The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

An investigative tool for business executives, government, and the media.


Change in Iran and Challenges for U.S. policymakers

by Kenneth R. Timmerman


Congressional Research Service "Forum onIran"

Library of Congress,

Washington, DC

January 8, 1999



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

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

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

Iran's U.S.-supplied military forces were decimated by the1980-1988 war with Iraq, and low oil prices combined with U.S.diplomatic efforts have combined to slow Iran's progress inrebuilding them. However, in recent years, Iran has gone the way ofother so-called "rogue" states, by increasingly focusing energy andresources on developing weapons of mass destruction and the means todeliver them. This could change Iran's status from the category oftrouble-maker to significant military threat in a relatively shortorder.

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

In my view, the real challenge facing policy-makers today isambiguity. How do we respond when the Iranian regime itself appearsto be in the throes of change, riddled with increasingly violentfactional infighting, and when a large portion of the Iranianpopulation are yearning for closer ties to the United States while adetermined group of radicals who control the military and securityapparatus are becoming increasingly frantic - and violent - inopposing U.S.-Iranian ties?

Those who believe we should be making gestures to Tehran point tothese developments and argue that we need to encourage reform by atleast some form of diplomatic outreach and possibly low-leveltrade..

I would argue, however, that there is far less ambiguity thanfirst appears on the surface. And that any gestures we make arelikely 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 intheir eagerness to detect pro-American sentiments among the Iranianpeople was Khatami's own radical background as a leading member ofthe regime.

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

He believed - and still believes - that the Islamic Republic islocked into a life or death struggle with the United States and theWest. Beneath his calls for a "dialogue of civilizations" lies abelief that the Islamic Republic represents a superior system ofgovernment to Western-style democracy. He has never challenged theregime's founding doctrine of clerical rule, a doctrine which notonly makes this regime unique in the history of the world, but setsit at odds with its neighbors and with international bodies.

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

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

Since Khatami assumed the presidence in August 1997, a thousandnew publications have flourished. Some, critical of the regime, havebeen banned. Others have had their offices ransacked by regime-backedthugs known as the Ansar-e Hezbollah. Publishers have been fined,thrown in jail, and in some cases attacked. Journalists and writershave been murdered. The most prominent secular opponent of clericalrule - Darioush Forouhar - was brutally hacked to death in lateNovember 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 foolyou 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 lockedin a struggle with the "conservative" Supreme Leader, AyatollahKhamene'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 andby pro-regime academics, in an effort to generate support for Khatami(and before him, for Rafsanjani, who founded the Reform movement as ameans of creating a personal power base).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, we should let events inside Iran play themselves out,encouraging democrats where we can, and making sure that America'svoice 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 isvery little we can do to effect change. But we can ride the wave ofchange and prepare for the worst - and the best.

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

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

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

A friend of mine who is an ardent opponent of the trade embargorecently returned from Tehran and said that the upsurge in factionalfighting 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-partydemocracy in a non-ideological way.

We need to be seen as a beacon of freedom by Iranians. We canaccomplish this by condemning human rights abuses, welcoming Iranianwriters and intellectuals, supporting them where possible through NEDand other institutions, encouraging human rights.

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

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.-iranianrapprochement. The worst thing we can do is to rush thingsforward.