Within the next few days, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is expected to decide whether to visit Iran. According to Egyptian and Iranian sources, his decision depends on a symbolic move by the leadership in Tehran.
Mubarak wants the Iranians to change the name of a Tehran street. The reason? The street, where the Egyptian Embassy building is located bears the name Khalid Al Islambouli, one of the terrorists involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Facing the embassy's main entrance is a giant-size mural of Al Islambouli that Mubarak also wants removed.
The current assumption is that unless those demands are met, the Egyptian President will not go to Tehran. I think Mubarak should go, even if the street's name is not changed and the assassin's mural is not removed. There are several reasons why.
To start with, Mubarak should not make any of his decisions conditional to what terrorists or their supporters might or might not do. The decision to change the name of a street does not rest with President Mohammed Khatami who has invited Mubarak.
Head of three powers
Strictly legally speaking, Khatami does not even have the right to invite a foreign head of state to Iran. Under the 1979 Constitution and its amendments, the president is not the head of state. He is the head of the executive, a kind of prime minister whose title is "president".
Legally speaking the head of state in the Islamic Republic of Iran is Ali Khamenehi, the mullah who bears the title of "Supreme Guide". In that position he is the head of the three powers and commander-in-chief. He has the power to dismiss the president, dissolve the parliament and even suspend the rules of Islam if he so pleases.
For more than two decades, however, most foreign heads of states and other foreign dignitaries have chosen to ignore these facts, acting as if the Iranian president is the head of state. Technically, this is a major diplomatic concession to Iran because it assumes that the Iranian "Supreme Guide", which the constitution presents as "the leader of all Muslims throughout the world", stands higher than other heads of state.
Having accepted this, Mubarak would be wrong to cancel his visit because of the Al Islambouli issue, which is part of the power game played out in Tehran.
By the latest count there are some 30 Tehran streets that bear the names of various Iranian and foreign terrorists and murderers. The street where the British Embassy is located is named after Bobby Sands, an IRA terrorist. The street where Hassan Ali Mansour, one of Iran's prime ministers, once lived is named after the man who murdered him.
Less radical Khomeinists like Khatami are embarrassed by all that and wish to do something about it. More radical Khomeinists, however, see any attempt at taking off the names of the terrorists as a direct attack on their ideology.
The truth is that Khatami is unable to bring about the street name change demanded by Mubarak. That decision belongs to the Tehran Municipal Council and Mayor. Tehran's new mayor is a hard-line Khomeinist who regards Khatami as a traitor. The new municipality is dominated by hard-liners who hate Mubarak as much as they hate Ariel Sharon.
The new mayor and the new municipality were elected earlier this year thanks to the massive boycott of the polls by the Tehrani electorate.
Less than 15 per cent of those eligible to vote went to the polls, enabling radicals to win control of a megapolis of some 12 million people with a few thousand votes. Thus, whatever that the mayor and the municipality might decide to do, or not to do, would not reflect the real views of the Tehranis.
Mubarak should go as guest of the Iranian people. Rightly or wrongly, Egypt remains the most popular Arab country in Iran. In fact, many Iranians believe Egypt, despite its recent decline in relative importance, remains the key Arab world nation with which Iran should forge close relations. Also, many Iranians regard Anwar Sadat as a hero.
The political gangsters who have put the name of terrorists on Tehran streets did so, in part, to prevent people like Mubarak from going to Iran. This is precisely why Mubarak should not allow that trick to work.
Many world leaders have understood this. For example, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has visited Tehran five times in two years, ignoring the daily insult of having his embassy's door opening in a street named after an IRA terrorist.
Various French foreign ministers have also visited Tehran, ignoring the streets named after terrorists who killed more than two dozen French men and women in Paris in the 1980s. Mubarak should know that, at this juncture in history, Iran has two personae, locked in a conflict.
One persona is that of Iran as the embodiment of a revolution whose aim is to conquer, first the Muslim world and then the entire globe. That persona honours, finances and sponsors terrorists.
That persona is the enemy of Egypt, just as it is the enemy of the Iranian people. Under that persona Iran would be isolated from the world, with North Korea as a model. That isolation would enable the ideology of terrorism to perpetuate the fiction that Iran is the vanguard of a global revolution in the name of Islam.
But Mubarak's advisors would know that the murderous persona in question no longer represents the mainstream of Iranian politics. The other persona represents Iran as a nation-state whose interest is in developing the best of relations with all countries, especially one such as Egypt that is heir to a great civilisation. Let the Khomeinist gangsters cling to their terrorist icons. What matters is to show that their Middle East policy has hit a wall.
Khomeini had vowed to never allow a restoration of ties with Egypt unless the Egyptians tore up the Camp David accords that led to peace with Israel.
Well, the Egyptians have not done so, and their leader could go to Tehran to show that Khomeini was wrong to sever ties in the first place. Mubarak appearing in Tehran would be a moment of humiliation for those who wish people like-Islambouli to rule the Muslim world.
Bombarded with telephone calls
Anyone familiar with my writings will know that I am no great fan of President Mubarak. In recent days, however, I have been bombarded with telephone calls and e-mails from all over Iran asking me to spread the message that the Egyptian leader should go to Iran, and that his visit would be a blow to the hardliners on the eve of the Iranian general election.
In Tehran, Mubarak would show that the outside world, starting with the Muslim countries, is prepared to accept Iran as a friend and partner provided it abandons its revolutionary pretensions and terrorist projects. And that is the message that the overwhelming majority of Iranians wish to hear.
So, Mr. President Ahlan wa sahlan! Please do go to Iran. You have many more friends there than you think.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam. He's reachable through www.benadorassociates.com