As demonstrators take to the streets of Iran, Mark Summers talks to Iranian Dr Reza Molavi, of Durham University, about his interpretation of recent events in his homeland.

THE Islamic Republic of Iran was born 30 years ago after people took to the streets to call for the overthrow of the Western-backed Shah, who grandly styled himself “King of Kings”.

The Shah had been installed in 1953 in a CIA/MI6-engineered coup, after the country’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, made the fatal mistake of nationalising the country’s oil industry, thus unleashing the wrath of Washington and London on his administration.

The new republic, founded with widespread support following the return from exile in France of Ayatollah Khomeini, has endured a turbulent three decades – particularly in its dealings with The West and Israel – three decades that have included a brutal war launched by its neighbour Iraq, whose then Western-backed dictator Saddam Hussein was supplied weapons of mass destruction, including chemical munitions, by his supporters.

Now though, ten years after the last uprising, Iran is again wracked by protests, sparked by what is believed to have been a stolen presidential election.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president for the last four years, scored about 63 per cent of the vote compared to the 33 per cent achieved by his rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, in a turnout of more than 80 per cent – figures British politicians are only ever likely to see in their dreams.

The protests, and the sometimes deadly response by Iran’s police, security forces and militias, are making big headlines and people are starting to speculate on the survival of a regime that is upping the ante in the international arena by developing a nuclear programme that could see it joining the select band of countries with the atomic bomb.

Dr Reza Molavi, director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University, is following events in his homeland closely and believes that the picture of the events being presented in the West is somewhat distorted and inaccurate.

Dr Molavi, like many middle-class Iranian sons in pre-revolutionary times, was educated in the US and the UK. He married a British Iranian woman, but still has a house in his native land which he visits every year.

He believes that Ahmadinejad, who enjoys the public support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, probably did win the election, but perhaps not by the margin that has been recorded. “Ahmadinejad got 63 per cent and he got 61 per cent in his first election,” says Dr Molavi. “Ahmadinejad had the numbers in his favour. But I’m at a loss to tell you why they would resort to dubious tactics.”

Both candidates are scions of the Iranian political establishment, Ahmadinejad being portrayed in the West as a hard-liner while Mousavi is seen as more of a moderate, reforming figure.

In Iran there are no political parties and ultimate power rests with the Supreme Leader, the president having no control over key areas such as foreign policy and the military.

Dr Molavi says criticism of the Government’s ministers, its President, and the policies they pursue is permitted, but loyalty to the overall state structure is demanded.

Ahmadinejad, a bogeyman figure in the West with his rhetoric about Israel and stunts such his conference for Holocaust sceptics, is popular with many in Iranian society, particularly people outside the middle class enclaves of Northern Tehran from which many of the protestors are drawn.

“The fallacy in the Western media is they think everybody hates him, that he has a huge image problem. He is a good operator and he has visited every province twice,” says Dr Molavi.

Iran has seen big improvements since the days of the Shah, although as it is a young country – 60 per cent of its 70 million population are said to be under 30 – many are unaware of the rise in living standards. About 60,000 villages have been given an electricity supply, many have running water, new roads have been built, and many people have television sets and phones.

Despite that, some people blame the President’s stewardship of the economy for a burgeoning unemployment problem. Unemployment is currently about 15 per cent and Dr Molavi says the despair some of the jobless feel is feeding a growing drugs problem. This, he believes, is the real cause of the protests, fears of vote-rigging being purely the spark.

“It isn’t about Ahmadinejad versus Mousavi, it is about other things, they just don’t know how to express it.”

He doesn’t believe it is a revolution. “This thing is an expression of dismay, pent-up aggro accumulated over a number of years,” he says.

The desire for security and the fear of attack by the West and/or Israel are common to most Iranians, says Dr Molavi, and the President knows that his anti-West declamations and anti- Iranian statements from the West will generate support among his people.

Dr Molavi believes the West should tone down its war of words over the protests because it could provoke an even more violent reaction against the protestors from the state security apparatus – one that many Iranians would applaud, particularly if the authorities could suggest Western interference.

But an Iranian Tiananmen Square, he feels, is highly unlikely, given that the Islamic Republic owed its creation to violent repression by the Shah.

“There is not going to be a mass killing because the people in the hierarchy of this system know it was because of that they came into power – the Shah’s special guards started firing and killing people. That is when the Islamic revolution was ignited.

“People went out and said ‘these people are animals, they are not our countrymen’. They thought those who were killing them and shooting them had been imported from somewhere else to kill Iranians. That is how the revolution succeeded.”

ULTIMATELY, Dr Molavi hopes Ayatollah Khamenei will find a solution to the crisis that is satisfactory to both sides, though in the longer run he feels the government will have to improve its performance over the economy. Developing better relations with US and its allies would also provide the investment Iran badly needs.

“America isn’t stupid enough to pour $300bn into a country that calls it The Great Satan,”

says Dr Molavi. “Iran needs investment for the oil and gas industry, for the construction industry and to create jobs and employ people.

This is what the people in the street should be thinking about rather than changing one guy for another guy.’”

From afar, Dr Molavi is following events and notes, with pride and a little sadness, that Iran and its Persian predecessor have given much to civilisation but now it is conflict and violence that is making headlines.

“While TV is showing bloodshed on the streets, nobody mentions that it was the Persians who wrote the first declaration of human rights, which today sits in the corridors of the United Nations Security Council. It was Cyrus the Great (leader of the Persian Empire) who not only declared that every human being should have the freedom of religion and way of life, but was the first one to free the Jews from slavery. That’s why Moses was kind enough to make a mention of them in their book The Torah.

“Why can’t they talk about the art and poetry that is still coming out of that country?”