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Plot Allegations Stir Complex Nationalist Feelings in Iran

TEHRAN, Oct 24 2011 (IPS) - The news of Iran’s participation in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington and subsequent harsh rhetoric by senior officials in both Washington and Riyadh have generated deep and complex nationalist feelings on the part of the public here.

For the first time since the disputed 2009 election, both supporters and opponents of the government are responding in similar fashion, voicing considerable scepticism about the charges and questioning U.S. intentions and objectives regarding Iran.

At the same time, this outpouring of nationalist feelings cannot be entirely comforting to Iranian officials as the public is demanding prudence from the regime in handling what it sees as an increasingly dangerous situation.

Reactions to the alleged plot by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to assassinate the Saudi ambassador were initially muted. The public display of outrage on the part of U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama himself, stirred fears of a possible military attack.

At the same time, the public anger generated by the contested June election against the IRGC and its role in suppressing the popular movement made many people hesitant to take the side of Iranian officials who, like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Washington’s claims “nonsense”.

However, as the verbal attacks against Iran have intensified over the last two weeks, concern about increased sanctions, fear regarding the possibility of war, and even indifference have given way to a deep and complex sense of nationalism.

For many, the idea of the IRGC plotting to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington is hard to believe.

According to Alireza, a 55-year old shop owner, “Saudi Arabia has done many nasty things against Iran, including the killing of Iranian pilgrims [in Mecca] in 1987 and support for Saddam Hussein during the war, but Iran has never retaliated.”

“Why should it give a pretext to the United States now?” said Alireza, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that his full name not be used.

The possibility that the alleged plot might pave the way for sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) has led to even harsher reactions.

Hussein, who has a degree in economics, insists that until now he never believed the narrative peddled by regime hardliners that the West wants to destroy Islamic Republic. But with the loud public pronouncement of Iran’s guilt “before a trial is held and solid proof is offered”, he says, he no longer has any doubts.

“There is really no difference between the sanctioning of the CBI and the humiliating oil-for-food programme that was implemented to weaken the nation of Iraq and pave the way for the military invasion of that country.”

That view was echoed by Cyrus, a master’s degree candidate in electronics at the University of Tehran and an active participant in the now-underground Green Movement. “The pride and power of every country is its people, and by sanctioning the Central Bank they want to humiliate and weaken the people (of Iran) and invade the country,” he told IPS.

A friend of Mohsen Rouholamini, who was killed by guards in Kahrizak prison after his arrest during the post-election protests, Cyrus stressed that the task of opposition in Iran has become much more difficult in Iran since it has to “fight for freedom and democracy inside the country and against foreign threats in the international arena”.

The fact that Saudi Arabia is accusing Iran along with the United States has provoked additional reactions on the public’s part. Most Iranians have never really forgiven Saudi Arabia for its financial support of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, although they appreciated the improved relations with Riyadh during the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

But recent Wikileaks revelations that Saudi officials prodded the U.S. “to cut off the head of the snake”, in reference to Iran, have revived old suspicions.

Sadeq Kharrazi, former deputy foreign minister and ambassador to France during the Khatami government has gone as far to suggest that Iran has made a “strategic mistake” in its insistence on relations and conciliation with “some Arab countries in the region”.

The question that is being asked is what has caused Saudi Arabia to act so boldly against Iran’s interests in the international arena in recent months. For many critics, the answer lies in the rift between the government and people that occurred as a result of the June 2009 elections and the repression that ensued.

According to the 45-year old Azar, who has a graduate degree in management, Saudi Arabia could not have acted in this manner during Khatami’s presidency due to the popular support that he enjoyed.

At the same time, however, she strongly rejects the notion that the IRGC plotted the Saudi ambassador’s assassination, as charged by Washington and Riyadh.

“The Arabs and the West think that since we oppose the government, we would like to offer our country to foreigners. But these are two independent issues. We are against the government but we love our country.”

Azar believes that even if Mir Hossein Mussavi, the presidential candidate who has been under house arrest, were free, popular scepticism regarding the alleged plot would be the same.

The plot allegations on the part of highest-ranking U.S. officials have also led to a noticeable change in the way the United States is viewed here.

One political activist believes that, until very recently, many in the general public and even among political activists trusted the spoken words of the U.S. president and officials more than those uttered by Iranian officials.

But “the continuation of hostilities, sanctions, and in particular the recent allegations have changed people’s views, since they are beginning to feel that the long-term U.S. objective is the destruction of Iran.”

According to a recently dismissed university professor, an added twist is the way this negative view of U.S. intentions has become associated in a national consciousness with how dangerous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies and bombastic rhetoric have been in making it easy for the United States to pursue its aggressive policies towards Iran.

“The first manifestation of this national consciousness can be traced in the massive number of people who chose to participate in the 2009 elections to prevent Ahmadinejad’s re-election because they thought his policies were dangerous,” the academic said. “They participated because they feared for their country.”

This fear and need for a more prudent foreign policy was openly expressed by former intelligence minister Ali Yunesi, who served during the Khatami administration, in an interview with Etemaad Daily.

Calling the plot allegations “chimerical”, he went on to emphasise the need for a “foreign policy that does not create the context for the acceptance of conspiracies by enemies”. Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy “is not assertive foreign policy; it is (a policy) of creating enemies,” Yunesi said.

In this sense, the government of Iran cannot feel assured that the solidarity and nationalist reaction caused by the assassination accusations will work to its benefit.

“This national consciousness is actually quite corrosive and dangerous for the government because it constantly insists on the pursuit of policies that have a positive impact and do not give the United States, Saudi Arabia, or other countries any pretext for harming the country,” the dismissed university professor told IPS.

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