Of all the black holes in America's foreign relations few have been darker than Iran.How to understand a country that overthrew an autocrat in the name of freedom and then produced a theocracy whose human rights abuses make the shah's look mild?Proclaimed itself a leader of the dispossessed and the guide for the world's Muslims, yet earned international scorn and isolation by provoking the hostage crisis? Prolonged its war with Iraq, bringing a terrible loss of lives and treasure? Why?
The answers begin with history. Throughout much of the past century, Iran was manipulated by outsiders-first British and Russians, then Americans, and now, apparently, by Heaven. This bitter fate has fed national cynicism and suspicion, along with a tangle of conspiracy theories. More important, Iran's history has nourished a fierce nationalism which fuses its Shi'i faith with a strong pride in the country's rich culture. Nationalism, especially when superheated by revolution, is rarely rational.Yet, to continue with the paradoxes, Iran's absolutist rulers correctly think themselves vulnerable and are profoundly risk-averse.
How does this perspective play out?What openings, if any, might there be for the U.S.?
After 25 years, the revolution's fire has cooled. Sixty percent of the population is under 30 and has no memory of the shah.They know only the tight grip of the clerics and the weakness of the reformers.
Both conservatives and reformers share two emotions: disappointment in the failure to realize the revolution's promises (for reformers, greater freedom, and for hard-liners, stronger Islamic values) and revolution fatigue (fear of another violent conflict with uncertainty of outcome). For the ruling clerics, student protests are a way of letting off a little steam.They must be controlled, however, lest unrest spread to the working and bazaar classes and provoke the strikes and massive demonstrations that brought down the shah.Reform leaders, for their part, draw a line that should not be crossed by student demonstrators.
In these circumstances it is futile and counterproductive for President George W. Bush to label Iran as a spoke in the Axis of Evil while sending sweet words to the beleaguered democratic opposition. All Iranians resent President Bush's denigration of their country.The democrats, valuing their independence, reject any foreign intervention on their behalf. During the revolution there was little outsiders could say or do that did not produce unintended effects. That condition holds today. Informed silence and inactivity is in order for Washington.
Reaction to a U.S. Assault on Iraq?
While Iranians bitterly hate Saddam Hussain, they have no taste for his removal by an American-led invasion.Should U.S. forces take over Baghdad, Iran will face American power on all its borders, a situation no Iranian nationalist wants. (Even the shah disliked the heavy U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf, preferring to be its gendarme himself.) Will a defeated Iraq become fragmented, with an independent Kurdish state emerging in the north?Iran, like Turkey, would resist that attraction for its own Kurds.Will refugees flood across the border?What will be the fate of Iraq's long-abused majority Shi'i population? Iran has to be concerned with the uncertain future of its western neighbor, but is powerless to affect the outcome of a war.
Tehran, therefore, is most likely to resume the posture it adopted during the Afghan war: neutrality (with a friendly gesture or two toward the U.S.) and eagerness to assert some influence when the fighting ends. It will make common cause with any successor regime, and with Russia, Turkey and European and Arab states, in seeking to limit a threatened U.S. hegemony in Baghdad.
It is also possible that a U.S. attack on Iraq will lead Iran's clerics to conclude that they may be next on Washington's liberation list for the Middle East.Out of fear of that possibility-or of an American success in creating a model democracy in Baghdad-they may well tighten their controls, cracking down on students and restricting the already small scope for political expression.
Iran's Foreign Policy Objectives
Iran has come a long way since the post-revolution days when it was accused of "exporting revolution" and suffered hostile relations with most of its neighbors as a result.Now, the reverse is true. Iran looks inward, giving highest priority to stimulating the economy in order to generate jobs for its restive unemployed youth. That, in turn, places a premium on maintaining decent relations in the immediate neighborhood so that funds are not unnecessarily diverted for national defense.It also means attracting European investment for industry and in oil and gas extraction. Reformers would like to add American firms to those bidding on projects, but they are blocked by conservatives in both Tehran and Washington.
Iran's foreign policy is not bereft of ideology, however.Three such causes remain important for the rulers-if not equally appealing to the ruled.One is the protection (with prudence) of Shi'i co-religionists where they are abused.Iran aided foes of the Taliban when Afghanistan's Shi'i minority was being persecuted, but, fearing a no-win war, did not attack when Kabul had 13 Iranian diplomats murdered. Good relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia take precedence over aid to their Shi'i populations. Iran's most active assistance has been to Hezbollah in Lebanon during Israel's occupation of the Shi'i south. That aid has diminished since the pullout of Israeli troops. (Israel calls Iran's support for Hezbollah sponsorship of terrorism; Iran calls it resistance to occupation.)
