Not Fanatics and Not Friends

The leaders of post-revolutionary Iran may claim to be keeping the faith—but they know how badly they need the West. What should we do when they say it's time to let bygones be bygones?

The United States, mostly to its credit, has a tremendous capacity to forgive and forget. We forgave Britain for being a domineering mother and burning down the White House; we forgave Germany for its recurring bouts of megalomania and debasement of Western culture; we forgave Japan for bombing us on a Sunday morning and bringing us into the wickedness of the Second World War; and we have already forgiven Russia for twentieth-century totalitarianism and the very costly seventy-year war against communism.

One nation, however, has managed to engender an abiding distaste in the United States, even though the injury it has done us is comparatively minor. The antagonism derives in part from the especially durable and provocative images of the American-Iranian confrontation: the hostages, the aborted rescue mission Desert One, and yellow ribbons everywhere; Iranian women defeminized by black chadors and repressive Islamic laws; TV pictures of a sea of fervent believers, men, women, and children, shouting in frightening monotony "Marg bar Amrika" ("Death to America"); leaders referring repeatedly to the United States as the "Great Satan"; unforgettable photographs of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, alive and dead. Iran's continuing system of government by the clergy is perhaps more disturbing and confusing to laical America than revolutionary socialism was.

For American politicians, Iran has been a booby trap ensnaring anyone foolish enough to touch it. When American politicians and their advisers attempt to deal with revolutionary Iran; they get caught in an unfair competition that pits the rational and straightforward American bureaucrat against the merchant Persian, a character defined in the Western imagination by his centuries-old genius for deception.

Nearly fifteen years have passed since the U.S. embassy in Tehran was closed and American official personnel were more or less denied access to Iran (the few days with Oliver North and company in Tehran do not really count). The U.S. foreign-affairs agencies, primarily the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency, grow noticeably, and naturally, more ignorant about Iran as fewer and fewer officers remain who have had meaningful contact with Iran, let alone sustained contact with Iranians of the Islamic Republic. Many American officials and journalists who must deal regularly with Iranian matters have probably never had an Iranian friend, and cannot read a Persian newspaper or talk to an Iranian in his native tongue.

This general ignorance fortifies the well-founded political fear of coping with Iran. With a few exceptions involving direct contact—the Iran-contra affair and the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq War, in which the U.S. Navy struck Iranian Revolutionary Guard units and (accidentally) Iran Air Flight 655 -- the American response to the Islamic Republic has been to embargo it, wound it through support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and hope that the Republic dies of exhaustion before the revolution can spread.

This response has not been without effect. Though Iranian revolutionaries can still draw worldwide attention through assassinations and support for other terrorist activities, which perpetuate the illusion of a continuing national revolutionary commitment, many of the Iranian people have grown nostalgic for the pre-revolutionary past. Inside Iran the revolution is moribund among its former standard-bearers: the young urban male poor, lower- and middle-class bureaucrats, lay Islamic intellectuals (many of whom are bitterly in exile), and even a significant portion of the younger clergy.

But should the U.S. government seriously alter its approach to Iran? Iran has intermittently been a strategic focal point of Western foreign policy since the early seventeenth century. Does it remain too important to ignore even now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the denouement of the "Great Game"? Could the U.S. government treat with Iran and avoid making unseemly moral compromises with a regime that has unquestionably had a hand in the killing and kidnapping of American and European citizens? The death edict against the novelist Salman Rushdie is a successful attack on and intimidation of Western civilization.

Should the United States choose a policy of forbearance toward Iran, given that America's past actions in Persia have been of disputable benefit to either country?

It is hard to imagine the rise of Khomeini without Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's decisions to make legal reforms that gave a limited franchise to women and Bahais in 1962, to redistribute agricultural land in 1963, and to grant extraterritorial status to U.S. military advisers in Iran (thus freeing them from complying with Iranian law) in 1964. The Shah's decisions were of American inspiration; Khomeini's reaction to them signaled the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, one of the great revolutionary movements of the twentieth century and one that, like the Russian, brought unimaginable suffering to millions who had expected a better world with the fall of the old regime.

Let us look at these questions from the Iranian side. Does the government of Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khomeini's clerical successor Ali Khameneh'i stand to gain or lose by pursuing more-normal relations with the United States, including the restoration of diplomatic relations? Is "Marg bar Amrika," however rhetorical the incantation, indispensable to the legitimacy of clerical rule?

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