Iran on the Brink

Iraq and Israel may dominate the headlines these days, but many who are well-versed in Middle Eastern affairs agree that the linchpin of the region has almost always been, and still is, Iran. "If history repeats itself," Middle East specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote recently, "as goes Iran, so will go the Muslim world." Changes this year in the political climate in the Islamic Republic and in American-Iranian relations, therefore, warrant close attention.

In 1997, the election of the popular reformist Mohammed Khatami as president raised hopes that the nearly twenty-year enmity between Iran and the U.S. might soon subside. For a while it seemed that images of the hostage crisis, of Iranian masses burning American flags and shouting "Marg bar Amrika" (Death to America), and of clerics decrying the "Great Satan," were being replaced by that of a conciliatory Khatami on CNN calling for "dialogue" and "understanding." But Khatami proved powerless before the hard-line clerics who to this day maintain a stranglehold on the government, and promises of reform proved to be hollow.

Then came September 11. As the War on Terror began, there was little doubt which side Iran was on. This year, a shipment of arms to Palestine on the ship Karine-A was traced to Iran; and the 2002 edition of the State Department's Report on Global Terrorism listed Iran as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism." When Bush made his policy-defining "axis of evil" speech in January, Iran was one of the infamous three.

The instability of the Iranian regime was illustrated this month by the resignation of a senior cleric, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, in protest against the hard-liners' stifling of reform. Taheri's bold move inspired pro-reform activists throughout Iran to take to the streets, and President Bush responded with a brief statement that made the official U.S. position on the Iranian regime startlingly clear. "The vast majority of the Iranian people voted for political and economic reforms," Bush said. "Yet their voices are not being listened to by the unelected people who are the real rulers... America affirms ... its commitment to helping those in captive nations achieve democracy." The statement was repeated in Persian over Voice of America radio, and soon the familiar sight of conservative demonstrators and clerics, burning flags and damning "American arrogance," returned to the streets of Tehran. There is controversy over the probable impact of Bush's speech: some say it will precipitate popular revolution against the fundamentalist regime, while others argue that it will taint the reform movement with a whiff of Americanism. And many fear that in spurning the Iranian government in its entirety, Bush may be slamming the door on five years of painstaking progress. Meanwhile, no one really knows how close the regime is to collapse.

In the decades since the Iranian revolution, several Atlantic contributors have attempted to peer behind the veil of our enigmatic foe. Their observations resonate still.

In 1979, while watching the revolution unfold on television, V. S. Naipaul decided to travel there to see first-hand what the Islamic Republic looked like. He collected his impressions in "Among the Believers," an Atlantic article later expanded into a famously controversial book that established his reputation as one of Islam's harshest critics.

An unspoken question seemed to be driving Naipaul's investigation: How profound or genuine was this newfound religious puritanism? Wandering through the deserted streets of Tehran during Ramadan, he saw all around him peculiar signs of the cosmopolitan, Western-influenced city that had been, and perhaps still was, behind the pious facade.

Signs on every floor shrieked the names of imported things: Seiko, Citizen, Rolex, Mary Quant of Chelsea, Aiwa; and on that closed afternoon they were like names from Tehran's past...

One shop had changed its name. It was now "Our Fried Chicken," no longer the chicken of Kentucky, and the figure of the colonel had been fudged into something quite meaningless...

Alcohol could no longer be served; but for the smart (and non-Christian) who needed to sip a nonalcoholic drink in style, there was Orange Blossom or Virgin Mary or Swinger.

While examining some of the ubiquitous religious posters on display in the capital, Naipaul recalled an often overlooked ambiguity of the revolution.

I hadn't followed Iranian affairs closely; but it seemed to me, going only by the graffiti of Iranians abroad, that religion had come late to Iranian protest. It was only when the revolution had started that I understood that it had a religious leader, who had been in exile for many years. The Ayatollah Khomeini, I felt, had been revealed slowly. As the revolution developed, his sanctity and authority appeared to grow and at the end were seen to have been absolute all along.

