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On Point

The Curious State of Iran

by Austin Bay

Iran is the most curious hub on the Bush Administration's axis of evil -- a hub that, for U.S. diplomacy, becomes "curiouser and curiouser."

Iraq and North Korea are clearly run by rank thug regimes. U.S. military forces are already at war with Iraq (check the action in No Fly Zones). The United States confronts North Korea across a mine-strewn front where the Cold War remains a fact. With Iran, however, the "axis" definitely goes tilt.

Yes, Iran's Islamist mullahs back Lebanon's Hizbullah, a terrorist thorn in the side of any Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. There's evidence indicating Iranian operatives helped smuggle Al Qaeda terrorists from Afghanistan, thwarting central U.S. war aims. As for the chief reason Iran appeared on the "axis" -- a hard-core quest for weapons of mass destruction -- no argument there.

Yet Iran also holds democratic elections, where a genuine (if cannily timid) reformer, Muhammad Khatami, becomes president despite the bullyboy tactics of Islamist street mobs. Khatami, though his power is highly circumscribed by the Ayatollah Khomeini-designed clerical autocracy (the Council of Guardians), has twice received an overwhelming popular mandate.

Last October, the United States was working with the World Food Program to help coordinate humanitarian aid deliveries into Afghanistan. One of the main routes for that aid? Iran. Call that a positive diplomatic contact, with food moving into Afghanistan, even as Iranian intelligence shipped Al Qeada murderers in the opposite direction.

Sound a bit schizoid, a split political personality? Iran begins the 21st century a profoundly divided country. Its politics reflect that deep division. A wise, long-haul U.S. policy approach to Iran must take this deep division into account -- for time, measured in demographics and economics, is not on the side of the Islamist mullahs and their mobs.

Most of the under-35s in Iran have had it with the religious tyrants. Iran's young don't remember Khomeini's revolution. The Shah and the Pahlavi clan may or may not look good, but the Council of Guardians' brutality is current news, the cultural straight-jacket of clerical puritanism chafes, and the mullahs' hypocrisy and corruption are self-evident. In some ways, the thief in religious robes is even more repugnant than the usual greased-palm bureaucrat.

A chunk of over-35s no longer care for clerical rule, either. To describe the clerics' economy as "stagnant" is a multi-decade understatement.

The division exerts a paralyzing effect on Iranian internal politics. The Islamist autocrats know they can't hammer on the reformists too hard. If they do, the "fire will grow higher" -- code language for the young taking to the streets.

The division also restricts reformers. Reformist leaders in the majlis (parliament) regularly blast President Khatami for failing to tackle a long list of economic and social issues. The Supreme Guide and the Council of Guardians Council, however, own the intelligence and the security forces. Khatami knows he cannot challenge the Islamist nature of the regime and the authority of the Supreme Guide as final arbiter of Iranian policy.

The reformists, however, believe time is their ally. As one clued-in Iran watcher put it, "The reformers say: 'We will win in the end -- all these guys (the theocrats) are dying out. In five years we'll have the strength (to affect real liberalization).'" Reformers see their situation as somewhat analogous to Britain's House of Commons curtailing the hereditary power of the House of Lords.

There are several emerging diplomatic opportunities for American and Iranian cooperation, the kind that promote positive contact. Iran opposed the Taliban (the Taliban murdered several Iranian diplomats in Herat). Iran also has a huge drug problem (one source says 2 million users).

Despite the escalating war between Israel and Palestine, there are definite indications that Khatami's government is looking for "acceptable ways to expand dialog with the West." How should the United States respond? With careful contact and coaxing. Military confrontation may be the diplomatic means for handling Iraq, and containing the mad regime in Pyongyang requires a finger on the trigger. Not so Iran. Iran's next generation won't necessarily be a U.S. ally, but it need not be anathema. With Iran, rock and roll and satellite TV are much more potent weapons than JDAMs and cruise missiles.

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