Second, Iran's hard-line clerics are unrelenting foes of a Jewish state in Palestine.Nevertheless, while some aid may go to help Hamas, it is certainly less than the flow from the Arab world. For most Iranians, unlike their rulers and the Arabs, Israel is not a burning issue.President Mohammad Khatami has said that Iran could live with any solution to the conflict that Palestinians would accept.
The third, and internally most divisive, issue is the attitude toward America.Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his clique are adamantly opposed to any thought of improving relations with Washington. In part because of their intense distaste for the controlling clerics, students and much of the population favor a normalization of that connection.American values-jeans, music, technology, and political ideals-are popular, even if American policy is not.
Nuclear Power or Weapons?
Washington believes Iran is developing facilities to produce nuclear weapons. Iran says it will need nuclear energy as oil reserves are depleted. When the shah took the same position, Washington cooperated with him in seeking to build nuclear plants.It is, of course, possible that nuclear power development could lead-if not tightly monitored-to nuclear weapons.Having witnessed Iraq's experiences, few Iranian officials can believe the U.S. or Israel would allow that to happen. Nevertheless, in a neighborhood where there are nukes on all sides, Iran will be tempted to create its own deterrence.Having directly experienced wartime gas attacks from Iraq, moreover, Tehran is building missiles, and might also decide it needs chemical and biological weapons. The problem of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iran is one that will be around a long time and will require constant attention and expert diplomacy.
U.S. Interests and Options
Trying to understand Iran's paranoia, ideology and grievances is important for the U.S. Iran still sits where it always has-between the oil-rich Gulf and emerging Central Asian republics, between the Arab-Israel and South Asian cockpits, and on top of large oil and gas reserves.Although no longer as critical as when it was a wedge in the containment of the Soviet Union, Iran has a potential for great trouble making or for some good in its region.So far the balance is mixed-positive in calming strife in Central Asia, helpful in Afghanistan but consistently-in the eyes of Israel and the U.S.-an irksome challenge. If Washington had normal relations with Tehran the U.S. might exercise a modicum of influence over its behavior-including over the development of WMDs. (Reflect on the crisis that turning our back on North Korea has helped produce.)
If Iran were accepted as a full participant in the world community, it might also be able to be more productive in combating the narcotics trade and joining the fight against terrorism.
Washington once had four complaints against Iran: human rights violations, opposition to the peace process, sponsorship of terrorism and development of WMDs. The first was dropped early on, when Iran was compared with the performance of other allies.The second charge has been silenced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's negation of the Oslo accords and other peace initiatives.The terrorism complaint is unsupported except by dated and unverifiable secret intelligence reports. WMD production, at this stage, relies on the same kind of sources and is, in effect, a speculation.
So why are there no diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington?Three reasons: lingering, but (polls show) largely faded American memories of the hostage outrage; the opposition of Supreme Leader Khamenei; and the strong but shady influence Israel and its friends (including extremist Christians and arms salesmen) exercise over Congress, the Pentagon and, via Karl Rove, the presidency.Until the Leader and AIPAC lose their powers, there is little prospect for an American Embassy in Tehran.
Never mind.There are excellent reasons for American officials to seek ways to ease and eventually end the failed policy of economic and political sanctions against Tehran.The U.S. has strong economic interests in greater energy production for the world and a promising market for U.S. investments. It should let business people begin to bridge the gap diplomats cannot approach. The same pragmatic congressmen who were willing to confront special interests in the recent partial liberalization of trade with Cuba should take on the similarly short-sighted Iran policy.
Washington should allow itself to be guided by history, public facts and basic intelligence, rather than questionable secret intelligence and domestic politics. Gradually, very gradually, economic and cultural relations between the two peoples might prosper-a more sensible policy on visas on both sides would help a lot-and then it would not seem so shocking for U.S. and Iranian officials to discuss common problems.
When that day comes, American policy can be tugged out of the black hole now stuffed with obscure political influences and shadowy intelligence operatives.
The authors are retired U.S. foreign service officers. Charles W. Nass was country director for Iran from 1975 to 1978, then served as chargé d'affaires in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Henry M. Precht was political-military officer in Tehran for the four years prior to the Revolution, then served as the State Department's country director for Iran.
... Payvand News - 4/21/03 ... --