The annual celebrations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on February 11 were marked this year by mass defiance of the US after George Bush’s State of the Union address on January 29 promised action against an "axis of evil" comprised of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered in Azadi Square, Tehran, many carrying effigies of Bush or burning American flags, to express their solidarity with the Islamic Revolution and their resistance to the US. President Mohammad Khatami told the gathering that "the best way to fight the pressures and threats of immature foreign leaders is your presence here today."
The huge rally reflected the mood of the country that had earlier been expressed by Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the Rahbar of the Islamic State. In a speech on February 7, he said: "If anyone tries to attack this people and threatens their interests, the reply of the people of Iran will be keen and the aggressors will regret their action. The Iranian people and the various branches of the armed forces must be vigilant and totally prepared to respond to any attack." He also told the US that: "The Iranian people detest a regime which interferes, wants domination, waves the flag of democracy, freedom and human rights, but defends the Israeli regime, which is totally opposed to human rights, and in Afghanistan treats inhumanely prisoners from other nations... It is not only the Iranian people who hate you, but the whole world, as an oppressive regime, arrogant, misusing its strength, and hypocritical."
There can be no doubt that Iran was the main target of Bush’s "axis of evil" comments. Iraq and North Korea — both isolated countries suffering grievous hardships as a result of failed domestic policies and Western attack, with authoritarian regimes interested only in maintaining their own power — are straw enemies that the US promotes to justify its policies in the Middle East and south-east Asia. That the Islamic State of Iran is a very different case is reflected by the US’s treatment of it in recent years: with kid gloves rather than an iron fist. Although identified as an enemy, it has been cultivated rather than fought, to try to persuade it to become part of the West’s international system instead of standing against the West. This is because Iran has a popularity, credibility and strength that make it a far more substantial threat as a model and proof to Muslims everywhere that Islam does offer an alternative way to organise and run modern societies.
If Bush’s speech is taken at its face value, it suggests a dangerous change in the US’s policy towards Iran. However, it may just prove another example of Bush not understanding the implications of what he is saying, or being influenced by hawks in his administration to take a harder line in his words than the US will actually take in practice. As soon as he finished speaking, the US’s allies proved openly critical of his stance, rejecting his characterisation of the three countries as an "axis of evil." European states, including Britain, which usually follows Washington’s lead like a faithful puppy, said that they would continue to deal with Iran in the hope of ‘moderating’ its stance in international affairs. Other officials and senior figures in Washington also tried to minimise the impact of Bush’s words. Clearly there remain disagreements on how to approach the key foreign policy problem facing Washington. One can only hope that the response of the Iranian people — whom the US likes to imagine are fervently pro-Western and anti-Revolution — will sober some minds in Washington.
In his recent budget, Bush increased military spending for the next year to $379bn, $50bn of which is committed to "the war on terrorism". This is manna from heaven for the military and oil industries, to which he is closely linked; arms firms were the only ones to show share price rises when Wall Street reopened after September 11. Richard Perle, an adviser of Bush’s, has spoken of waging "total war [so that] our children will sing great songs about us years from now." Vice-president Dick Cheney has said that the US is considering military action against 40 or 50 more countries, and that the new war could last 50 years. If this school of opinion in Washington prevails, Iran faces perhaps the greatest threat to its existence since the darkest days of the war imposed on the Islamic State by Iraq, supported by the US and its other Arab clients. Only the unity of purpose of the Iranian people, and the solidarity of the Islamic movement worldwide with the Islamic state, can deter them.