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Small World
January 7, 1998 / 9 Tevet, 5758

Iran's new opening to America

As Khatami addresses the US on CNN tonight, a new prospect emerges. Will it be pursued?

By Josh Pollack

CNN HAS AN UNUSUAL BROADCAST scheduled for tonight at 6:00 PM, Eastern Standard Time, and whether in retrospect it proves momentous or trivial, we cannot expect to see its like again. Iran's new president, Hojjatoislam Mohammed Khatami, (Hojjatoislam being a rung below Ayatollah) is set to address the American people. America's own leaders, famously uninterested in foreign affairs, would do well to pay attention this time.

Khatami will be speaking to the same "great American people" he spoke of so warmly in his speech at a conference of Islamic nations in Teheran last month. His words contrasted markedly with those of Iran's supreme leader and spiritual head, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who fulminated all the more vigorously against America and Israel in the correct demonological terms of Iran's revolutionary Islamic leadership.

Speaking well of the American people, as opposed to the American government, is Khatami's novel way of getting around these dogmas, neither uttering nor contradicting them. The Khatami Maneuver is cousin to American officialdom's own expressions of goodwill toward, for example, the Iraqi people, but with an important difference: Mohammed Khatami intends to open a dialogue with the American government, and soon. Whether he understands that the American government and people harbor essentially the same suspicion and loathing towards Iran is irrelevant. What matters more is that he has found a politically viable way to signal his desire to improve relations with the Great Satan.

WHO IS MOHAMMED KHATAMI, and why should anyone outside Iran care? This Shi'ite Muslim cleric, set apart from his peers by his black turban -- the prerogative of a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed -- was expelled by conservatives in 1992 from a cabinet minister's post for the flexibility of his views on women and public singing. His rise to power in the May, 1996 elections was one of the more interesting stories of the past year.

The previous President of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had come to the end of his second term, and, not being entitled to run for a third, was due to move into a council of unelected senior leaders. While he did not bless a successor, his daughter Faezeh Rafsanjani, a member of the Majlis (Iran's legislature) and a leading Iranian feminist, trumpeted his former cabinet appointee, Mohammed Khatami, for the job.

What Faezeh Rafsanjani saw in Mohammed Khatami was not only a likeminded figure, but a candidate capable of defeating Rafsanjani rival and conservative Islamist Hojjatoislam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the Speaker of the Majlis, who was widely expected to win the presidential election at the time. Evidently her father agreed, since Khatami, who does not have an independent political power base, somehow managed to make the short list of the Council of Guardians, an unelected, Islamist body that vets candidates for public office, weeding out most nominees and averting outright democracy.

Once past this hurdle, Khatami was swept into office with a surprise 70% landslide, as young voters and women, resentful of the stern clerical establishment represented so well by Nateq-Nouri, flocked to the least rigid figure available.

To Americans, these may all seem like people with long robes, similar-sounding names, and equally bad attitudes, but everything is relative. To Iranians, there is a world of difference between these players. Some perceive Rafsanjani's faction as liberal, even pro-American! Compared to Khamenei and Nateq-Nouri, the conservative authors of a new backlash against the easing of Islamic strictures after the early years of the revolution, there may be a limited measure of truth in this perception.

WITH THE ASCENT of Khatami to the presidency, new possibilities are opening up at home and abroad, and the conservatives are definitely worried. They have sought to discredit his leadership indirectly by organizing violent demonstrations against dissident Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who dares to question the entire ruling system of velayat i-faqih, or national stewardship of the clerics, embodied in the Council of Guardians and the supreme leadership of Khamenei, the successor to the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khatami, who has so far prevailed in minor tests of strength against the conservatives, has responded with vigorous rhetoric. In an address to a clerical assembly, as reported in the Iranian Press Service, he stressed freedom of speech and the rule of law: "It's not [for] us [the government] to impose our own views and choices on them [the people], and like anyone else, we shall respect the laws and the constitution."

He also warned against unyielding orthodoxy: "The real danger is to brand one tendency as being. . . of the revolution and the other. . . as liberal and pro-American."

This seemingly mild riposte actually represents an unprecedented criticism of the national leadership from within, and it is vintage Khatami: neither rejecting nor reciting the reigning doctrines, he prefers instead to draw new distinctions around them and recast their meaning. With these techniques, he is attempting both to satisfy the aspirations of a new generation of Iranians, and to broaden his country's horizons in the world by seeking detente with the United States, despite the limits on his power. He merits some comparison with Mikhail Gorbachev, who pursued similar policies in the last days of the Soviet Union.

