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Change in Iran and Challenges for U.S. policy makers

by Kenneth R. Timmerman


Congressional Research Service "Forum on Iran"

Library of Congress,

Washington, DC

January 8, 1999



Iran has a way of insinuating itself into a wide variety of international issues of vital interest to the United States, insisting on world power status akin to19th century Britain or France.

Iran's propaganda successes - and its ability to attrack American journalists and academics to the cause of its revolution - have helped pump up its image and made think tankers drool at the thought of paid trips to Tehran (no wining, but lots of dining), and their own enhanced status as brokers of renewed U.S.-Iranian relations.

But frankly, Iran just isn't that important. And until now, the status Iran has achieved has been due solely to its activities as an international trouble-maker, not to the strength of its economy, the power of its ideas, or the vision of society it offers.

Iran's U.S.-supplied military forces were decimated by the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, and low oil prices combined with U.S. diplomatic efforts have combined to slow Iran's progress in rebuilding them. However, in recent years, Iran has gone the way of other so-called "rogue" states, by increasingly focusing energy and resources on developing weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. This could change Iran's status from the category of trouble-maker to significant military threat in a relatively short order.

But that alone is not the real challenge facing U.S. policy-makers today. Indeed, the U.S. has shown throughout its history that it can respond to military threats from middling powers as well as super-powers, and that it is capable of tailoring its response to the nature and the level of the threat. Too much force gets us accused of "bullying" smaller states, whereas too little force in the face of a determined aggressor is quickly exposed as appeasement.

In my view, the real challenge facing policy-makers today is ambiguity. How do we respond when the Iranian regime itself appears to be in the throes of change, riddled with increasingly violent factional infighting, and when a large portion of the Iranian population are yearning for closer ties to the United States while a determined group of radicals who control the military and security apparatus are becoming increasingly frantic - and violent - in opposing U.S.-Iranian ties?

Those who believe we should be making gestures to Tehran point to these developments and argue that we need to encourage reform by at least some form of diplomatic outreach and possibly low-level trade..

I would argue, however, that there is far less ambiguity than first appears on the surface. And that any gestures we make are likely to backfire.

Khatami's election in May 1997 was rightly viewed by U.S. policy-makers as a sign of change. But what many analysts missed in their eagerness to detect pro-American sentiments among the Iranian people was Khatami's own radical background as a leading member of the regime.

For ten years, he led the Culture Ministry, and was not only a leading ideological proponent but also played a major role in the Islamic Republic's efforts to export its revolution to neighboring countries. He was involved in the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, for instance, in 1983-1984, and sought to create an international legion of Islamic fighters who would subvert Arab regimes.

He believed - and still believes - that the Islamic Republic is locked into a life or death struggle with the United States and the West. Beneath his calls for a "dialogue of civilizations" lies a belief that the Islamic Republic represents a superior system of government to Western-style democracy. He has never challenged the regime's founding doctrine of clerical rule, a doctrine which not only makes this regime unique in the history of the world, but sets it at odds with its neighbors and with international bodies.

Majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri, who was the regime's candidate against Khatami last year, put it most succinctly: "Our regime gets its legitimacy from God," he said before a recent election. "The legitimacy of the regime does not lie with the people. Those who say the legitimacy of the leader depends on his popularity do not understand."

While Khatami has never challenged the regime in any meaningful way, he has taken a few steps, which I believe he is already learning to regret, toward loosening state controls on the press and toward allowing greater freedom of expression. Like Gorbachev with his train of reforms, Khatami has unleashed powerful pent-up forces that I believe the regime will be unable to control.

Since Khatami assumed the presidence in August 1997, a thousand new publications have flourished. Some, critical of the regime, have been banned. Others have had their offices ransacked by regime-backed thugs known as the Ansar-e Hezbollah. Publishers have been fined, thrown in jail, and in some cases attacked. Journalists and writers have been murdered. The most prominent secular opponent of clerical rule - Darioush Forouhar - was brutally hacked to death in late November along with his wife, Parvaneh, a prominent women's leader. This is a not a democracy as we know it, and don't let anyone fool you into thinking it is.

Many analysts in the West would have us believe that the U.S. should support the "moderate" President Khatami, because he is locked in a struggle with the "conservative" Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene'i.

I believe this is mistaken on all counts.

First, the terms themselves. The labels "moderate" and "conservative" are Western creations, chosen by a liberal press and by pro-regime academics, in an effort to generate support for Khatami (and before him, for Rafsanjani, who founded the Reform movement as a means of creating a personal power base).

Make no mistake: Khatami is no moderate, as we understand that term. He is a radical Islamist, who believes in world Islamic domination and, by the way, in a command economy. What he would like is to reform Iran's system to make it more effecient and durable, without changing its underlying ideology, just as Gorbachev sought to do in the Soviet Union. The last thing he wants is to abandon clerical rule.

As for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i, he is no more "conservative" than Joseph Stalin. A determined advocate of "national liberation" struggles against the West, and an old saw of the radical left, Khamene'i and his faction are also believers in a state-controlled economy, which is anathema to conservatives around the world. He has made anti-Americanism

Worse, the current turmoil inside Iran has reached the extent where rival groups within the ruling clergy are challenging each other, often through armed groups that clash on the streets.

For instance, last November 13 American businessmen who had been invited by Khatami as part of his effort to get sanctions lifted were attacked just outside their Tehran hotel by supporters of Khatami's rival in the Presidential elections, Nateq-Nouri. I am told by a very senior Iranian official in the LEF that they were only freed after supporters of a rival leader, Rafiq-doost, drove up and scared off the thugs.

Since then, a top hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Jannati, has said that any American visiting Iran should be viewed with suspicion, and preferably barred from entering the country - even tourists.

In such an environment, any change in the U.S. sanctions on Iran would be mistaken. I can think of no U.S oil industry executive in his right mind who would consider sending American employees to Iran in these circumstances.

Instead, we should let events inside Iran play themselves out, encouraging democrats where we can, and making sure that America's voice as a beacon of democracy and free choice is heard.

Conclusion: What should we do and not do

A lot is happening inside Iran today, and to be honest, there is very little we can do to effect change. But we can ride the wave of change and prepare for the worst - and the best.

Iran's regime is not a dictatorship like the one in Iraq. This regime came to power in the wake of a popular revolution, and has shown itself to be far more nuanced and alert to popular sentiment than Saddam Hussein. There is no single dictator who can be overthrown, but a complex, interwoven system that has changed and adapted many times over the past 20 years.

I believe we need to hew to first principles in whatever policies we enact toward Iran:

1) do nothing to encourage to hard-line, radical clerics, led by Supreme leader Khamene'i.

A friend of mine who is an ardent opponent of the trade embargo recently returned from Tehran and said that the upsurge in factional fighting had changed his mind. Any relaxation of the sanctions today - even food aide - would be taken as a victory by the radical, anti-american faction and would discourage the reformers.

The lesson is clear: maintain the sanctions and the embargo, because they are having a real impact on the Iranian economy.

2) Constantly assert our principles of freedom, multi-party democracy in a non-ideological way.

We need to be seen as a beacon of freedom by Iranians. We can accomplish this by condemning human rights abuses, welcoming Iranian writers and intellectuals, supporting them where possible through NED and other institutions, encouraging human rights.

3) Remain open to Iranian initiatives, but offer none of our own.

State has handled rather well the changes under Khatami, encouraging where possible, extending a hand of friendship.

But again, the radicals will do anything to prevent a U.S.-iranian rapprochement. The worst thing we can do is to rush things forward.