Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The toreros of Tehran

The west's nuclear dance with Iran mirrors the game of chicken the nation's pedestrians and motorists play every day

--Crossing the road in Tehran is a life-or-death experience. There are no helpful little green men indicating when it is safe to step off the pavement. There are no zebra crossings, as in Britain, and few raised walkways, as in US cities. You can wait a long time for a genial policeman to halt the snarling traffic.

Getting to the other side is instead a partly terrifying, partly exhilarating game of chicken, pitting the pedestrian against the tens of thousands of Tehrani car and taxi drivers who would apparently rather die than give way. Speeding vehicles fill the city's wide, tree-lined boulevards, three of four abreast, engines roaring, exhausts fuming, horns blasting, dodging, weaving, constantly cutting in and out and accelerating or braking bumper to bumper and inches apart.

And Tehran's roads are no respecter of persons. Schoolchildren, old ladies clad in full hijab, fashionable shoppers, businessmen, street vendors, mullahs in full clerical garb: all can be seen stranded in the middle of the traffic lanes, edging in front of cars, daring them to slow down, fighting their way across, acting for all the world like Spanish matadors facing down angry bulls. The game is all about who blinks first, who gives way, who is "chicken".

This daily jousting has wider cultural applications. It makes it easier to understand Iran's approach to its protracted nuclear negotiations with western countries. Every step forward can be matched by a step back; just when progress appears within grasp, some unexpected development comes steaming down the road, threatening to upend the unwary. Western diplomats express a mixture of exasperation and admiration. But they have little choice but to play chicken, too.

The Iranian government is currently examining the latest package of proposals from the US and EU on suspending uranium enrichment in return for a range of political and commercial incentives. According to official sources, it has been set a "de facto deadline" to make up its mind before the St Petersburg G8 summit opens on July 15.

Like the prospect of successfully crossing the street, the chance that Tehran will say yes is touch and go. Iranian officials say it all comes down to a question of trust and mutual confidence. If they set off down that path, they say, they want to be sure they will not be run over by a Bush administration whose ulterior motive appears to be not a nuclear-free Middle East but regime change in Iran. Britain, as usual, is accused of backseat driving.

Shirzad Bozorgmehr, editor of the independent Iran News newspaper in Tehran, says nobody knows which way the government will jump, or exactly when. "Judging by the initial response, it looks good. The reaction has been much better than before," he says. "There are no threats, no disincentives in the package, and that's very important. Saving face is very important.

"This is probably the most significant issue they have ever faced The final decision will be made by the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and probably by Ali Larijani (Iran's chief nuclear negotiator). But there are some real hardliners who are still opposed to all this."

As a journalist who values a free press, Mr Bozorgmehr is also engaged in his own daily game of chicken with the authorities. It doesn't take much for a newspaper to be banned in Iran, if its editorial views or reports are seen as overly critical. "It's not real journalism as you understand it," he said. "We do our best. Sometimes when we think no one is looking, we say something that we know they won't like." But the paper is short of resources and finance, he says; its staff has not been paid for three months and the threat of a calamitous collision is ever present.

The paper keeps trying. Sunday's lead editorial drew attention to an open letter to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by "50 prominent economists" who said the government's over-centralised and "hasty" policies were in danger of wrecking the economy, driving away foreign investment and provoking capital flight and a national brain drain.

Merely to highlight the letter was an act of journalistic courage by Mr Bozorgmehr. Now, like the pedestrians stranded in Tehran's dangerous traffic lanes, he can only hope he doesn't get flattened.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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