The enemy's enemy: Rethinking Iran

September 13, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- The enemy's enemy, if hardly a bosom friend, at least deserves another look. America has, in effect, ''tilted'' in favor of the faction of Iraqi Kurds that has been propped up by Iran. It is a good time to review Washington's deep antagonism for Iran.

The U.S. policy of dual containment of both Iran and Iraq has never looked more insupportable. Not a single allied government has been prepared to back Washington by cutting its economic links with Tehran.

Why is Washington paying this price? Is Iran really in the same league as Iraq? Isn't the isolation of Iraq of such paramount importance that Iran's parallel interest should be welcomed?

The worst that can be said of Iran is that it is a major source of funds for the anti-Israel movements. And that it is dead set on acquiring a nuclear bomb, in part to stand up to Saddam Hussein. If Iraq had completed the nuclear weapons it was developing during its war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, it might well have used them. After all, it used chemical weapons, and hardly anyone cried foul.

The Mideast agenda

While funding terrorists and building nukes are formidable negatives, they must be put in proportion. Palestinian-Israeli relations depend mainly on the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Between them, they control the agenda: Iran and Syria only enlarge their room for ma- Jonathan Power

neuver when the relationship between the two principals deteriorates.

The bomb issue -- unless Iran has already stolen or bought one, and there has been no confirmation of earlier rumors that it had acquired two from Kazakstan -- is likely to fade away with the present regime in Iran long before the bomb-making project comes to fruition.

Indeed, the Iranian revolutionary regime looks increasingly wobbly. As Robin Wright eloquently puts it in the current issue of Foreign Policy, ''The better way to undermine those responsible [in Iran] for repression at home and extremism abroad may be to let them do it themselves. They are already on their way.''

Iran's oil wealth has been squandered -- mainly on arms, protecting itself against Iraq. Now after many years of falling oil prices and soaring population growth and inflation, it is deeply in debt and its resources severely strained. After 17 years of theocratic rule, its people are decidedly worse off materially. Many middle- and working-class people are disillusioned, and so is the ''bazaar'' -- the merchant class whose alienation finally doomed the shah.

Intellectuals who backed the revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power have turned into sharp critics. Abdol Karim Soroush, the country's leading philosopher, argues today for Islamic democracy. The clergy, once the harbingers of a new future, increasingly are held in contempt.

A different regime

Yet the Iran of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is very different from that of Khomeini. Privatization, birth control, Mozart and pale shades of nail polish have been tolerated and religious militancy sidelined. Censorship has relaxed and criticism appears in the newspapers.

But as Mr. Rafsanjani's term in office draws to a close, religious authoritarianism has reasserted itself, and he is still hemmed in by the social conservatives who dominate parliament. The clergy's influence, even if waning, remains strong.

This, however, points to an underrated side of Iran. Its parliament is not elected democratically, but there is, nevertheless, a separation of powers. Some sort of attempt exists in Iran to reconcile democracy and Islam. It could one day bear fruit.

It is not sensible for America to be so actively hostile. Nor, practi- cally speaking, is Washington likely to be able to exert much influence, except negatively. Its interventions in 1953 and 1979 made matters worse.

Constructive engagement is the most sensible course of action. Be tough on arms sales and the trafficking of nuclear materials. Be outraged when human rights are abused. But let the regime evolve or collapse in its own way. Washington doesn't need to be Iran's enemy; time is already its enemy -- and Washington's friend.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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