Copyright© 1997-2000, Middle East Data Project, Inc.
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This article appeared in Prevailing in a Well-Armed World:Devising Competitive Strategies Against Weapons Proliferation,Henry Sokolski (editor), U.S. Army War College - StrategicStudies Institute, Carlisle, Pa, March 2000
The author wishes to thank Henry Sokolski of the Non-ProliferationEducation Center for his comments, suggestions and support. Versionsof this article were presented in seminar format at the U.S. Army WarCollege, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Nonproliferation PolicyEducation Center Faculty Seminar on Teaching Strategic WeaponsProliferation Issues, the Institute of World Politics, the NationalCommittee on Foreign Policy, and the United States Information Agencybetween 1997 and 1999.
For a downloadable RTF version ofthis article that includes the Endnotes, click here.
Current U.S. policy toward Iran has made important strides towardlimiting the freedom of action of the Tehran regime, but it has notwon support from key U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East. TheU.S. secondary boycott has alienated many Europe countries and U.S.businesses, who are angry with the administration for seeking tointerfere with free trade. It has also caused concern among ourallies in the Persian Gulf, who fear the U.S. government has nottaken the full measure of Tehran's anger over sanctions aimed atimpeding the development of Iran's oil and gas resources, theregime's primary source of the hard currency it needs to pursue itsproliferation goals. In the end, these allies argue, Tehran willstrike out against the U.S. by hitting those targets closest at hand,many of which are vulnerable to terrorism and to foreign-backedsubversion.
If the U.S. retaliates militarily against Iran for Dhahran , theseallies fear, Iran will strike back at Saudi Arabia. This paper arguesthat the United States is misguided in limiting its policy objectivesto changing the behavior of the Islamic regime in Tehran. This isbecause the very behavior we seek to change - Iran's violentopposition to the peace process, its predilection to choose terrorismas a tool of foreign policy, its nuclear weapons program, inter alia- constitute core beliefs of the current regime, even with the adventof a superficially more "moderate" President, Hojjat-ol eslamMohammad Khatami. Asking them to abandon these beliefs is likepleading with a heroin addict to kick the habit. Instead, we shouldseek to encourage Iranian democrats to change the regime. Thisemphasis on the nature of the regime itself is the basic differencebetween containment and a competitive strategies approach towardIran.
Advocates of reconciliation with Tehran argue that factions existwithin the current ruling elite who would be prepared to abandon thebehavior the U.S. finds objectionable if the price were right.Instead of more pressure, they argue, the U.S. should be offeringsweeteners and should treat the regime as a reasonable interlocutor,not an outlaw.
So far, however, the virtues of accommodation have failed tomaterialize. Europe's example comes first to mind. For most of thepast 18 years, European nations have pursued an quietist approachtoward the Islamic revolution, in pursuit of their own mercantileinterests. When tough issues came up, such as the death edictagainst British writer Salman Rushdie, the Europeans found that theircommercial engagement afforded them no leverage with the regime.Accordingly, they adopted a somewhat tougher policy in 1992, known as"critical dialogue," which was intended to couple economic carrotswith open criticism of the regime on human rights issues.
The European Union (EU) suspended this approach in April 1997,when a German court convicted Iranian intelligence agents for theSeptember 1992 assassination of four Kurdish opposition leaders inBerlin's Mykonos restaurant, and accused the senior leadership of theIslamic Republic of having ordered the killings. When Europeanambassadors returned to Tehran a few months later, all pretense ofcriticizing the regime was dropped. Since early 1998, the Europeanshave greatly expanded commercial ties with Iran, without resolvingany of the outstanding political issues between the Europeancountries and Iran.
The United States has also sought contact with "moderates" inTehran, hoping they would be able to change the regime's behavior.But under the leadership of the most "moderate," pro-Western faction,led by President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the Islamic Republicactually stepped up its terrorist attacks overseas in the late 1980sand early 1990s, and accelerated its nuclear weapons and ballisticmissile programs. Neither has his "moderate" successor, Hojjat-oleslam Mohammad Khatami even attempted to reign in the type ofbehavior the U.S. and its allies find threatening .
