Ayatollah Attitude: Iran’s place in the new war

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The events of September 11 have dramatically reshaped the politics of the Middle East, and nowhere more so than in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran now faces a stark choice: It must abandon its sponsorship of terrorism or risk the possibility of U.S. punitive action.

Iran’s initial condemnation of the terror attacks soon evolved into a settled defiance of U.S. calls for military action against the terrorist strongholds, quashing hopes in Washington for a tacit alliance with the Islamic Republic. As the Bush team searches the Middle East for allies, it will find an Iran that, despite its antiterrorist rhetoric, persists in supporting organizations that engage in violence for political purposes.

Domestically, Iran is making an important social transition. The cadre of reformist clerics around the president, Muhammad Khatami, appreciates that the autocratic regime, with its rigid definition of Islam, is eroding support for the very idea of an Islamic republic; these moderates are therefore willing to experiment with some degree of political and cultural liberalization. Hard-liners, however, continue to cling to dogmatism; they favor an Islam that is averse to innovation, intolerant of dissent, and contemptuous of democratic accountability. The hard-liners have found a patron and ally in the stern and forbidding figure of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader. Khamenei’s power is considerable: Under Iranian law, he certifies elections and appoints the leaders of the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Revolutionary Guards. Hard-liners also control important parts of the foreign-policy machinery, and quickly used this power to quash Khatami’s pragmatic efforts to use the current crisis to reach out to Washington.


To point out, however, that Iran’s domestic scene is polarized should not lead us to underestimate the relative consensus among Tehran’s competing political factions when it comes to key international issues. For an entire generation of Iran’s clerics, relations with the U.S. have been mired in visceral emotion. From Tehran’s perspective, the U.S. is more than another great power with which Iran must deal; it embodies a whole range of political and cultural grievances. America’s culture of pluralism and materialism threatens the foundations of an Islamic republic; furthermore, its economic and geopolitical preeminence works to block Iranian ambitions to lead a coalition of Gulf and Caspian states. Successive Persian empires have dreamt of becoming the dominant power in Islamdom, only to be thwarted by other claimants to that status. Arab dynasties, Ottoman rulers, and British imperialists all denied Iran its historic mandate of shaping the region in its own image; the U.S. is just the latest obstacle to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

In Afghanistan, however, Iran’s objectives ostensibly coincide with those of the U.S. Iran shares a long, troubled border with Afghanistan and has funneled extensive support to the Taliban’s opponents. While both Iran and the Taliban claim religious legitimacy, deep doctrinal differences and strategic insecurities have divided them from the start. Tehran has declared the Taliban a menace, its ideology a perversion of religious teachings, and its policies on women, art, and culture an affront to civilized norms. (This is Iran talking.) Three years ago, the hostility nearly escalated to war after Iranian diplomats were killed in the Taliban capture of a minority stronghold.

All this is true, but Iran’s clerics take only limited comfort in America’s destruction of their Afghan foes-because it implies a further projection of U.S. power. Khamenei has warned that “the American government intends to repeat what it did in the Persian Gulf in this region . . . They intend to come and establish themselves in this region under the pretext of a lack of security here.” Hassan Rowhani, the secretary general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, reached a similar conclusion, declaring, “A long-time aim of the Americans has been to dominate the oil wells in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and with the attacks against Afghanistan, it has found the excuse to gain a presence in the Caspian Sea.” And this is where the apparent convergence of U.S. and Iranian perspectives falters; because while Tehran can live, however uneasily, with a Taliban-led Afghanistan, it dreads the prospect of a pro-Western regime in Afghanistan and further U.S. inroads into Central Asia.

For Iran, then, the potential implications of America’s war over Afghanistan are ominous. The last time the U.S. fought a regional war- against Iraq-it established permanent military installations on Iran’s periphery and doggedly pursued an Arab-Israeli peace process that, despite its shortcomings, yielded a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. The possibility of a further encampment of American forces on Iran’s northern and eastern flanks terrifies Iran’s clerics. This is a major reason for Tehran’s efforts to restrain the U.S., and its insistence on an international-as opposed to an American-led-coalition against Afghanistan and the terrorists within it. Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, has pointedly rejected America’s definition of terrorism and stressed the need to “make a distinction between terrorism and a people’s legitimate right to self-defense and resisting occupation.” From the American perspective, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the plethora of militant Palestinian groups may be terrorist organizations with a “global reach,” but from Iran’s point of view they are allies that provide it with leverage in the region. At a time when the U.S. military presence in the region is bound to grow, Iran is not about to abandon its remaining allies in an effort to curry favor with Washington.

Iran’s support for terrorism, then, rests on sound strategic calculations. Iran’s long-term objectives are the eviction of the U.S. from the Gulf and the marginalization of Israel. Given the disparity of military power between Iran and its competitors, terrorism has always been its weapon of choice. Soon after coming to power, Iran’s ayatollahs created the Hezbollah, whose purpose was to menace Israel and force the U.S. out of Lebanon. In the latter effort, Hezbollah’s success was spectacular: Its bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks forced a superpower’s withdrawal, and its protracted terrorism against Israel finally caused Jerusalem, too, to abandon Lebanon.


Iran has also nourished a web of Shiite militant groups in the Gulf and directed them against U.S. installations. The 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which left 19 American airmen dead, illustrated the subtle and effective nature of Iran’s operations, as its proxies inflicted substantial damage while Tehran escaped direct complicity. We should be under no illusions: Despite the fractious nature of Iran’s politics, its foreign-policy machinery is highly centralized, and all key decisions-including the selection of terrorist targets-are approved by the spiritual leader (currently Khamenei). This terrorism is not a rogue operation; it serves national-security interests and represents a cool, calculated state decision.

Iran, therefore, is unlikely to lend a helping hand in America’s war against the Taliban; Tehran’s clerics will stand neutral in that conflict, while plotting their own next move against U.S. influence in the region. If the U.S. is not prepared to allow Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East, U.S.-Iranian relations will continue to be marked by confrontation, even when both states appear to share certain interests. In essence, the Clinton-Albright approach-offering concessions as a means of generating dialogue-failed to appreciate that the U.S. and Iran simply have different plans for the region. If Washington wants Tehran to conform to international rules of conduct, it will have to maintain a robust regional presence and conduct a determined effort against Iran’s terrorism and efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Only when Iran’s theocrats are convinced of America’s resolve on these matters can a meaningful U.S.-Iranian dialogue take place.


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