamentarians and eminent jurists in Britain, Europe and the United States by advocating a platform based on respect for human rights, free elections, recognition of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and support for the Middle East peace process. More than 450 MPs and Peers recently called for the removal of the Iranian resistance from the terrorism list.

It was in Iran, uder Ayatollah Khomeni,  that the radical theocratic mutation of Islam had its birth. And it will be in Iran that democratic, freedom-loving Muslim people, will end a tyranny which has been violent and brutal towards its own people and those beyond its borders.

Britain is in a unique position to take the lead in launching a new policy initiative on Iran and forging a transatlantic consensus that would prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons through a robust, creative and firm diplomacy. It is time for Mr. Blair to take up the challenge.