Instead, the regime has used so-called "moderates" as a ploy togain concessions from the West, much as the Soviet Union useddétente during the Cold War. Rather than trying to patch upthe current policy, this paper outlines a bottoms-up review ofU.S.-Iranian relations by asking a series of basic questions tobetter define the nature and the goals of the Islamic Republic ofIran and of the United States. It will then examine thevulnerabilities of the Islamic regime to identify points of leveragethe U.S. can exploit to further its interests, using a competitivestrategies approach similar to that applied by the Pentagon to theU.S.-Soviet relationship in the 1980s.
In the proliferation arena, it should be underscored that whileany regime in Tehran might seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD) aspart of a defensive strategy, the current Islamic regime is unique inseeking these weapons for offensive purposes. This distinction hasfar-reaching implications for long-term U.S. policy decisions. Theoutcome the U.S. must avoid at any cost is therefore an Iranianregime that maintains its current aggressive behavior that is alsoequipped with WMD. Our analysis will show that this is the mostlikely outcome of the current U.S. containment policy as well as ofEurope's policy of accommodation.
This risk has been dramatically increased by the waiver of ILSAsanctions against the French oil company CFP-Total on May 18, 1998.Waiving the sanctions flashed a green light to other internationaloil companies to invest in Iran, thereby helping the Islamic Republicovercome its economic difficulties. The preferable outcome of U.S.policy would be to see the emergence of a democratic Iran thatforegoes WMD. But there is nothing in current administration policy -or Europe's policy of accommodation - that would lead to this goal.
While some argue that conventional tools of non-proliferation(export controls, treaty obligations, international standards ofbehavior) have slowed Iran's WMD development, U.S. influence has beenlimited because the administration has been unwilling to exertpolitical pressure on Iran's primary suppliers, Russia and China.Furthermore, the international non-proliferation norms are structuredto tolerate "threshold" behavior, allowing a determined proliferatorto build dual-use programs over time, reserving the politicaldecision to declare their military purpose at a moment of their ownchoosing, as India and Pakistan did in the spring of 1998. If tested,traditional nonproliferation alone becomes a dangerous exercise inpolitical brinkmanship, as the North Korean case shows; when coupledto economic engagement, as was the case with Iraq in the late 1980s,such an approach can lead to war.
Even if the current policy succeeded in containing the expansionof Iran's military capabilities and prevented it from going nuclear -a best case scenario - the U.S. would still find it faced a majorthreat from the Islamic Republic of Iran. An aggressive regime willalways seek ways of striking against U.S. interests, using whatevermeans are at hand, whether they be nuclear-tipped missiles orindividual terrorists planting barometric bombs on commercialairliners. Because the threat emanates from the regime, more thanfrom any specific weapon, the U.S. should refocus its policy onweakening the regime to promote a basic change of orientation.
Any competitive strategy toward Iran will need to evaluate theimpact of U.S. policies on U.S. allies in the region. At the veryleast, any strategy toward Iran must do no harm to these alliances orto the strategic interests of these allies. E.g., if promotingdemocracy in Iran discomfits U.S. allies in the Gulf, who will feeltheir regimes are also at risk, we must demonstrate to those alliesthat any alternative policy toward Iran would bring even worseconsequences for them, such as a war of aggression by Iran, nuclearblackmail, or active subversion of their regimes. Instead ofalienating our Persian Gulf allies, we should actively enlist theirsupport through intelligence sharing and other means, and supportthem where possible in their efforts to find reasonable solutions totheir own domestic problems. We should also exhibit a certaintolerance for the needs of our allies in the region to seek immediateaccommodation with the Tehran regime, if by so doing they enhancetheir own security and do not harm the overall U.S. goals ofpromoting democracy in Iran.
Any strategy toward Iran must be plotted in time, with threedifferent clocks influencing our decisions:
1) Iranian progress in developing WMD;
2) the timeliness of developing the energy reserves of the CaspianSea basin, and specifically, of determining export routes;
3) the growth of political unrest in Saudi Arabia, and theinevitable passing of power in other GCC countries from the currentgeneration to the next.
