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 Centrality of America

Though American policymakers are often accused of wanting to remake the world in their own image, the accusation miscasts America's relations with the Third World, especially with the Islamic Middle East. Even under President George Bush, who was zealous in foreign affairs, the United States remained focused primarily on the sources of its culture, Europe, and of its economic anxieties, Japan. The rapid development and even more rapid conclusion of the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein demonstrates again the fickleness of U.S. foreign policy in the Islamic world. America has stood by Israel alone—the permanent exception in the Middle East, because Israel is a Western country inextricably bound to our history both modern and ancient.

It is impossible to frame the questions of American-Iranian relations properly until we appreciate the centrality of the United States in Iranian minds. Many Iranian clerics, Khomeini in particular, well understood the battle that was taking place in the hearts and minds of Iranians. Under the Shah, Americanized culture irrevocably alienated hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians from their roots. The old Westernized elites, who were educated in France or England in the latter part of the past century and the first half of this one, and who often took their Persian poetry tutors with them to Europe, were replaced by Americanized Iranians, overwhelmingly from the emerging middle class, whose understanding and appreciation of traditional Persian society was considerably less.

Though fueled by the dissatisfaction of Western-educated Iranians with the Shah's corrupt regime, Khomeini's revolution was also an attempt by traditional Iranian society to halt the destructive, vulgarizing process of Westernization. The war that Khomeini declared in 1964 when he announced that the Shah's regime was illegitimate and captive to American dictates, and which he perhaps thought had been won on his return to Iran in 1979, has continued unabated.

It is a war America will win. If word went out in the streets of southern Tehran—the populous city quarter most closely associated with revolutionary fervor and the oppressed poor—that everyone could choose either a prayer at Khomeini's tomb and imminent paradise or a U.S. immigrant visa and Los Angeles, we would once again see the U.S. embassy besieged, assuming it reopened (it is now a training center for the Revolutionary Guard Corps). Many might go to Khomeini's tomb, but few would do so without first ensuring that a close family member made his or her way to the embassy. Contrary to Khomeini's most cherished intentions, the revolution connected the United States to a pre-revolutionary golden age.

Rafsanjani may know how popular a restoration of relations with the United States would be; he might even attempt rapprochement with the United States as a means of shoring up his support. Today the militant Iranian expatriate and internal opposition—constitutionalists, monarchists, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq (the strongest and at least formerly one of the most anti-American of the opposition groups) alike—greatly fears that the U.S. government will restore diplomatic relations with clerical Tehran.

There are many reasons why Rafsanjani might not seek a restoration of diplomatic relations: what many observers believe is a personal dislike of the United States; fear of assassination attempts by hard-core xenophobes; concern that such a dramatic move would place him in bitter opposition to Khameneh'i, who appears to be much more deeply anti-American than Rafsanjani; and a real fear for the future of the revolutionary regime, which might be philosophically and, more important, physically threatened by the reopening of the U.S. embassy. (The embassy, after all, in 1953 participated with important members of the Iranian clergy in the successful coup d'etat against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.) The Iranians ascribe tremendous power to covert enterprises. It is one thing for the clerical regime to deal with the U.S. government from a distance; it is an entirely different matter to allow it into downtown Teheran.

But a fascinating and confusing facet of Iranians is their ability to entertain and cajole the enemy if he appears implacable and insurmountable. The United States has, in Iranian eyes, shown itself to be both. Before almighty America the Soviet Union vanished and Iraq's army was crushed in hours. This latter point made an immense impression on the Iranian clergy and military, who for years had watched Iran's soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War gain and lose ground with Somme-like slaughter and significance.

America's military performance reminded the Iranians of the incomparable differences in execution between First World (non-Muslim) and Third World (Muslim) wars. Saddam Hussein's survival, though troubling to a growing body of Western opinion which continues to worry about U.S. staying power and strategic insight, may well reinforce Iran's fear of America. As many Iranians see it, the decision to halt the Gulf War revealed not America's ignorance and weakness but its cunning and power: America chose only to chasten its errant proxy, leaving Saddam Hussein in place so that he could once again threaten the Islamic Republic.

