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Spectre of nationalism haunts Iran

By Jonathan Lyons

AHMADABAD, Iran, March 11 (Reuters) - The spectre of secular nationalism is stalking the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the accelerating revival of the late Mohammad Mossadeq, the former prime minister who nationalised British oil interests, advocated a policy of non-alignment and steadily undermined the pro-Western shah only to be brought down by a CIA coup in 1953.

Mossadeq, a seasoned politician with royal blood, has long posed a problem for Iran's clerical establishment: his nationalist and anti-colonialist credentials were impeccable but his lack of religious zeal and open clashes with senior clerics have seen him banished to revisionist limbo.

Now his ghost has returned to the political scene, particularly among young people, forcing a re-evaluation of the Mossadeq legacy to contemporary Iran.

In the largest such rally since the consolidation of the Islamic revolution, more than 2,000 Iranians gathered on March 5 at the Mossadeq family estate in the village of Ahmadabad, 115 km (70 miles) west of Tehran, to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of his death under house arrest.

Among the usual contingent of ageing nationalists, many wearing the Iranian tri-colour stripped of its Islamic centrepiece, was an unusually large contingent of university students -- all too young to remember the 1979 revolution let alone Mossadeq himself.

``We are here today to celebrate someone like Mohammad Mossadeq. What he did 40 years ago represents our ideals,'' said Reyhaneh Taheri, a 19-year-old student. ``The least we can do is gather here today.''


After 20 years of fending off Western hostility and suspicion of the Islamic revolution, Iran's clerical establishment is now face-to-face with a new, homegrown threat to their exclusive grip on power -- the compelling saga of Iranian nationalism.

Long relegated to the scrap heap of history by the ruling clerics, the movement is nonetheless making a comeback under the new, freer political atmosphere fostered by reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Taheri and hundreds of young people like her arrived at Ahmadabad in convoys of buses from the capital Tehran, as well as from university centres such as Tabriz and Isfahan.

The youngsters swelled the ranks of veteran mourners who spilled out of the back garden of the Mossadeq estate or heaped fresh flowers on the late leader's tomb. Many sang nationalist songs long frowned-upon.

``Mossadeq's message is alive and no one can eradicate it from the mind of society,'' said Ebrahim Yazdi, veteran head of the banned but tolerated Iran Freedom Movement and one of the organisers of the commemoration.

``When someone is very solid and well respected in the consciousness of society, it will be transmitted to a new generation,'' said Yazdi, as he surveyed the young crowd boarding a line of chartered buses. ``It is very satisfying.''


For many ordinary Iranians, Mossadeq's return to political ``life'' had its roots in the murders last November of nationalist dissidents Dariush Forouhar and his wife Parvaneh. Elements of Iran's secret service have been implicated in the killings.

Their funeral broke into an impromptu nationalist rally, as mourners chanted ``Death to tyranny'' and ``Freedom of thought forever.'' Others sang patriotic songs and hailed Mossadeq, whose memory inspired Forouhar and his small Iran Nation Party.

Three months later, Mossadeq's legacy got another boost, this time from President Khatami himself, who used the 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution to praise the former prime minister by deeds, if not by name.

``The oil nationalisation movement was yet another worthy effort in the long series of the Iranian nation's anti-colonial struggles,'' Khatami told a huge crowd in Tehran's Azadi Square.

``It opened a glorious chapter in the history of the Iranian nation.''

Iran's first nationwide local elections in February even featured a portrait of Mossadeq in campaign advertising alongside a list of nationalist candidates.


But perhaps the most intriguing sign that Mossadeq may at last be on his way to full-scale rehabilitation came in a recent interview with a leading old-guard cleric, Mehdi Karrubi.

Karrubi told a newspaper that the elder brother of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini always kept a portrait of Mossadeq next to his picture of Khomeini himself.

Karrubi gave no details but the message was clear: the respected brother of Khomeini honoured the two men equally.

In perhaps the ultimate accolade, the conservative press has turned on Mossadeq, a sure indication he is no longer a marginal figure. The hardline daily Kayhan, in an essay headlined ``Mossadeq as he really was,'' labelled the late leader a ``coward'' who once took refuge in the embassy of the hated British.

Back at Ahmadabad, few had any doubts that the former nationalist leader belonged securely in the Iranian political pantheon. Hawkers sold portraits of Mossadeq to eager buyers, while students collected money to carry on the work of the movement he helped launch.

The good-natured crowd, said by veterans to be several times last year's turnout, periodically broke into chants and patriotic songs. Young students often took the lead.

``Things have changed under Khatami. There is more freedom now, but there is also more resistance to our message,'' said Gholamabbas Tavassoli, a senior nationalist figure and one of the Freedom Movement's candidates for the Tehran city council.

``That so many young people turned out on their own is a hopeful sign for the future,'' he said.


* Special spection on Mossadegh & 1963 coup


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