Without a more determined U.S. policy toward Iran, these timelineswill converge at some time over the next five years to ourdisadvantage. In other words, without a U.S. policy whose goal is topromote a change of regime in Tehran (or a change in the very natureof the regime, which amounts to the same thing), the current Islamicregime is likely to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and to sitastride vast new oil reserves, at a time when a new and untestedgeneration of rulers comes to power on the Arabian peninsula. Thisfavorable convergence will give the Islamic regime in Tehranextraordinary power and influence which it lacks today, and make itmuch less vulnerable to outside pressure. Another factor is the postCold War strategic environment.
On the one hand, the United States has emerged as the unchallengedmilitary power of the world, giving us greater latitude forunilateral action. But this is tempered by the increased emphasis inthe U.S. on domestic - and primarily, economic - concerns, and by thegrowing preference in Washington for multilateral instead ofunilateral action. Barring a aggressive act by the Islamic Republiccomparable to Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, it is unlikelythat U.S. public opinion would support major military action againstIran. However, public opinion would be more likely to supportmilitary retaliation for terrorist attacks.
U.S. goals in Iran face potential competition from third parties,including Russia, China, and the European Union, all of whom areaggressively pursuing economic (and in the case of Russia and China)military relations with Iran. Furthermore, the April-May 1998campaign of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, and the lack of avigorous response by the U.S. or the world community, willundoubtedly encourage Iran to put its nuclear program into highgear.
Without significant progress toward democracy in Iran within thenext 2-3 years (i.e., by the year 2000-2001), the trend lines becomeall negative. Already the U.S. business community has begun lobbyingthe administration to lift the U.S. embargo on trade with Iran,following the May 18, 1998 decision to waive the ILSA sanctionsagainst European oil firms investing in Iran. Through its ownactions, the administration has squandered an important policy tool,that had succeeded for more than two years in preventing new oil andgas investment in Iran. The administration's failure to enforce ILSAwas taken as a sign of weakness by Tehran. If past behavior is anyguide, this will only embolden the regime in its aggressive behavior.Therefore, if the U.S. is to have any impact on the future of Iran,the time for new measures is very limited.
The nature of the threat from the Islamic Republic lies as much inits intentions as in its capabilities. Until now, however, U.S.policy toward Iran has focused uniquely on containing Iran'scapabilities. But even here, the United States has fewer tools ofcontainment than during the Cold War. With the demise of amultilateral export control regime in March 1994, the United Statescan no longer veto sales by others of dual-use technology to Iranthat strengthen Iran's growing military-industrial complex. Iran isbuying machine-tools from Germany, computers and scientificinstruments from France, and entire military factories (not tomention major weapons systems) from Russia and China.
International inspections, such as those carried out in Iran bythe International Atomic Energy Agency, are cooperative in nature,making it unlikely inspectors would discover a covert nuclear weaponsprogram. Even so, the only event that would eventually trigger someform of international punishment of Iran under the currentnonproliferation norms would be the discovery of an actual bombplant. The IAEA has long had evidence that Iran was acquiring anindigenous uranium enrichment capability with help from Russia andChina, and has been unable to protest, since these are permittedactivities under the NPT.But the threat from Iran is not justproliferation; it is systemic.
In some ways, it parallels the Soviet threat during the Cold war,although on a vastly smaller scale. The Islamic Republic leaders viewtheir system as an alternative model for Third World development,just as Soviet leaders did. In seeking to export their revolution,the Islamic Republic has chosen to use Islam as a political weapon,not as a religious force, to undermine regional competitors such asBahrain and Saudi Arabia. In their effort to convince majorinternational oil companies to build pipelines across Iran instead ofneighboring countries, they have repeatedly resorted to terroristattacks to destabilize neighbors such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, andPakistan.
Until now, U.S. policy has focused on specific threats posed bythe Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program, its use of terrorismas a tool of foreign policy, its active attempts to subvertneighboring regimes that are friendly to the United States, itsviolent opposition to the Middle East peace process, its conventionalrearmament and especially its naval buildup. But while containmentpolicies may temporarily diminish these threats, they can noteliminate them because unilateral containment cannot be sustainedover time and because the regime has demonstrated a high tolerancefor pain. Even if containment succeeded in eliminating a specificthreat, new threats would emerge for as long as the currentaggressively anti-American regime remains in power. Traditionalnon-proliferation tools are treating the symptom, not the root causeof the problem, which is the regime.
