All the Ayatollah's Men

All the Ayatollah's Men

Mini Teaser: Some Westerners are puzzled that Iran’s foreign policy remains as bellicose today as it was in the time of Ayatollah Khomeini. But history shows that the regime’s foreign policy is designed to maintain its ideological identity.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

THE MOST momentous change in Iran’s foreign policy came with the 1997 election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, whose ambitions were nothing less than extraordinary. His aim was not merely to make the theocracy more accountable to its citizenry but also to end the Islamic Republic’s pariah status and integrate it into the global society. Thus, he embraced much of the reformist agenda. And, given his popular mandate and determination, he presented a certain authority to the supreme leader and the conservatives. While the reformist forces wanted reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, normalized relations with the European Union and even an outreach to the United States, Khamenei accepted only the first two of these measures. He understood that Iran’s national interest required a different relationship with its neighbors and its European commercial partners. Moreover, the conservatives, initially shell-shocked by Khatami’s unexpected triumph, eventually yielded warily to his early measures.

Khatami’s “good neighbor” diplomacy rehabilitated Iran’s ties with the Gulf regimes. Numerous trade, diplomatic and security agreements were signed between the Islamic Republic and the Gulf sheikhdoms. Iran ceased its support for opposition forces operating in those countries. Thus, Khatami managed—at least momentarily—to transcend Khomeini’s divisive legacy and replace ideological antagonisms with policies rooted in pragmatism and self-interest.

Khatami’s cautious domestic liberalization similarly expedited détente with the European states. He ended the long-standing practice of assassinating Iranian dissidents in Europe. Also, the issue of the Rushdie fatwa was finally settled. After decades of living underground, the beleaguered author was allowed to pursue a more normal life and resume his literary pursuits. European envoys returned to Iran, and Iran’s president was welcomed in European capitals.

Khatami even attempted to adjust Iran’s stridency toward Israel. The Iranian government now said it would assent to an agreement if it were acceptable to the Palestinians. The clerical state’s calls for the eradication of Israel and its periodic conferences pledging to reclaim Jerusalem through holy war were at odds with the reformist perspective, not to mention the sentiments of the Arab states. The critical question was: Who was the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people? Was it Hamas, as the hard-liners insisted, or the Palestinian Authority, as the reformers maintained? The reformers pressed the state to recognize that Iran’s stance was popular only with radical Islamists, rejectionists and terrorists. In his inaugural address, Khatami stressed that Iran was prepared to advance an agreement predicated on UN resolutions. Given the fact that those resolutions had conceded a two-state solution, Iran’s reformist leader subtly stipulated the authority of the land-for-peace formula. It was during Khatami’s tenure that the Islamic Republic accepted the results of the 2002 Arab summit, with its recognition that in exchange for return to pre-1967 lines the Arab states would recognize Israel. Critics certainly could scoff at this concession on the ground that it did not eliminate Iran’s support for Hezbollah or Hamas, but it was an important breakthrough for a country known for its unrelenting hostility toward the Jewish state. Indeed, the reformists’ rhetoric and stance would not survive the rise of their more hawkish successors.

Khatami’s approach to America was more gingerly and carefully crafted. Conscious of the conservatives’ deep-seated reservations, Khatami sought to ease mutual suspicion through a gradual exchange of scholars, activists and athletes. He hoped U.S. economic concessions might provide him with sufficient leverage to influence the conservatives at home, particularly the wary supreme leader. But Khatami underestimated the extent of the hard-liners’ hostility to any thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as the rigidity of America’s unimaginative containment policy. In essence, Khatami fell victim to both Iranian hard-liners and post-9/11 politics in the United States.

Soon, a conservative counterstrategy began to crystallize. The conservatives employed their governmental leverage to negate parliamentary legislation designed to liberalize Iran’s polity. The judiciary imprisoned prominent reformers and closed down their newspapers. Vigilante and terror groups harassed student gatherings and assassinated prominent intellectuals. And foreign policy once again came into play. Conservatives dismissed the reform movement’s ability to deliver on its promises as a means of undermining international confidence in Khatami’s government. Terrorism reemerged as a means of advancing the conservative agenda and subverting reformist plans. And then Iran’s conservatives received a helping hand from an unexpected corner—George W. Bush.

Khatami and the reformers viewed 9/11 as an ideal opportunity to mend fences with America. Khatami quickly realized the advantage in cooperating with the United States on the intersecting objectives of the two countries following 9/11. A religious intellectual who saw Islam and democracy as compatible, Khatami viewed the Taliban as a particular affront to his sensibilities. He also believed the demise of the radical Sunni group would enhance Iran’s security while providing an avenue for reconciliation with the United States.

Then, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush uttered his famous line castigating Iran as part of an “axis of evil” (along with North Korea and Iraq). Bush rebuked Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism and condemned its unelected leaders for oppressing their citizens. The president declared that in the post-9/11 environment, the United States would “not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Though perhaps designed to prepare the American public for the administration’s plan to invade Iraq, the inclusion of Iran dealt a fearsome blow to Tehran’s reformers. Thus did Khatami’s interlude in leadership prove to be short-lived, despite his impressive accomplishments. The conservatives, fearful that the reform movement could end up undermining the pillars of the Islamist state, soon rebounded.

Image: Pullquote: Khomeini’s internationalism had to have an antagonist, a foil against which to define itself. And a caricatured concept of the West became the central pillar of his Islamist imagination.Essay Types: Essay