The Khatemi Factor: How Much Does It Matter?

The Khatemi Factor: How Much Does It Matter?

Mini Teaser: Change in Iran is in the air, and it could be dramatic--but this is speculative and both the timetable and the actual policy implications are impossible to specify.

by Author(s): Mark N. Katz

Since early last year, an increasing number of voices have been calling for the relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran and, indeed, for a general ratcheting down of the U.S. effort to isolate Iran diplomatically. These have not been just any voices: Very senior former U.S. government officials have been involved, including former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Richard Murphy. Similar pronouncements have been made by former Ambassadors David Mack and William Rugh, by Rep. Lee Hamilton (senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee), and by former National Security Council staffer Richard Haass (now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution) among many others. Many if not most of these ministrations, it is worth noting, were voiced before the election of Mohammed Khatemi to the Iranian presidency this past summer.

Those arguing for a relaxation of sanctions have done so on several grounds. First, they point out that while American sanctions against Iran have exacted some pain over the nearly two decades in which they have been in effect, they have clearly failed to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, and appear unlikely to do so in the future. Indeed, they may even retard change by enabling the clerical leadership more easily to demonize the United States in the eyes of the Iranian people. Second, they argue that U.S. sanctions have not stopped Iran from supporting terrorism abroad, attacking the Arab-Israeli peace process, or pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Third, critics point out that since they are unilateral, American sanctions have not prevented the mullahs from selling all the oil they wish to Western Europe and Japan; fourth, that by penalizing foreign firms that invest in the Iranian petroleum sector, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 has irritated relations with our most important Western allies far more than it has irritated Iran. Fifth, several observers--not least among them Frederick Starr writing in these pages last spring--noted that American success in preventing the newly independent states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan from exporting their oil and gas via Iran (the cheapest route) only heightened the exposure of both their valuable resources and their political autonomy to an unstable and mendacious Russia. Sixth, several observers complained that sanctions had the effect of benefiting U.S. commercial rivals that otherwise would not have had such an easy time--the French Total deal with Iran being a good case in point. Finally, some observers called for improving U.S.-Iranian relations as a means of accruing leverage against Iraq, a country that, at least for the time being, arguably represents a greater threat to U.S. and allied interests than does Iran.

Taken together, these arguments seemed to many analysts in and out of government to make a good deal of sense, if for no other reason than that they satisfied a desire to bring the full range of American geopolitical assets back into play. Throughout the first half of 1997 the case for change began to catch on, and there arose an expectation that the sheer weight of the logic being tossed about would sooner or later induce significant adjustment in U.S. policy toward Iran.

But until quite recently, the critique of U.S. policy toward Iran did not produce such a change, and the reason is very instructive. It is that the actual state of Iranian-American relations and the detailed evaluation of available diplomatic options for maneuver has mattered a great deal less than where Iran is seen to fit within the overall pattern of American relations with revolutionary states. The simple truth is that the particulars of the Iranian case pale before the general disposition of U.S. attitudes toward those we deem ideological troublemakers. For better or for worse, the U.S. government does not make decisions about such countries on the merits, but rather on the basis of broadly prudential and moral categories.

Both the U.S. government and the American public in general do not like non-democratic revolutionary regimes that are hostile toward America and its liberal values. Especially as a result of its takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis, Iran has been particularly disliked by Americans. But except under highly unusual circumstances, dislike of such regimes does not translate into a policy of armed intervention against them. Since Vietnam, Congress and the American public have been willing to support the use of force against anti-American regimes only if they invade states that are important to us (as when Iraq invaded Kuwait), or if they are so weak that we can overwhelm them in a day or two without incurring more than a handful of casualties (as in Grenada). As much as we dislike the Islamic Republic, it does not qualify on either of these grounds.