A competitive strategies approach toward Iran needs to examine thegoals and the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran, and then examinehow we can leverage our strengths against their enduringvulnerabilities. In this case, gaining leverage means pressing U.S.advantages in ways that weaken the regime, exploit its internalcontradictions, and motivate the regime to dig its own grave deeper.Many American and European analysts argue that the bad behavior theU.S. objects to in Iran is the work of a single faction. Sidelinethis faction by supporting its rivals, and most of the bad behaviorwill become moot, this argument goes.
There is a keen political debate inside Iran on many issues.Factional disputes have made it impossible, for instance, for theParliament (Majlis) to pass a foreign investment law, despitenumerous attempts since 1989. One faction argues that allowingforeign companies to own assets in Iran amounts to inviting aneo-colonial invasion, while others contend that without foreigncapital Iran will be incapable of development. Similar disputes haveerupted over many social and cultural issues, such as sexualsegregation at Iran's universities.
But these disputes occur solely among select members of Iran'sbody politic, who have demonstrated their loyalty to the regime. Onissues of national security and regime survival, no significantdivergence separates the different ruling factions. A social andpolitical "moderate" such as President Mohammad Khatami, has beenclosely allied in the past with foreign terrorist organizations . Aneconomic "liberal" such as Hashemi-Rafsanjani has been the greatestsupporter of Iran's nuclear weapons program. There has never beenparliamentary debate on the wisdom of pursuing ballistic missileprograms, or nuclear weapons research, or even of pursuing a civiliannuclear power program. On such issues, the regime speaks as one.
Maintenance of the Islamic Republic at all costs, includingthe system of Velayat-e faghih (absolute clerical rule). Theharshness treatment meted out to intellectuals such as AbdolkarimSoroush or writers such as Faraj Sarkuhi, who dared challengeclerical rule, shows that regime survival is an existential concernand far outweighs any factional differences. Indeed, all other goalsare subservient to this;
Aggressive expansion of Iran's influence in the PersianGulf region to become the predominant power, militarily, politically,and eventually economically. While any nationalist government willalso seek to enhance Iran's regional standing (as did the formerShah), the Islamic Republic has used much more aggressive means,including terrorism and the subversion of neighboring regimes toachieve its goals;
An end to the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf,which the Islamic Republic views as a direct challenge to itspredominance;
Active subversion of the Middle East peace process. TheIslamic Republic views Israel as a competitor, and fears that if thepeace process succeeds, Israel will become the predominant economicpower in the region and the partner of choice for the Arab world,Turkey, and Central Asia, instead of Iran;
Determination to develop a broad spectrum of WMD, includingnuclear and biological weapons, as relatively low cost forcemultipliers.
Only the last of these goals is likely to be shared by anationalist or democratic regime. However, such a regime is also farmore likely to respond to traditional non-proliferation tools andregional confidence-building measures, making the threat that ademocratic or nationalist Iran will actually use WMD far less likelythan it is today.
Through all the ups and downs of U.S. policy toward Iran since the1978-1979 Iranian Revolution, U.S. policy-makers have consistentlyacted as if they believed it was possible to play one faction off ofanother. The same search for "moderates" that drove the Iran-contrafiasco can be seen today in the Clinton administration's campaign offriendly gestures toward President Khatami. The U.S. can useKhatami's call for a "dialogue of civilizations" between the twocountries to its advantage; however, but it should abandon effortscurrently underway to cut a secret deal with Tehran that would leavethe Islamic regime unchallenged.
While the Islamic Republic, as a system, appears extremelycohesive, it has maintained its grasp on power through a large andoften brutal repressive apparatus. Numerous points of fracture existwithin Iranian society than can be leveraged through carefulpolicies. Despite major efforts in recent years, Iran remains anoil-based economy, and thus is extremely vulnerable to oil pricefluctuations. To expand capacity beyond the January 1998 OPECproduction ceiling of 3.9 million b/d, Iran's oil industry requires amassive infusion of foreign capital and advanced technology, tocompensate for a near total lack of maintenance and exploration sincethe Revolution. And yet, in 1997 the National Iranian Oil Companydrilled fewer exploratory wells in Iran in a year than were drilledin the state of Texas in a single month. Clearly, this is an areawhere the U.S. policy of unilateral economic sanctions had beensuccessful, by preventing capital and technology inflows. U.S.opposition to World Bank loans to Iran compounded the impact.
