by Austin Bay
April 24, 2002
Iran is the most curious hub on the Bush Administration's axisof evil -- a hub that, for U.S. diplomacy, becomes "curiouser andcuriouser."
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 FlyZones). The United States confronts North Korea across a mine-strewn frontwhere the Cold War remains a fact. With Iran, however, the "axis" definitelygoes tilt.
Yes, Iran's Islamist mullahs back Lebanon's Hizbullah, aterrorist thorn in the side of any Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.There's evidence indicating Iranian operatives helped smuggle Al Qaedaterrorists from Afghanistan, thwarting central U.S. war aims. As for thechief reason Iran appeared on the "axis" -- a hard-core quest for weapons ofmass destruction -- no argument there.
Yet Iran also holds democratic elections, where a genuine (ifcannily timid) reformer, Muhammad Khatami, becomes president despite thebullyboy tactics of Islamist street mobs. Khatami, though his power ishighly circumscribed by the Ayatollah Khomeini-designed clerical autocracy(the Council of Guardians), has twice received an overwhelming popularmandate.
Last October, the United States was working with the World FoodProgram to help coordinate humanitarian aid deliveries into Afghanistan. Oneof the main routes for that aid? Iran. Call that a positive diplomaticcontact, with food moving into Afghanistan, even as Iranian intelligenceshipped Al Qeada murderers in the opposite direction.
Sound a bit schizoid, a split political personality? Iran beginsthe 21st century a profoundly divided country. Its politics reflect thatdeep division. A wise, long-haul U.S. policy approach to Iran must take thisdeep division into account -- for time, measured in demographics andeconomics, is not on the side of the Islamist mullahs and their mobs.
Most of the under-35s in Iran have had it with the religioustyrants. Iran's young don't remember Khomeini's revolution. The Shah and thePahlavi clan may or may not look good, but the Council of Guardians'brutality is current news, the cultural straight-jacket of clericalpuritanism chafes, and the mullahs' hypocrisy and corruption areself-evident. In some ways, the thief in religious robes is even morerepugnant than the usual greased-palm bureaucrat.
A chunk of over-35s no longer care for clerical rule, either. Todescribe the clerics' economy as "stagnant" is a multi-decadeunderstatement.
The division exerts a paralyzing effect on Iranian internalpolitics. The Islamist autocrats know they can't hammer on the reformiststoo hard. If they do, the "fire will grow higher" -- code language for theyoung taking to the streets.
The division also restricts reformers. Reformist leaders in themajlis (parliament) regularly blast President Khatami for failing to tacklea long list of economic and social issues. The Supreme Guide and the Councilof Guardians Council, however, own the intelligence and the security forces.Khatami knows he cannot challenge the Islamist nature of the regime and theauthority of the Supreme Guide as final arbiter of Iranian policy.
The reformists, however, believe time is their ally. As oneclued-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 thestrength (to affect real liberalization).'" Reformers see their situation assomewhat analogous to Britain's House of Commons curtailing the hereditarypower of the House of Lords.
There are several emerging diplomatic opportunities for Americanand Iranian cooperation, the kind that promote positive contact. Iranopposed the Taliban (the Taliban murdered several Iranian diplomats inHerat). Iran also has a huge drug problem (one source says 2 million users).
Despite the escalating war between Israel and Palestine, thereare definite indications that Khatami's government is looking for"acceptable ways to expand dialog with the West." How should the UnitedStates respond? With careful contact and coaxing. Military confrontation maybe the diplomatic means for handling Iraq, and containing the mad regime inPyongyang requires a finger on the trigger. Not so Iran. Iran's nextgeneration 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 thanJDAMs and cruise missiles.