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A British 'Friend Of Iran' Discusses Crisis

Lord Lamont (file photo) was chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93
Lord Lamont (file photo) was chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93
Lord Lamont of Lerwick is a leading Conservative member of Britain's House of Lords. Lamont served as chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major's government, and he held several ministerial positions in the administration headed by Margaret Thatcher. He is chairman of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce and serves on the advisory board of the Iran Heritage Foundation. He is widely regarded in Europe as someone who wants better diplomatic and economic ties between Iran and the West. Lamont recently spoke with RFE/RL Executive Editor John O'Sullivan.

RFE/RL: How does someone regarded as a "friend of Iran" view the recent elections and the ongoing political crisis there?

Lord Lamont: Well, I have been shocked by what has happened and completely horrified. I have always known that there was a [rear-]guard faction who would fight to retain power. That's always been a reality.

But I was surprised that they did not allow a democratic but limited election to take place with people having the opportunity to vote for some limited change. That, to my mind, was a very big blunder by the Iranian government, by the Iranian regime, and it did surprise me.

RFERL: But who in the Iranian government made the decision to -- in effect -- rig the election? And why take such a risk?

Lamont: I don't think anyone is fully in control in Iran, and that has been one of the basic points about the country for some while. The system of government has been quite pluralistic, with different factions, but the most conservative faction has really held the whip hand and has increased in its power.

Undoubtedly, the most conservative faction has felt threatened by the reformist element, even though they had lived through a reformist element holding the presidency before. I think that the Iranians have been unnerved by [U.S. President Barack] Obama's different approach and haven't quite known how to respond. I think that is caused them a lot of discomfort.

Status Quo v. 'Limited Change'

RFERL: How would you describe the different Iranian factions now fighting for power? Is [presidential candidate Mir Hossein] Musavi a liberal? [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei a conservative? [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad a radical? And what do the people in the streets want?

Lamont: I don't think these terms liberals, left-wing, right-wing... I'm never sure how much they mean. But I think in the Iranian context they are even more confused than they are misleading when applied to Western debate.

The supreme leader, Khamenei, is quite right-wing in his economic views. Musavi used to be very left-wing in his economic views. Musavi -- during the election he even rebuked women for not wearing their head scarves properly.

I think it is wrong to confuse these people with Western liberals or people wanting an Orange or Velvet Revolution. There may be an element of that, particularly among middle-class people in Tehran. But I think a lot of other people were just voting for limited changed within the system.

I think it is important to realize that the system depended a bit on the participation of the electorate. That was how they've got the appearance of legitimacy, and it mattered to them. The supreme ruler and others have constantly urged people to vote as an Islamic duty. They wanted a huge turnout in order to show their own legitimacy and that is where they've made their most amazing blunder, because they have -- by not allowing the election -- they have shown themselves destroying what legitimacy they've had.

International Engagement

RFERL: Is this loss of legitimacy likely to increase Iran's international isolation?

Lamont: Before I answer that, can I just suggest a bit of caution about Iran being isolated? Iran is not quite as isolated as you think, and countries like Pakistan, in which Iran is strongly interested, or India, or indeed China, and to some extent Russia -- Asian countries by and large have fairly normal relations with Iran.

Also, whatever Arab governments or Arab leaders may think, you should remember that Ahmadinejad, his extreme remarks, often go down quite well -- often go down quite very well -- with Arab public opinion, with the Arab street. And what you would find in Egypt or Saudi Arabia is quite a lot of popular admiration for Ahmadinejad -- not shared by the governments of those countries, but by the ordinary public.

RFERL: What should be done? What should the West do? Can it continue to be accommodating to a government in Tehran that is brutally suppressing peaceful demonstrations?

Lamont: A response has to be and ought to be measured. I think the West, as I said, or America has unnerved them with the friendly approach. Now obviously we have to be on our guard.

This is a regime whose word you can't trust, and a regime that may get up to mischief as a distraction. I am inclined to the view that Iranian foreign policies [are] more cautious than people imagine and more cautious that the rhetoric often suggests. I think it is much more concerned to support the national interest and the national security of Iran as a country.

RFERL: But isn't the Islamic Republic of Iran a self-proclaimed revolutionary power that supports groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with arms and money?

Lamont: I think that the days of exporting revolution have gone, and my own opinion is that support for Hamas is very much part of a chess game and they view them as an asset. There is a different relationship with Hezbollah, because there is an ideological relationship. We obviously have to be very much on our guard.

It's up to the Iranians to prove their good will, to prove what the purpose of their nuclear program is. I think they ought to sacrifice some of the openness that Obama was prepared to offer to them.

RFERL: Suppose Iran won't display the openness you advocate? What should the West do in these circumstances? What will it do?

Lamont: We still ought to engage about the nuclear program. I am not convinced that drawing the line at enrichment is the right place to draw it. Enrichment to a very low grade -- even if it's done on a very large scale -- does not enable you to build a bomb. And enrichment of low-grade uranium is not illegal under the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]. And I think we should be guided by the inspectors, by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy administration], which is coming under new management.

I am sure the West will have targeted sanctions, but I personally think that they will have a very, very little effect. If Iran was to weaponize its program, that would require a considerable reconfiguration of the facilities they already have and would be very visible -- unless there are secret facilities that the world doesn't know about.

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