It is not clear, however, how far Khatami would go if he could, and in any event, he does not have a completely free hand and is far from destined to succeed. This is exactly why America's leaders need to pay close attention to what he has to say tonight. Iran's conservative forces are perfectly capable of overthrowing a president, as they have done in the past, and they hesitate mainly for fear of the damage a coup might do to the legitimacy of the political institutions they have built up over the past two decades. As long as he can keep them on the defensive or avoid alarming them excessively, Khatami can take advantage of their hesitation to bring changes for the better.

ON THE PLUS SIDE, President Khatami does not have to worry about receiving any unseemly embraces from the United States. No administration has been tougher on Iran than the current one. The current Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs, former AIPAC bigwig and Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, is closely identified with the "dual containment" policy that has sealed off relations with Iran as tightly as those with Iraq. Americans are thoroughly offended by Iran's "Death-to-America" slogans, by the murder of dissident expatriates, by the Salman Rushdie death sentence, by the sponsorship of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and by Iranian moves toward nuclear proliferation and medium-range missile development. Not least of all, we hold bitter memories of the 1979-81 hostage crisis, for which Iran remains unapologetic.

Still, the Iranian president's overture to the United States is crying out for a positive response. High-level talks should begin immediately. If Khatami proves willing to undertake substantial risks to remedy the sorts of problems described above, he should be rewarded with the removal of sanctions against Iran and the reopening of full-scale relations. He will need something of this magnitude to justify himself against his enemies at home, and to prove to Iranians, long fatalistic and passive in the face of theocratic rule, that they have the power to change their own lives.

IF SUFFICIENT PROGRESS on these outstanding issues could be realized -- a tall order, admittedly -- Iran, America, Israel, and the West would stand to benefit on countless fronts: Iran could become an acceptable route for new oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia, breaking Russia's monopoly, and a new engine of prosperity in the Middle East. With a security agreement in place and Iranian anti-ship missiles removed, America's expensive military commitment to the Persian Gulf could be drawn down to whatever levels deterring Iraq alone might require. Quiet understandings could be arranged on behalf of Israel, which is concerned not only about Hezbollah and Hamas, terrorist groups that receive Iranian support, but also the recent development of Iranian missiles with sufficient range to reach Israeli cities, and the sorts of unconventional warheads they might carry. And perhaps best of all, as Thomas L. Friedman pointed out in yesterday's New York Times, an opening to Iran represents an unparalleled opportunity to stick it to Saddam, who remains far and away the worst danger to international security around.

Naysayers have argued that, in light of the disastrous Iran-Contra affair, we now know that there is no such thing as an Iranian moderate. Even a cursory examination of Iranian politics shows the opposite to be true; the main problem faced by the Iran-Contra plotters was not their Iranian partners' politics, but their opportunism and their lack of bona fides. They did not genuinely represent the Iranian government. Khatami does.

Some also suggest that American sanctions will work, given time. This would be a remarkable surprise, given that no other nation participates in this strategy. The U.S. embargo has arguably hobbled the Iranian economy, driving up inflation and limiting investment, but it has not crippled it. (There is even some question as to whether America is participating in the American sanctions regime. American brand names, from Caterpillar to Apple, are reported to appear widely in Iran.)

Finally, the proponents of indefinite containment argue that unrest within Iran will soon bring the government down. Dissatisfaction in Iran, however, while widespread, tends to take the form of either emigration or unobtrusively living as full a life as possible within the confines of one's own home, with family, friends, and perhaps also some illegal forms of clothing, alcohol, music, and satellite television. Episodes of sectarian violence have cropped up between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in some parts of the country, but there is no sign of any widespread fervor of the sort that gripped the country in 1979. Nor is it likely to come. Popular violence, in fact, tends to be wielded more often on behalf of the Islamic revolution's authority than against it.

THE SALIENT QUESTION NOW is, What can Khatami pull off, given the constraints his opponents seek to place on him? The answer, in no small part, depends on the response of the government of the United States. President Clinton, Congressional leaders, what will be on your TV sets tonight?


Josh Pollack is a contributing editor at JWR.

©1998, Jewish World Review