Economic mismanagement has weakened the Iranian economy across theboard. The standard of living in 1998 was a fraction of what it wasin 1978, the last year before the fall of the Shah, and most Iraniansare aware of what they have lost. High unemployment, rampantinflation, and failure of the regime to make good on its promises tothe "dispossessed" have generated resentment among ordinary Iraniansand potential instability. Widespread corruption among the rulingelite has exacerbated the problem, leading to a general impression,noted by most analysts of Iranian affairs, that the IslamicRevolution is "losing its steam." Here, too, the regime isvulnerable.
The May 1997 presidential election campaign and the massive voteagainst the regime's hand-picked candidate, Majlis-speaker Ali AkbarNateq-Nouri, demonstrated that discontent with the regime isbroad-based and deep. Young people have had enough of the repressivesocial atmosphere and are turning toward the West, especially theUnited States. There is abundant anecdotal evidence of this, fromreports by visiting U.S. journalists who are told at every encounterwith ordinary Iranians that they harbor no ill intentions toward theUnited States, to the rousing welcome given a team of U.S. wrestlerswho visited Tehran in February 1998 who were cheered when theyparaded the American flag around the stadium to the tune of theAmerican national anthem. Iran's traditional Shiite clergy hasopposed the regime quietly since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in1989, because they reject the religious credentials of the newabsolute religious leader, Hojjat-ol eslam Ali Khamene'i. Most of theGrand Ayatollahs still alive in Iran have been under house arrest formore than ten years.
In addition, there is the intense and often bitter disaffection ofIran's minority Sunni Muslim community, variously estimated at 25-30%of the total population. Because Sunni Muslim tradition rejects thedogma of Velayat-e faghih (absolute clerical rule), Iran's Sunnisfind themselves barred from government employment. Sunnis are amajority in all of Iran's borders areas, touching Iraq, Pakistan,Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics and most of the Persian Gulfcoast. Both of these factors constitute major weaknesses for aso-called "religious" regime, and can be exploited through skillfulefforts.
Iranian leaders speak often about "Western cultural invasion," aterm they have coined to express both a problem and their frustrationat being unable to solve it. Half of Iran's population has been bornsince the 1979 revolution. To the minds of Iran's clerical leaders,these young people - the first "pure" products of a new, "Islamic"education system - should have become stalwart supporters of theregime. Instead, they listen to Western music, buy bootleg Westernvideo cassettes, and watch "Baywatch" and other Hollywood shows onsatellite TV. Attempts in 1995 and 1996 to crack down on satellitedishes failed miserably; in February 1997, the authorities launchedraids on clothing shops, seizing T-shorts bearing pictures of theAmerican flag, the Statue of Liberty, and other Western symbols,setting them on fire in public ceremonies reminiscent ofbook-burning. Today, Western-style clothing has become the norm onIranian university campuses. The regime's attempts to isolateIranians from outside influence have not only failed; they havegenerated greater interest in things Western among Iranians.
The areas where the United States has greatest leverage over theregime in Tehran are mainly cultural. Economic pressure workedfor a time to choke off investment in the oil and gas sector; butonce again, this amounts to treating the symptom, not the cause ofthe U.S. problem with the regime. Unless it is coupled with other,cultural measures, a economic and military containment policy willultimately fail. Indeed, critics of the current "dual containment"strategy argue that the failure of economic and military containmentto bring about changes in the behavior of the regime should cause theU.S. to abandon containment and seek accommodation with the regime. Ibelieve, on the contrary, that the current policy does not go farenough, and fails to recognize that accommodation will onlystrengthen the regime and, as a result, the very behavior we seek tochange.
The United States has shown throughout the world that it can"compete" head to head with dictatorships and win. Freedom anddemocracy are extremely attractive "products" to sell to young peoplewho have been brought up under a repressive, inward-driven system. Incompeting with the Islamic regime for the attention of this audience,the United States has powerful tools the regime lacks. In its mostbasic form, a competitive strategy amounts to a successful marketingcampaign. The most powerful tool of any marketing campaign isadvertising. Since the U.S. has no access to the Iranian media, thisleaves one option: creating our own. In November 1997, Congressappropriated $4 million to create a surrogate Radio Free Iran underthe banner of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It is no coincidencethat the Iranian regime has targeted this radio as a threat, and hasmade offers through back-channel discussions with Americanintermediaries to open a secret political dialogue with the U.S. inexchange for killing the new radio. These efforts were eventuallyblocked in mid-April 1998 by intense pressure on the administrationfrom Congress.
