On Iran, the next step is ours

January 14, 1998|By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- If an American leader had done what Iranian President Mohammad Khatami did a week ago, it would have been hailed as a profile in courage.

In Iran's wild and woolly internal politics, there is something heroic about going before the world on Cable News Network and praising the history and culture of the United States, called the ''Great Satan" by the leader of his country's 1971 anti-American revolution (and his mentor), the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Mr. Khatami, who was opposed by another powerful ayatollah with the title "Leader," was freely elected last year -- a stunning event in more ways than one. This was only the second free election in the country's history, and the winner of the last one, in 1953, was overthrown by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

No help from us

Whatever we think of them, the Iranians for the moment have managed to create some kind of representative government without any help at all from us except for careful reading of our history. The president, incidentally, long ago wrote a history of Western political thought.

So it is possible that he knows more about us than we know about Persia, whose history as a great empire and center of culture rivals anything in Europe over the past 500 years.

The New York Times responded to the CNN interview in an editorial that said Mr. Khatami had a point about Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, overthrown by the Khomeini revolution, being a U.S. puppet in many ways. (The shah's claim to power went all the way back to the first shah, his father, an army sergeant installed by the British in their pursuit of Iranian oil.) But the Times had it both ways, saying: "He [Khatami] badly miscalculated in thinking that the American people do not share their government's grave misgivings about Iranian policies and behavior."

My impression is that most Americans don't much care, except for the potential of terrorism and the insane "fatwa," the Khomeini order to kill writer Salman Rushdie for writing the book "The Satanic Verses" in 1989. (Iranians have never seen the book, and few Americans have read it.)

Miscalculation: We armed and pampered Saddam Hussein in the hope that Iraq would destroy Iran. Now that's policy and behavior to think about. Here is something else to think about: If Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had pursued any kind of sensible policy toward Cuba and Fidel Castro -- as opposed to the How has this continuing hostility benefited the United States -- beyond bringing Mr. Khatami to the negotiating table with CNN?

policy of trying to assassinate him -- there never would have been a Cuban missile crisis.

I think the Iranians have financed and encouraged terrorism against the interests of the United States and Israel. I would not be surprised if something like proof emerges soon, perhaps anonymously, from the CIA and other government agencies where many officials have built their careers on sanctioning and isolating Iran, to try to straighten the backbones of the president and people of the United States.

If they succeed, America fails. What would be more effective in closing down Iranian terrorism? More hostility, sanctions and charges? Or beginning the process toward more normal relations with a country positioned and born to be great?

How has this continuing hostility benefited the United States -- beyond bringing Mr. Khatami to the negotiating table with CNN? How has the continuing hostility of theocratic rule benefited Iran? Well, the per capita gross national product of Iranians is half what it was before the revolution. The middle class has been or is being destroyed.

Mr. Khatami is on a tricky trail that could become the classic slippery slope. What is going on in Iran is a struggle, alternately crude and subtle, between the president and the people who elected him -- his strength was the women's vote, which so surprised the world -- and the anti-Western, anti-women ayatollahs and lesser clergy who believe an opening to the United States will be the beginning of the end for them.

'Pariah' nation

One shooting-ourselves-in-the-foot problem of our strategy of isolating Iran as a "pariah" nation is that none of the people making that policy have ever seen Iran. And if they keep this rTC going as long as they have with Cuba, they are never going to see the land that was Persia.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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