Pragmatic Theocracy

For two decades now, the Islamic Republic of Iran has confounded the American foreign policy community, whose members have oscillated wildly between urgent appeals to normalize relations with Tehran and equally determined bids to contain its influence. In the latest swing of the pendulum, a chorus of voices--including those of former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former Representative Lee Hamilton, and a parade of retired diplomats--has been calling for a rapprochement.

The basis of their petition was the outcome of Iran's 1997 presidential election, which brought to power Ayatollah Muhammad Khatemi. The replacement of the implacable Koranic figures who formerly ruled Iran with a smiling cleric who reads John Locke and professes a commitment to democratizing his nation's Islamic polity has led to a certain euphoria amongst Iran watchers in the West and, specifically, to widespread anticipation of a more moderate Iranian foreign policy. But far from confining themselves to recommendations for normalized relations, the most ardent of the Iran "engagers" have been touting the "New Iran" as an agent of regional stability. One of the most vocal enthusiasts, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, has emphasized that the key to unraveling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq is to be found in a strategy "that can be summed up in one word--Iran." Echoing that appraisal, Robin Wright and Shaul Bakhash have recommended in the pages of Foreign Policy that "the Islamic Republic could underwrite Persian Gulf security, as it did during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi."

This optimism has proved contagious and, not surprisingly, has eroded the resolve of the Clinton Administration. Since his election in 1992, President Clinton has repeatedly maintained that improved U.S.-Iranian relations depend on Iran halting its attacks on the Arab-Israeli peace process, its support for terrorism, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Lately, however, the administration has perceptibly softened its stance. "We have to find a way to get dialogue", President Clinton now argues. "Going into denial when you're in conversation with somebody who has been your adversary, in a country like Iran that has often worried about its independence and its integrity, is not exactly the way to begin." Then, too, the administration's chief Middle East strategist, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, has stressed that "it is time for the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran to engage each other as two great nations--face to face, and on the basis of equality and mutual respect."

Alas, the latest shift in American attitudes seems to be driven less by actual developments in Tehran than by uniquely Western assumptions about President Khatemi and, more generally, about the putative link between political liberalization and foreign policy moderation. Iran, though, is not playing by Western rules. To begin with, the center of power in the Republic is not the institution of the presidency but its religious establishment, particularly the office of the Supreme Spiritual Leader. Its edict affects every aspect of Iranian national life, from decisions concerning war and peace, to legislation, to the appointment of key figures, to the judiciary and the validation of election returns. Until his death, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini occupied the post. In 1989 he was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was appointed on an interim basis but has managed to prolong his tenure. But Khamenei lacks theological credentials and the assured backing of Iran's religious elite. Accordingly, he has sought to prove his bona fides by feeding its members a steady diet of anti-American proclamations. Yet even the influence of the Supreme Leader is not absolute. For the clerical Republic is governed by a system of collective leadership in which no individual can unilaterally alter national policy. If either Khamenei or Khatemi were inclined to a dramatic reorientation of Iran's foreign policy--and there is no evidence to suggest such an inclination--the intricate web of institutions and personalities beneath them would obstruct their efforts at every turn.

Rather than glean Iran's intentions from the nuances of its domestic political discourse, then, we might do better simply to examine its behavior abroad. Whereas Iran's political terrain is highly factionalized, in matters of foreign affairs a relative consensus persists. Upon his election to the presidency, Khatemi declared that "the Iranian people have paid a heavy price for the revolution and are not going to give it up so easily." Iran's new foreign minister, Kemal Kharrazi, likewise stressed that "Iran's foreign policy before and after the election of President Khatemi remains the same and continuity prevails." Indeed, the Islamic Republic's international aims rest on certain geopolitical constants, ones to which mullahs of whatever political temper steadfastly adhere. Ideology may no longer be the driving force behind Iran's international conduct, and Iran may indeed be evolving into a "normal country", but its foreign policy objectives--particularly as they concern the United States--remain basically unchanged.

Perceptions of America

In the aftermath of Khomeini's death in 1989, Iran's clerical estate was plunged into an intense debate about the direction of the revolution. Iran's domestic political scene soon became polarized, as competing factions of pragmatists and hardliners waged a turf war over the nature and scope of domestic political and economic reforms, an argument that continues to this day.

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