The audience the U.S. needs to reach via Radio Free Iran are the30 million young Iranians born since the revolution who todayconstitute more than 50% of the population. Programming should not beovertly political (the Iranian media is full of hyperventilatingpolitical commentary), but should focus on the stuff of freedom -free choice, free expression, freedom to travel, freedom fromgovernment repression, and respect for human rights. While the UnitedStates can only get involved with opposition groups inside Iran atgreat risk, it can nurture opposition to the regime throughbroadcasting and the distribution of guides to political defiance andorganization. The freedom radios had a tremendous impact during theCold War throughout Eastern Europe in keeping alive a defiant spiritamong captive peoples. Czech President Vaclav Havel, who spent manyyears in a Communist jail, expressed his country's gratitude forRadio Free Europe by turning over the former Parliament building inPrague to the RFE/RL to use as a new worldwide broadcasting center,for a token one dollar yearly rent.
Radio Free Iran should also work to establish an on-the-groundreporting capability, that can be deployed in times of crisis insideIran to provide breaking news that the regime is eager to suppress,and to report on human rights abuses. Such a capability was sorelylacking during riots that broke out in a variety of cities (Qazvin,Tabriz, Isfahan, Zahedan, as well as the Tehran suburbs) in recentyears. The lack of information allowed the regime to successfullyisolate these disturbances and keep them from taking on nationalsignificance. How the regime reacts to Radio Free Iran will depend toa large extent on the content of the broadcasts. If they strident intone, or become the tool of Iranian exiles, the regime is likely tojam them as they did throughout the 1980s and early 1990s toCIA-sponsored broadcasts run by Dr. Manoucher Ganji, an exile basedin Paris, France. However, if the broadcasts remain factual andstrike the right tone, they could gain a wide audience inside Iran,making moves by the regime to jam them or to punish Iranians caughtlistening to them politically risky. Repression of this sort could inturn increase the audience for the broadcasts and further encouragethe nascent pro-democracy movement inside Iran, just as the regime'sban on satellite dishes only increased the appetite of Iranians towatch banned Western television programs.
In addition to broadcasting, the United States needs to send aclear message to the Iranian people about U.S. goals. While theClinton administration has subtly and correctly altered the officialU.S. policy line since President Khatami's election, stressing thefriendship between the U.S. and Iranian peoples, we still need todispel the lingering suspicion in the mind of many Iranians that theU.S. is somehow conspiring with the ruling clerics to keep theIslamic regime in power. Instead of the usual statements that theU.S. is "not opposed to Islamic government" in Iran, or that it seesthe regime as "a permanent feature of the Middle East," U.S.policy-makers should state publicly that the U.S. supports thesovereign right of the Iranian people to choose their form ofgovernment by democratic means. The U.S. should also make it clearthat economic sanctions are tied to the regime's behavior, and do notresult from any enmity toward the Iranian people - a message that isalready getting across.
The administration should also try to coordinate its policyapproach toward Iran with non-governmental actors. The perceived lackof any U.S. commitment, for or against sanctions, has encouraged awide variety of actors on all sides of the issue to get involved,pretending to express the underlying intentions of the Clintonadministration. One notable example was the April 15, 1998 speechbefore the Council on Foreign Relations in New York by outgoingRepresentative Lee Hamilton (D,Ind), the ranking Minority member ofthe House International Relations Committee who has announced hisretirement from the House. Hamilton called for an end to U.S.sanctions and encouraged the Clinton administration to open adialogue with the Iranian regime. If the United States seeks topromote democracy in Iran, it should clearly indicate that suchstatements do not square with U.S. policy or U.S. goals.
Iranian exiles would like to see the United States back this orthat political faction in Iran, but direct involvement in Iranianpolitics is a mine field that promises no prize for the risks ofbeing crossed. Given the advanced state of decay of the regime,exposure of U.S. covert operations in support of opposition groupscould give regime leaders a welcome boost in popularity that faroutweighed any potential gains. The U.S. should encourage othercountries in the region to support opposition Shiite religiousleaders and Iranian Sunnis in Balouchistan, along the Gulf coast, andalong the border with Azerbaijan.