While reluctant to engage in military conflict with revolutionary regimes, however, Americans have been downright eager to wage economic warfare against them. Democrats and Republicans alike love to impose sanctions against various non-democratic regimes, though they sometimes differ over which countries to target. The U.S. government imposed new economic sanctions against 35 countries in the short period from 1993 to 1996 alone.

Until very recently, Iran has not been an exception to this pattern. That it might now be in the process of becoming one is explained by a second pattern that characterizes American dealings with revolutionary regimes: Once sanctions have been imposed, neither the U.S. government nor the American public has been willing to relax them and improve relations with revolutionary regimes, except in three specific situations.

First, Washington has shown a willingness to improve relations with revolutionary regimes that threaten vital U.S. interests. The classic case, of course, was the pursuit of dŽtente with the Soviet Union. When U.S. policymakers believed the USSR to have achieved coequal or superior nuclear and conventional military forces, and when Moscow was doing more to support Marxist movements in the Third World than it ever had before, Washington saw fit to engage the Soviet Union diplomatically even in the overall framework of containment (which, after the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina, Washington did not vigorously pursue in the Third World until the implementation of the Reagan Doctrine). A more recent example, and one more comparable in scale to the case of Iran, is the U.S. response in 1994 to the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea. The United States offered Pyongyang a generous aid package in exchange for halting its weapons program, something we never would have considered doing had Pyongyang not acquired nukes.

Second, we have been willing to improve relations with revolutionary regimes we used to revile if a common threat to us both emerged. The classic case in this instance was the dramatic if belated change in America's relationship with China in the early 1970s. Although Washington had justifiably viewed China as more rabidly revolutionary than the USSR during the 1960s, Chinese and American fears of Moscow led to close cooperation between Washington and Beijing from 1972 through the end of the Cold War. More recently, the growing sense that China is becoming a threat to its neighbors appears to be one factor providing the basis for an emerging rapprochement between Washington and Hanoi.

Third, we have been willing to embrace any revolutionary regime that denounces its past and swears allegiance to democracy and capitalism. We will do so even if basically the same people remain in power, even if they limit democratization at their whim, and even if it is apparent that they regard "capitalism" as merely a way to turn state enterprises into their own personal property--as is now occurring in so many former communist countries.

The United States has been resolutely unwilling to improve relations with revolutionary regimes if they do not fall into one of these three categories. Never mind if the policy makes no sense in a changed context, or is plainly counterproductive--as has been the case with U.S. policy toward Cuba for at least a decade. If a revolutionary regime doesn't really threaten the United States, or there is no perceived common threat, then no urgency is felt to improve relations with it; and if it will not play the role of repentant prodigal son, then (despite what foreign policy experts may advise on the merits of the case at hand) the American polity as a whole is unwilling--even generically unable--to improve relations with it. On the other hand, should the conditions of such a regime change so as to place it within one of these three categories, it is very likely that the United States will reassess its policy and move to improve relations.
Such a change has now happened--or seems to have happened--in the case of Iran. Not that the Islamic Republic falls plainly and unmistakably into one or the other of the three categories; rather it seems to fall a little into all three.

First, Iran has become more dangerous because it has come ever closer to a nuclear weapons capability--with no little thanks to Russian help. Of course, those who have worked hardest to keep Iran sanctioned and isolated have done more than any others to emphasize this fact. What they fail to grasp, however, is that, according to precedent, to the extent they succeed in convincing Americans of the Iranian nuclear danger, they undermine the effort to isolate Tehran. That is the unmistakable pattern of U.S. diplomacy.

