Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To many the bearded cleric is a menacing symbol of militant Shi’ite Islam. But to millions of his admirers, both inside and outside Iran, he is the hero of one of the world’s last great revolutions. A decisive de facto grass-roots revolt in 1979 that unseated Shah Reza Pahlavi and brought to an end a self-indulgent regime, which impoverished common Iranians and inebriated its leaders not only with the wine of the Western world but also with its values and civilisation.
Khomeini was the man who returned a decadent Iran to the rule of Islamic law and saw to it that American diplomats and former cronies of the Shah were unceremoniously expelled from the land of the Fars.
His name has come up again as war clouds knit a grim shadow over Iran. More specifically it is the religious decree he issued before his death 10 years after the revolution, which forbids the development of a nuclear weapon, that is attracting new interest.
It is this fatwa, say top Iranian officials, combined with the lack of proof that the country is indeed developing a nuclear weapon, that should keep American guns at bay. But they complain that, as is evidenced by the invasion of Iraq on scant proof of weapons of mass destruction, the future of peace in the region is about as certain as playing the lotto.
Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs Alireza Sheikattar, also a former editor of the conservative daily newspaper Hamshahri (The Citizen), was in South Africa recently.
After 15 minutes of explaining that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no proof to support United States fears that Iran has sinister intentions of developing a nuclear bomb, he brought up Khomeini’s fatwa as further evidence to bolster the country’s protestations that there are no plans to create a nuclear arsenal.
“It is against our religious beliefs and obligations to use nuclear weapons. Imam Khomeini forbade it. Iran has expressed that we do not want to develop a weapon. Even though Saddam [Hussein] used chemical weapons many times, Iran also could have, but it didn’t. Even now our vete-rans are still dying from the effects of chemical weapons.”
He insists that what is fuelling US warmongering is not this perceived military threat but is something far more base: the humiliation it suffered during the early days of the revolution.
Twenty-seven years after the historic events of 1979, he says, the Americans have still not got over their ouster, and that’s why Iran is still living under the threat of war. In those early, fragile days following the revolution, the Americans tried to stage a coup in Tehran, enacted a series of damaging embargoes, invaded offshore platforms in the Persian Gulf, shot down a civilian airplane, and assisted Hussein in launching a chemical war against them. All proving, Sheikattar says, that it grieved the loss of one of its strongest allies in the region, a secure supplier of oil and gas, and a handy Middle East military base.
The cleric and politician says that despite this Iranians have resisted, survived and expanded. And they will not change now that American guns have them in their sights.
During and after the crippling eight-year war with Iraq, Iran’s economy was buffeted with effects that are still being felt throughout the country, from stallholders eking out a living in cavernous bazaars to rural weavers trying to sustain their centuries-old craft. This, he feels, makes the development of nuclear power all the more necessary to Iran’s survival.
Sheikattar says Iran simply must have nuclear energy, and the fact that it has signed the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty is further proof that its intentions are not evil, or military. He says the Islamic Republic can only manage to produce enough uranium to satisfy its fuel needs, which only require a purity of 3,5%. But it’s a quantum leap to being able to produce weapons grade uranium, which demands 99,5% purity.
He says recent visits to the country by IAEA chief Muhammad Al Baradei have also not proved conclusive and there is still no evidence to support growing fears that a nuclear weapon is indeed on the cards. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stuck to his guns and will not
accede to any demands that he halt the nuclear programme.
Sheikattar argues that there is no reason to stop now. He says international concern over Ahmadinejad’s warnings that Israel will cease to exist in the future have been taken out of context. The president, he says, was not talking about obliterating the Jewish state, but rather that if it continues to ride roughshod over the rights of Palestinians with the support of the US, it will bring about its own destruction. What’s worse, he says, is that everyone knows Israel has nuclear weapons. He asks why is it good and safe for some, but not for others?
“Are nuclear weapons safe in white hands, and non-Muslim hands? But peaceful nuclear technology is a threat in Muslim hands, in black hands, in Indian or Pakistani hands? This question should be answered. Why should there be discrimination?”
Grabbing a handful of Pistachio nuts and leaning forward in his Victorian-style chair he says he’s confident the US won’t attack. Why? Because the geopolitical environment doesn’t permit it to invade.
He says President George W Bush’s popularity has waned and he will find it difficult to sell a third war to American voters.
But a war would also hit the US hard, especially in the pocket. “Any kind of invasion will cause a tremendous price hike. If there is a military invasion it will affect the oil prices. If the whole region is insecure how can Iran meet the demand? Couple that with the fact that the hate rate against the US is growing daily.”
Iran’s right to nuclear energy should be respected, Sheikattar says, adding that if Iran backs down now, it will be letting not only itself down but also Third World countries that need to advance technologically.
“The only reason for US anger is its fear of Third World countries developing. We want to break the superpowers’ monopoly on technological advancements.”
He says it is time that young Iranian scientists develop their capacity to engage with new technology and help propel the country into a new, more independent era, and that poorer countries can piggyback on these scientific strides.
So, while the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China mull over what to do about the problem of Iran, the Islamic Republic is forging ahead and refusing to be bowed.
Stroking his prayer ring, Sheikattar says it’s time for a return of the revolutionary spirit that stood firm in the face of international condemnation. Iran does not want war, not now and not in the future.
And it would be ironic if the religious ruling of a man despised by the US were to be all that stood between war and peace.