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?
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.
In 1985 Khomeini authorized Rafsanjani to negotiate with his two most detested "Satans," the United States and Israel. The Iranians, desperate to find an effective means of combating the Iraqis' advantages in tanks and planes, compromised principle for the possibility of obtaining American TOW and HAWK missiles. Today Rafsanjani is once again nearly desperate, while the revolutionary passion inside the country, particularly among the clerics, has faded. Is it so unlikely that Rafsanjani will one day hear Khameneh'i declare that the Great Satan has been thoroughly humbled for fourteen years by the Islamic Republic, thus vouchsafing the return of the American embassy?
Khomeini's death has compelled the Iranian clerics to devise a system of government to replace the state and constitution that were essentially created by him, and it has thrown Iranian society into a search for another rahbar, or supreme leader. Though Rafsanjani has attempted to assume Khomeini's political mantle, he cannot possibly hope to achieve the unassailable political stature of the man who felled the Shah. As talented as Rafsanjani is (and he is very talented), he has been hard pressed to coerce or oblige others to go along with his decisions. So far he has gathered sufficient power to ensure that he will be held responsible for the fate of the country, but perhaps not sufficient power to ensure that he has the authority necessary to command reliably the fractious mullahs and their crisscrossing support networks.
Rafsanjani and Khamaneh'i sit atop a clerical political system that is perhaps terminally headless. We should not forget that the Ayatollah Khomeini waged two simultaneous and to date successful revolutions in Iran. One was against the Shah and the West; the other was against traditional Twelver Shi'ism (the dominant form of Shi'ism in Iran and Lebanon), which had been more or less regnant in Iran since the middle of the sixteenth century and which had discouraged the superintending participation of Iranian clerics in affairs of state.
Iran's Islamic Revolution was made by the clerical second tier—the hojjat ol-Eslams, who rank below the ayatollahs. The senior ayatollahs, other than Ali Montazeri (whom Khomeini had at one point designated as his successor), were enthusiastic fans neither of Khomeini nor of his politico-theological construct, the velayat-e fagih (the "guardianship of the jurist"), which was both the idea and the office that ultimately provided Khomeini with unquestioned political and religious authority. Under Khomeini young clerics like Rafsanjani, Khameneh'i, Khoteiniha, Mahdavi-Kani, and Karrubi flourished and collected power, state offices, and titles. "Ayatollah" Khameneh'i has moved very far very fast—from being a juridically unimpressive hojjat ol-Eslam in 1978 to the presidency in 1981 and thence to his current position as the nation's revolutionary guardian upon Khomeini's death, in 1989.
This domination has been gained probably at considerable cost to the traditional clerical order, with its centuries-old system of education, its pedagogic standards for promotion, exclusion, loyalty, and leadership, and, perhaps most important, its financial independence from state coffers. The state- sponsored demolition of the old order was practicable because Khomeini, a grand ayatollah with immense prestige even among his clerical enemies, was at the helm. And when it came to dealing with refractory clergy Khomeini could be tougher than any Pahlavi Shah.
Iran is currently experiencing a resurgence of traditionalism in the clergy, which calls for the clerical political role to be more advisory than participatory, and a corresponding rejection of the activist mullahs who helped to lead the revolution and much of the war effort against Iraq. Rafsanjani and Khamenehti have forcibly brought about a compromise whereby junior mullahs, juridically mediocre and of fading revolutionary glory, give orders to their more knowledgeable elders. The compromise has been tense. The reigning clerical power, be it Rafsanjani or Khameneh'i or both, cannot help feeling that as Khomeini's shadow recedes, so does the legitimacy of his velayat system of clerical rule. And any system of clerical rule, if it is to pretend to legitimacy, must reflect with some plausibility Twelver Shi'ism's system of juridical seniority.
The Iranian government is now headed in the opposite direction, as Rafsanjani, a hojjat ol-Eslam, tries to eliminate or reduce centers of power other than his own. Khameneh'i continues in theory to hold considerable power (according to the constitution, immensely more than Rafsanjani), but caliphs in Islamic history have done far less well than sultans in the never-ending battle for power.
Rafsanjani will have to contend with Iran's peculiar form of democracy. Unlike the Arab Muslim countries of the Middle East, Iran has a pronounced democratic current running through its nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. But this current has repeatedly been diverted and drained by Persian shahs and clerics both, and there is little evidence to suggest that Rafsanjani will reject the Pahlavi tradition of arranging and rearranging Iran's parliament according to the ruler's needs.
However Rafsanjani tries to rearrange the Iranian political landscape, he is unlikely to abandon, in rhetoric or practice, certain elements and methods of the revolution. His use of terrorism and especially assassination abroad will probably continue, for such violent diplomacy enhances the fearful stature of the clerical government both abroad and internally. It has served as an effective means—indeed, the sole means—for revolutionary Iran to take revenge against those who have insulted or harmed the Islamic Revolution. Such violent diplomacy has been indispensable to maintaining a clerical pride severely wounded from without by Iran's near total isolation, and from within by the post-revolutionary erosion of the nation's self-esteem.
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.
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.
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 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.