Second, not long after revelations of Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons hit the street, Iraq re-emerged as a palpable threat. The crisis that began on October 29, 1997, and has yet to really end, has clearly kindled U.S. interest in using Iran as a counter to Iraq. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman illustrated such thinking in a January 6 essay entitled "A One-Word Strategy"--and that one word was Iran. "If Washington isn't going to play military hardball with Iraq", he wrote, "it should at least play diplomatic hardball. . . . [T]hink of the benefits: Saddam would be further isolated and Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad, would be too." There is also the other side of the coin, namely, the possibility that the Iranian leadership is more frightened of Saddam now than it was six or eight months ago. After all, when Secretary of Defense William Cohen held up that famous five-pound bag of sugar and asked us to pretend for a moment that it was anthrax, the Iranians were doubtlessly in his extended audience. While they have always understood Saddam's capacity for evil, their intelligence capabilities are not as sophisticated as those of the United States; perhaps they too experienced a slight shock at recent revelations of Iraq's residual germ warfare stocks.

And then there is the Khatemi factor. Mohammed Khatemi, a moderate cleric by Iranian standards, won Iran's presidential election in May by a landslide. This he did against all expectations--and clearly against the wishes of Iran's ruling circle. That election definitely got Washington's attention. The Washington Post first broke the story--albeit perhaps in exaggerated form--on January 9 that, not long after Khatemi's inauguration last August, the Clinton administration sent a message through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran suggesting the opening of a new U.S.-Iranian dialogue. Khatemi's December 14 news conference and his CNN interview on January 7 appear to have been the response to that message. In the CNN interview, Khatemi praised the American people and its devotion to liberty, and averred that Iran had something to learn from the West and something to gain from more contact with it--though not with the U.S. government. "Not only do we not harbor any ill wishes for the American people, but in fact we consider them to be a great nation", he said.

We would, of course, love to have the Iranian government renounce its revolutionary past and seek friendship with the United States. So far that has not happened. Nor is it likely to happen so long as the clerics run the show. While opposition to the regime exists, the Islamic Republic will not be overthrown any time soon. But what Khatemi said is very significant, and remains so despite the fact that several subsequent remarks he has made have been less encouraging. The touchstone of Iran's revolutionary ideology under the Ayatollah Khomeini was that any dealing with America was tantamount to contamination. Khomeini's was essentially a "two camps" theory. Khatemi, by saying that cultural and personal contact between the two societies is a positive thing, and that Iran has something to learn from America and the West, overthrew that cardinal precept. In a country like Iran (as with the Soviet Union), where pronouncements on foreign policy have a canonical character, this is a major event.

So, within a fairly short period, Iran has seemed to grow more dangerous, more useful as a tactical ally against the phoenix-like menace of Iraq, and less ideologically disagreeable. It may well be that Iran is still not very dangerous, that its weight cannot be used effectively against Iraq, and that the ayatollahs hope to give much less than they get back in any diplomatic exchanges with Washington (it would, let it be said, be unusual and unprofessional if they did not). It may be, too, that since President Khatemi's power remains subordinate to that of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran cannot deliver significant changes in its foreign policy in any event. And even if Khatemi is sincere and gains the leverage he needs to implement changes in Iranian policies, it may be a year or more before we see results--as was the case, it should be recalled, even with Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking."

But, again, the facts don't matter as much as the categorical shift that seems to have been occasioned by recent events. U.S. policy may be changing now either prematurely or for the wrong reasons; indeed, some argue that apparent changes in the Iranian attitude are the result of U.S. sanctions starting to bite, and that now is certainly not the time to let down our guard until we have proof of changes in Iranian behavior in those areas that matter most to us: weapons proliferation, terrorism, and attacks on the Arab-Israeli peace process. But just as the seeming merits of the case alone couldn't move U.S. policy before recent "category" changes, so the merits--or demerits--of the case cannot stop a policy shift now that those changes have occurred and the threshold of the American disposition toward Iran has been breached.

So what next? It follows that if Iran seems to get more dangerous, more useful as a balance against a common adversary, and more mellow ideologically, U.S. policy toward Iran will react accordingly. What are the prospects, then, for a further thaw?
Iran could well develop nuclear weapons in the near future--say within the next three years. After all, if a state as poor as North Korea can build a bomb and reap diplomatic and other dividends from it, a much richer one such as Iran can do so to similar effect, and Tehran must certainly have drawn such a conclusion. Washington will have little choice but to become as attentive and solicitous toward Iran as it has been toward North Korea. Who knows?--the United States, along with its friends, just might build a nuclear reactor for Iran, too.