Naipaul's trip culminated in a long journey to meet the man who seemed to him the embodiment of revolutionary terror: Ayatollah Khomeini's chief executioner, the "Hanging Mullah" Khalkhalli. A surprisingly diminutive and jolly-looking man, five feet tall, bespectacled and plump, Khalkhalli compensated for his underwhelming appearance with bravado and a grisly sense of humor. At the end of a long and frenzied monologue, the Hanging Mullah delivered what must at the time have been a potent analogy:

His mouth opened wide, stayed open, and soon he appeared to be choking with laughter, showing me his gums, his tongue, his gullet. When he recovered he said, with a short, swift wave of his right hand, "The mullahs are going to rule now. We are going to have ten thousand years of the Islamic Republic. The Marxists will go on with their Lenin. We will go on in the way of Khomeini."

Twelve years later, shortly after the fall of the Marxist-Leninist empire, a former Iran specialist in the Central Intelligence Agency writing under the pseudonym of Edward G. Shirley took stock of the Islamic Republic for The Atlantic. In "Not Fanatics, and Not Friends" (December 1993), Shirley (who later revealed himself to be Reuel Marc Gerecht) focused on prospects for renewed relations between the U.S. and the fundamentalist regime. Shirley addressed rudimentary questions, such as what America might stand to gain from a rapprochement, and whether the Iranians could be trusted. He asked, "Is 'Marg bar Amrika,' however rhetorical the incantation, indispensable to the legitimacy of clerical rule?"

Iranian attitudes toward the West had been complex from the outset. Shirley described the ironic relationship between the revolution and Western liberalism—the revolutionaries had been inspired by their Western education and yet the Utopia they sought was a state purged of Western influence. Feelings had changed, however, since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the devastating war with Iraq. Though the hard-liners in power remained hostile and dangerous, Shirley argued, popular sentiment was increasingly anti-clerical and pro-American. Iranian businessmen still felt most comfortable dealing with Western markets, and the average Iranian was secretly attracted to "the Great Satan."

If word went out in the streets of southern Tehran ... 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...

As for the hard-liners, Shirley believed that they had a very particular sort of respect for America—a respect based on fear. Shirley advocated renewed relations, but warned U.S. policy-makers that such a move would involve a careful balancing act.

Be tough but 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.

A question vital to any attempt to form a coherent policy toward Iran is, Who really wields power in the Islamic Republic? In 1996, investigative journalist Robert Kaplan found the epicenter of power in an unholy alliance of mosque and market—of clerics and bazaari. "A Bazaari's World" is Kaplan's intimate portrait of Mohsen Rafiqdoost, a New Age model of the wily merchant of traditional Persian lore. Described by one Washington-based analyst as "a mobster-trader: a dark, rootless master monopolist," Rafiqdoost was the leader of a powerful and shadowy relief organization called The Foundation for the Oppressed. The Foundation, which may have been little more than a facade for a terrorist network, was part of a "corporate bazaari" system that seemed to be gaining increasing control amidst the chaos and corruption of the Republic.

Kaplan contemplated the significance of this new system in light of the epidemic of disorder spreading through the states surrounding Iran—from the former Soviet Union, to Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey. His hypothesis is particularly unsettling from the perspective of 2002:

The possibility that Rafiqdoost is operating a financial and logistical clearinghouse for international terrorism was less intriguing to me than the possibility that the Foundation of the Oppressed represents a new kind of economic organization in a new kind of emerging state. Such a state will be well suited to the porous borders and the political chaos of the region.

Such was the extent of Rafiqdoost's influence that Kaplan believed that he represented more than a fleeting phase in an evolving political culture, that he might in fact be a harbinger of Iran's future. "Might this be it?" Kaplan wondered.

Might Iran constitute a culture that is too urbane and sophisticated for a one-man thugocracy like the ones that obtain next door in Iraq and Syria, yet not sophisticated enough for a reasonably functioning and stable democracy? Is Iran—like so many other entities in the Middle East and Central Asia—evolving into something neither authoritarian nor democratic nor even organized the way a state is ordinarily thought to be? I could not escape the conviction that the twenty-first century will see the implosion of political Islam and the rise of the Islamic bazaar state.

If indeed Iran paves the way for the rest of the Muslim world, one thing is certain: its political development—whether by evolution or revolution, toward democracy or in another direction altogether—will play a crucial role in shaping the geopolitics of the twenty-first century.

Elizabeth Wasserman