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
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
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
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
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.