In the public policy arena, the U.S. should take up PresidentKhatami's call for a "dialogue of civilizations" with care. While onthe surface, greater exchanges of academics, journalists, athletes,and artists seems appealing, Tehran's goal is to create a lobby inthe United States that can put pressure on Congress to lift economicsanctions on Iran. For such exchanges to be meaningful, the U.S.should insist that American "emissaries" to Tehran be granted directaccess to the Iranian media, to Iranian students, and to localgroups, so they can make the case for democracy and freedom directlyto the Iranian people. This is clearly not what President Khatami hadin mind.
The U.S. can have only very limited influence on events insideIran, and should have no illusion about the type of government thatwill emerge even in a best case scenario from the ashes of theIslamic Republic. It is likely to remain Islamic - at least, in name;and it is likely to include some of the historic figures of the1978-1979 revolution. We should not expect or even hope for apro-American puppet regime. U.S. public policy statements should makeclear that it is in America's interests to see a strong, free, anddemocratic Iran, whatever its political coloration.
But we should also monitor the shift from dictatorship todemocracy carefully, because how it happens will affect what happens.Signs of positive change will include:
authorization of political parties, with the right toorganize and unimpeded access to the domestic media, including forthose that do not accept clerical rule;
authorization of labor unions and the right of workers toorganize freely and engage in contract negotiations;
dismantling of the repressive apparatus, especially the"vice squads" and secret police;
an end to the assassination of Iranian dissidents living inexile and to the harassment of the Iranian exile community;
putting into practice the International Covenant for Civiland Political Rights, a binding international agreement signed by theIslamic Republic which guarantees the rights of minorities and ofpolitical representation for all citizens. (President Khatami's vowto respect the "rule of law" is a fig leaf for repression, in that herefers to the laws of the Islamic Republic which enshrinediscrimination against women, minorities, and politicalopponents);
an end to press censorship and ownership laws that restrictpress freedom, and free access to the international media for allIranians;
prosecution of individuals and groups responsible for mobviolence;
an end to the training and support of foreign terroristgroups.
Some analysts see in the tremendous changes occurring withinIranian society today real signs of a change of heart - if not yetbehavior - of the regime. Such a conclusion under-estimates theimport of the May 1997 presidential elections, which were aresounding defeat for the regime, and over-estimates the regime'sability to keep the lid on popular dissent. Iran's continued supportfor terrorism, its dramatic recent successes in developing long-rangeballistic missiles, and its continued rejection of the Middle Eastpeace process have demonstrated that the current regime is incapableof reform in any meaningful way. Indeed, if President Khatami were toattempt to implement the reforms listed above, the Tehran rumor millssuggest he would be removed by the Supreme Leader, AyatollahKhamene'i. The advent of a real democracy in Iran, with open debateand empowerment of minority groups, would spell the end of theIslamic Republic as we know it.
Democracy would have a dramatic impact on Iran's WMD programs aswell. For instance, it is hard to believe that a truly open debate inan Iranian parliament composed of representatives of all segments ofIranian society (instead of the majority of clerical supporters ofthe regime we still see today) would approve the massive expendituresbeing made today to build nuclear power plants along the Persian Gulfcoast at Busheir. If nothing else, a democratic debate would leadParliament to consider the economic and environmental impact ofpursuing the Busheir nuclear plants. Similarly, while a democraticIran might want to build missiles capable of hitting Baghdad, itwould see little interest in longer-range missiles that would bringTel Aviv into reach, knowing that such a capability calls for aresponse.
The regime itself has boasted that every capitulation by theUnited States, whether a relaxation of economic sanctions or therecognition of the political legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, istantamount to a show of support for the regime. In this context,negotiating with Tehran only reinforces the current regime, whilediscouraging Iranian reformers whose influence is growing on a dailybasis. Instead, a competitive strategy would seek to drive a wedgebetween the regime and the Iranian people, to encourage Iraniandemocrats to organize themselves into an effective opposition capableof using the tools of political defiance to bring about real changein Iran.