As frightening as the development of nuclear or biological weapons by Iran might be, a possibility just as frightening, if different, would be the emergence of a threat so powerful that Washington and Tehran would put aside their differences to ally against it. Such a threat, of course, would have to be powerful and protracted in order to affect a basic change in U.S.-Iranian relations. Even a mutual antipathy toward Saddam Hussein may not be sufficient, especially if--as is devoutly to be hoped--Saddam is not around to trouble us for another whole decade.

But there are other candidates. One is the emergence of a vengefully nationalist and anti-American post-Yeltsin Russia ruled by someone like Alexander Lebed, Gennady Zyuganov, or Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Possibly after doing away with the Duma, but possibly with its enthusiastic support, such a leader might seek the return of the non-Russian republics--and their petroleum reserves--to Moscow's firm control. Since a belligerent Russia could hold hostage the oil flow from the Caucasus and Central Asia through its own territory, and act to block it from crossing the Caspian (from Central Asia to Azerbaijan) and Georgia (from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea), Washington might conclude that the safest as well as the cheapest route for this oil is through Iran. Under these circumstances, Iran might well be the happy recipient of the transit revenue and, more importantly, would share a strong interest with the United States in preserving the independence of the countries to its north. Just as President Nixon responded to a Soviet Union that appeared to be growing stronger and more threatening by pursuing détente with Moscow while at the same time allying with Beijing against it, the U.S. response to a Russia that was threatening its southern neighbors might once again be to try to improve relations with Moscow while simultaneously working with Tehran against it.

A second scenario that could lead to an overt alliance between Washington and Tehran would be an Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Saudi Arabia. Superficially, it might appear that in such circumstances Iran would ally with an Islamic fundamentalist Arabia against America. That, however, would be highly unlikely. An Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia would in all probability be led by Sunnis, and a Sunni fundamentalist Arabia would never defer to Shi'a Iran. Should they come to power, Sunni fundamentalists in Arabia are far more likely to compete with Iran for influence in the Islamic world than to cooperate with it. Indeed, a Sunni fundamentalist Arabia would threaten Iran's standing within the Islamic revolutionary movement, and could threaten Iran itself if it inspired the large--and largely disenfranchised--15 percent of Iran's population that is Sunni. The threat to Iran that would be posed by a fundamentalist revolution in Saudi Arabia is well illustrated in microcosm by Tehran's acute hostility toward the Sunni Taliban government in Afghanistan. Also well illustrated is the propensity of that threat to drive Iran into common cause with the United States: Iran sits together with the United States in a UN-sponsored committee on ending the war in Afghanistan that is, for all practical purposes, an anti-Taliban effort.

Finally, what of the possibility of further moderation in Iranian ideology? It seems real enough. President Khatemi is riding a wave of genuine popularity and his challenge to the reigning theocratic leadership is strengthened by an attack from another direction--namely from Iran's most respected Shi'a clergy, some of whom have argued that the current leadership should step away from direct rule. That the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is being attacked from the unimpeachable religious core of Shi'a Islam makes it easier for Khatemi to challenge him on political and foreign policy grounds. Change is in the air, and it could be dramatic--but this is speculative and, as suggested above, both the timetable and the actual policy implications are impossible to specify.

What is clear, however, is that Iranian-American relations were never going to improve markedly until Iran got more dangerous, seemed to renounce revolutionary Islam or some pertinent part of it, or was thrown together with the United States by a common threat. Now that some of all three of these things seems to have happened, we find ourselves moving away from our old policy but, with the changes still so ambiguous, we have not yet arrived at a new one. Nor will we unless there is decisive change in Iran or the region for better, or, more probably, for worse.

Essay Types: Essay