No longer fooled by the west

When Britain failed to help liberal Iranians depose their autocratic regime, it lost crucial allies

For most Iranians, western criticism of their government's policies is a badge of honour. It was Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic revolution, who warned his compatriots that only when the Americans complimented Iran should they worry.

Thus, as the west agitates over the development of Iran's nuclear programme, many Iranians see this as much ado about nothing. After all, their country has signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and, unlike some others, is sticking to its strictures. The International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to find any proof that Iran intends to "weaponise" its nuclear technology.

Iranians accept that their government hid developments from the IAEA because, under an unjust embargo applied by the United States that was also contrary to the terms of the NPT (by which nuclear powers agree to collaborate on civil nuclear technology), purchases of essential equipment could not be made on the open market. From the Iranian perspective, Iran has every right to acquire nuclear technology and, if necessary, nuclear weapons, not only as a deterrent (the Iran-Iraq war casts a long shadow) but, more fundamentally, because Iran has a right to be modern. To Iranians, nuclear technology symbolises "modernity", just as railways epitomised progress to their forebears.

The US has been obsessed with Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979, and this has resulted in a reactionary and occasionally hysterical approach towards the country. If the Europeans had difficulty appreciating US fears of an imminent Iranian nuclear strike, they are acutely aware that, in the aftermath of the Iraqi WMD fiasco, they face a much harder task convincing their respective publics of the urgent need to deal with Iran.

The revolutionary regime in Tehran, and especially its more hardline elements, have become emboldened. What, they ask, can "the west" do, having embroiled itself in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan? A military invasion is out of the question and sanctions, if implemented, will encourage Iranians to be "self-sufficient". A limited military strike would unite the country in nationalist indignation and disguise the deep divisions resulting from the vigorous repression of the reform movement.

Herein lies the supreme and tragic irony of recent western policy towards Iran. If there had been any hope of a mutually satisfactory, constructive solution to the current impasse, it lay in Europe building bridges to like-minded individuals in Iran - those who aspired to a democratic solution to Iran's myriad problems. It is certainly true that politicians of all factional hues supported the country's right to nuclear technology, but variations in emphasis were apparent as reformists sought to assuage western fears. Moreover, reformists recognised and understood the vital importance of Europe as a counterbalance to the US, and understood the global order.

Or at least they thought they understood it. Then they discovered that their intellectual bedfellows in the west were moving in mysterious ways. George W Bush famously included Iran in his "axis of evil", a somewhat ungenerous reward for that country's (and particularly President Mohammad Khatami's) help in overthrowing the Taliban. He added that an elected government was being obstructed by an unelected minority. (All the more surprising, therefore, that some parties in the US administration sought negotiations with that unelected minority.) If such hypocrisy was to be expected of the Americans, Europe's overhasty determination to anticipate the Americans was not. In their anxiety to pre-empt the US, the Europeans rashly wrote off the reformists and concentrated exclusively on the conservatives as the people whom "we can do business with". Security was the priority, and the conservatives could deliver the Additional Protocol to the NPT demanded by the west. This would be a triumph of European diplomacy over US adventurism.

But there was a hidden cost that would reveal itself only later, during the farce of the parliamentary elections in February 2004, which in effect witnessed a hardline conservative constitutional coup. Iranians, long disillusioned with the indecisive nature of their leaders, had expected something more emphatic from the Europeans. Rather than principled protest, however, a deafening silence confronted Iranians - a silence compounded by a sudden visit from the Prince of Wales, intent on humanitarian good deeds in the earthquake-shattered city of Bam.

It was official: the Brits backed the coup. Ordinary Iranians felt badly betrayed. It was a remarkable lapse of judgement by the Europeans and, in particular, by the British, who in their eagerness to restore regional stability and (ostensibly) to promote democracy in the Middle East, turned a blind eye to its suffocation in the one country that possessed the structural foundations of democratisation.

Is it any wonder that Iranians are less willing to listen to the admonitions of the Europeans? Hardline conservatives, on the other hand, were triumphant. They had outwitted their international foes (the new parliament is unlikely to ratify the Additional Protocol) and finally rid themselves of the reformists. The Europeans found themselves complicit in the removal of the very interlocutors to whom they could have communicated their concerns effectively. Now there appeared no one to talk to.

If "reform" is dead, we helped to kill it.

Ali Ansari is reader in modern history at the University of St Andrews and associate fellow of the Middle East programme, Chatham House