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?

America should treat harshly those countries that sell weaponry to Iran's clerics. But it should perhaps do no more than grimace if a Western ally expands Iran's power grid, builds a dam, or supplies computer equipment to Iran's universities or telephone equipment to its cities. The U.S. government should be wary of depicting Iran as it once depicted the Soviet Union. Communist Russia was a threat to the entire free world; clerical Iran is not.

Despite the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic, Iran is a poor country with little continuing revolutionary appeal outside the Shi'ite world. Not Iran but Saudi Arabia, an American ally, has been the most troublesome missionary of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the subcontinent, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Clerical Iran has never been a totalitarian country, even in its darkest period in the early eighties. The contacts that have existed between its people and the West go far beyond what once existed between the West and the Soviet Union. Though Rafsanjani has decided that Western assistance is required to rebuild Iran, he probably made that decision with trepidation. He is well aware of the extensive contact that has persisted between Iran's citizens and their more prosperous relatives in the West. In addition, thousands of young Iranians are studying again in the West, primarily in the United States; a study of recent Iranian history shows the possible repercussions of a foreign education.

America should be careful not to obstruct through sanctions the flow of Western information and culture that continues to seduce Iran's youth away from the revolution. Lord Curzon believed that Iran's character has always oscillated between "the bigot's rage ... and the agnostic's indifference." The revolutionary rage in Iran is well over. What has followed is probably not indifference.

The Iranian government has made its peace, at blinding speed, with France and Russia, the two primary suppliers of weapons to Saddam Hussein. Iran has legitimate reasons to want to re-arm, heavily. The United States has no reason to support Iran's plans to re-arm or to supply itself with nuclear or biological and chemical weapons, and is fully justified in preventing—or, more accurately, delaying—Iran's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. But the U.S. government should admit, at least to itself, that such armament is understandable given the hell Iran endured in its war with Iraq. Theories of deterrence work just as well between Muslim states as they do between liberal democracies and communist dictatorships.

The Inevitable Contact

The United States should probably not seek direct contact with Rafsanjani's government. There is little reason for it. Iran has several ways to reach the United States if it chooses to, and the United States has the same options. Any U.S. attempts to seek such contact explicitly, with the intention of holding further dialogue or resuming diplomatic relations, would probably seem to be either weakness (the Iranians would assume they had something the Americans wanted) or part of a larger effort to entrap or diminish Iran's clerical government.

Iran has always been at the forefront of the Islamic mind. The Islamic Republic's evolution has had and will have significant influence on Muslims throughout the world. In addition, Iran's ecumenical competition with Saudi Arabia may affect the price of oil.

Rafsanjani may be aware that the United States might quickly make amends to Iran and restore, at a minimum, diplomatic relations if he were to initiate the process. Rafsanjani will begin the process one of these days, but not obviously. He will certainly explore the possibility through private emissaries, foreshadowing an inevitably more complicated and diffident public overture.

Though the U.S. government would do well to approach any such contact with considerable caution, the United States should not automatically assume that it will be hoodwinked by the crafty Persians. Iranians are an exceptionally clever, complicated people, but they do not view themselves as being particularly clever with Westerners. An Iranian will assume that the Westerner, certainly if he is English and probably if he is American, will get the better of any deal—just as Americans assume that Iranians will be dangerously wily. Iranians are not born crafty. They get there through the school of hard knocks, and most of them, clerics included, view their dealings with foreigners as an unending school of hard knocks.

The hard question for the United States will be what to say and do on the day when Rafsanjani declares America to be sufficiently chastened for a direct, unconditional American-Iranian dialogue. It would be ironic if the renewal of the United States' relationship with Iran signaled not the end of the Islamic Revolution but Iran's most astute compromise.

Khomeini and his successors have done a poor job of banishing America from the minds of the Iranian people. One of these days they will try to coopt it by renewing contact. When the Revolutionary Guards move out of the former American embassy in Tehran and American diplomats move back in, American-Iranian diplomacy will once again become the pre-eminent topic of conversation in the Islamic Middle East. If the current Iranian government survives the encounter, Washington may bestow a new legitimacy, which the ruling clerics desperately need—an irony that neither Washington nor Tehran is likely to relish.

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