The efforts of those in Tehran who seek to replace the American presence and money in Iran with less-intimidating assistance have not been very successful. Though Japanese investment may total many millions of dollars, it has fallen far short of the much greater amounts that the Iranians had hoped for. The Europeans are back (the Germans never left), but the levels of their investment and assistance, relative to the immense task of reconstruction in Iran, are low. A primary reason for insufficient foreign non-American investment in Iran has been reluctance on the part of investors, particularly the Japanese, to put their resources into an unstable country with a government that has been in an undeclared state of war with the world's premier power. Iran's rulers know this very well.

But Iranian officials and many Western commentators now no longer regard the Iranian economy as hostage to a rapprochement with the United States. According to them, an American green light on reinvestment in the Islamic Republic has been rendered superfluous by the changed nature of the Middle East. Iran is no longer at the gates of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's villainy and the Gulf War have made Iranian Shi'ism seem less menacing, and Khomeini is dead. The Islamic Republic is not so disturbing as it once was to foreign investors.

Indeed, foreign investment, including American investment, is returning to Iran. But Iranians, like Arabs, love to reify fiction into fact through language. The consummated deals are probably far fewer and smaller in scale than Iranian officials and the press claim. Foreign businessmen do feel more comfortable in Iran since the death of Khomeini, but they also remain acutely conscious of the tension, disorder, moroseness, and continuing violence of post-Khomeini Iranian life. Elemental doubts remain among even the most optimistic foreign entrepreneurs and business executives about the reliability, creditworthiness, and true intentions of their Iranian counterparts—doubts that can recur sharply when a translator of The Satanic Verses and a former Prime Minister are stabbed to death, or when an Iranian city erupts in a huge riot after a canceled soccer game or a change in urban housing policy.

More than four years after the end of the Iran-Iraq War the Iranian economy remains in horrible shape, and the clerical government must deal with expectations, largely formed during the last years of the Shah's rule, that the revolution would bring a better existence, especially to the mostazafin, the oppressed poor. Though some Iranians would probably like Iran to become an autarkic state or to trade only with those countries that pose little cultural threat (the former Soviet Union, Japan, the Koreas), the majority in Iran—including the clergy—know that to improve the economy Iran must reach out to the West, the civilization with which Iranian businessmen and functionaries are most comfortable and best connected. And Iran must become more prosperous if the mullahs are to retain any loyalty among the poor, who died by the thousands for an undelivered victory in Iran's justified war against Iraq. After last summer's presidential elections—in which he was re-elected with the lowest percentage of the vote ever for an Iranian President—the pressure on Rafsanjani has been mounting to do something about the economy, which despite certain signs of growth and excitement remains drastically underdeveloped.

Anti-clericalism, the reverse side of Persia's historical devotion to its Shi'ite divines, is rampant in post-Khomeini Iran. This hostility toward politicized clerics remains the single greatest threat to clerical rule, and its intensity is tied directly to the health of the economy. Even among the traditional merchant allies of the clergy, who were a key element of the revolutionary success in 1978, the perception grows that the political clergy have changed state corruption, which under the Shah was notorious but historically comprehensible, into a Persian nightmare in which even the best connected cannot reliably obtain safe passage through government bureaucracies.

Strengthened by the political preeminence and economic ineptitude of the mullahs, anti-clericalism intertwines ever more tightly with the defining event of the Islamic Revolution: Iran's surrender in the Iran-Iraq War. For an Iranian who suffered and survived the eight-year war, the memory of that immense struggle is divided into two chapters. The first runs from September of 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, to May of 1982, when the Iranian army recaptured the port of Khorramshahr. With the ejection of the Iraqis from Khorramshahr in a superbly fought battle, the Iranians regained their pride and almost all their territory. Popular memory in Tehran now views those first twenty-one months as an entirely different war, one that ended in a resounding victory for the Iranian nation and the regular, formerly imperial, Iranian army. The common man credits the regular Iranian army, not the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the clergy's shock troops, with the victorious role in the Khorramshahr fighting.

The second chapter, which followed Khomeini's decision on June 21, 1982, to take the war into Iraqi territory, is now seen as the "Clerics' War," six years of useless slaughter that left the nation impoverished. The more difficult daily economic life becomes in the Islamic Republic, the more the memories of war will work against the clerics and their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guard, who enthusiastically backed Khomeini's war à outrance. Few Iranians will care to remember that Rafsanjani counseled against taking the war into Iraq in the summer of 1982.

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