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?
Iranian Duality

The Islamic Republic's simultaneous pride in and embarrassment about the revolution shape Iran's foreign policy. Most of Iran's clerics, whether traditional or radical, grew up on Pahlavi dreams of Iranian glory. They desperately want Iran to be a power to be reckoned with in the Gulf, in the Middle East, and now in Central Asia. Their pride and pragmatism have persuaded them of the need to reach out, at least for Western and expatriate Iranian capital and expertise. At the same time, the clerics' pride and fear can send Iran's assassins to the very countries where its diplomats are working strenuously to encourage foreign and expatriate access to its markets. In all probability it is not one group of moderates in the Iranian government which designs diplomatic initiatives and a separate group of radicals which is responsible for terrorism. The same men conduct both policies. Rafsanjani may or may not have initiated the assassination of Salman Rushdie's Japanese translator and the killing of former prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar in Paris, but he almost certainly approved or at least acquiesced in their executions. This pattern is a quite normal one in history. The Islamic Republic's Shi'ite antecedents—the medieval Fatimid dynasty of Egypt and its scions farther east, the Assassin city-states—all continued to send out lethal revolutionary missionaries long after the revolution had weakened, if not died, at home.

At home the Iranian government is likely to scale back its reliance on anti-American sloganeering; free up travel and currency exchange for the average Iranian; loosen restrictions on the press, which by Middle Eastern standards is already vibrant; allow women more choice in their dress; alter the arbitrary and decentralized nature of state-sanctioned violence, harassment, and prosecution (the clerical regime will nevertheless continue to brutalize those who seriously threaten clerical rule); encourage Iranians once again to show hospitality to Westerners; and send its representatives overseas with beards clipped.

The situation abroad, however, will be persistently contradictory, as Khomeini's successors struggle to define within an Islamic framework Iran's mission in a changed world. The collapse of the revolution at home could encourage even moderate Islamic revolutionaries—who still, after all, define themselves and hold power by virtue of their Islamic identities—to vaunt an "Islamic" foreign policy.

The Israeli-PLO accord could well force Tehran to rethink its policy toward the West and the Arab world. It will place further stress on the clerical regime's contradictory aspirations. Tehran will relish its position as the primary remaining hard-line opponent of Israel, and will dread the fact that it has also become the center of world attention—an easily spotted target for American, Israeli, Western European, and Russian displeasure if the accord is frayed by fundamentalist agitation or terror.

If the clerics can enact the "Islamic" policy cheaply and furtively, Iran will continue to strike at the West and, perhaps more important, at Saudi Arabia, which the Iranians despise for its rival religious (Arab Sunni-Wahhabi) hubris, missionary zeal, deep pockets, and hypocritical dependence on Western powers. But the threat that Iran will continue to export revolution—as opposed to simply striking at its own expatriates—should not be exaggerated. After an initial emotional rush Iran's Shi'ite revolution has won little admiration in the surrounding Sunni Muslim world. Though Sunni radicals were profoundly inspired by Khomeini's conquest, they have been far less sympathetic to the Shi'ite state since constructed. The Islamic world has for the most part been unresponsive to Iran's yearning to play a millenarian role. Iran still sits among Saddam Hussein to the west, a permanently decomposing Afghanistan to the east, a richer and ever-proselytizing Saudi Arabia to the south, and an array of Muslim republics to the north which show little more enthusiasm than Iran's other neighbors for easing its general isolation in the Sunni Muslim world.

A Flexibly Hard Approach

How should the United States deal with Iran? The short answer is, Be tough but be fair. In the Islamic Middle East, where political life is usually unforgiving, hard-line foreign policies are most likely to gain respect. The more the United States can consistently pressure Iran, the more Iran's rulers will take heed and avoid provocation. However, the U.S. government should choose its conflicts with the Islamic Republic carefully. As much as the United States may want to deny Iran access to certain markets, its ability to do so, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet threat, is limited. Fear of America is a very important psychological element in American-Iranian relations. That fear, or, as it is understood in Persian, haybat -- awe of insuperable authority—should not be squandered on public trade disputes with the Europeans or the Japanese unless the United States has the means and the will to win the argument.

America has reason to be indignant with the Islamic Republic. The U.S. government should state loudly and often that it will not tolerate Iranian support of terrorism and that if it discovers any evidence that Iran has engaged in terrorist activity, it will punish Iran financially and continue to impede in various ways Iran's commercial dealings with America's allies. It should resolutely stand behind Salman Rushdie, promoting his case at the United Nations and attacking the Islamic basis of Khomeini's death warrant. In defense of free speech and to remind Iran's mullahs of America's undiminished psychological reach into their country, the U.S. government should provide sufficient funding to Voice of America for round-the-clock shortwave radio broadcasts in Persian and should announce its willingness to support expatriate Iranian television programming accessible in Iran by satellite dish. The U.S. Navy should frequently park its Indian Ocean fleet uncomfortably close to the Persian Gulf and send its submarines and fly its aircraft even closer.

Rafsanjani and the clerics in general are not wild-eyed zealots. More often than not, the zealots eventually found martyrdom in the eight-year war with Iraq; their deaths are a significant reason for the present radical eclipse in Iran. Rafsanjani knows that the Iranian government can no longer call half a million young men onto the streets of Tehran to attack America. It could probably call barely 10,000. Rafsanjani has innumerable economic problems, and perhaps not much time to handle them; he knows that "Marg bar Amrika" will do him little good with his own citizens or with the foreign community he hopes to draw in for investment.

America should be firm with any ally that allows the Iranians to sidestep choices that they fear could cause them to make compromises in their revolutionary doctrine. America should also realize that Iran's contact with other Western countries, like its eventual contact with the United States, can have a corrosive effect on the revolutionary ethos and a moderating effect on the Iranians.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In