Middle East

Double Vision

Demonstrations in Tehran
Clashes erupted between students demonstrating outside the dormitory of Tehran University and conservative vigilantes on June 12, 2003 (Photo: AFP/Getty).

The United States has accused Iran of maintaining a nuclear weapons program, harboring Al-Qaeda terrorists, and interfering in Iraqi affairs, but for the time being, is not planning military action against the Persian state. In an effort to maintain power, the conservative Shiite leadership seems willing to open a dialogue.

With the close of the Iraqi war, American leaders have set their sights on another “evil” target: Iran. According to reports in the American press, Washington hard-liners are talking about “regime change” in Iran while the defense secretary discusses plans for the overthrow of Iran’s Shiite [clerical] leadership. Allegedly, Iran is endeavoring to create atomic weapons and has offered refuge to members of Al-Qaeda—including some who allegedly knew about the May 12 Riyadh attacks—and is interfering in the state-building process in Iraq by agitating among the Shiite majority there to bring about an Islamist government.

For the time being, at least, the State Department appears to be taking the lead from above and turning to action with an emphasis on dialogue, in contrast to the harsh pronouncements coming from the Pentagon. Last Thursday [May 29] President George W. Bush said that he “isn’t worried” about Iran, and his administration seems to have put away, for the present, the scripts leading up to tougher action. Iran is desperately denying Washington’s charges, but no one knows how long the American president will remain “quiet.”

It appears to have been a success for Bush that at the G-8 summit in Evian, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would suspend nuclear cooperation with Tehran until it ratifies an amendment to the treaty on nuclear proliferation that would tighten oversight on compliance with the limits set out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will deliver a report on Iranian nuclear capabilities in mid-June, including the nuclear power plant reactor being built with Russian help and, more worrisome to Washington, the reportedly near-complete uranium-enriching facility.

On the defensive, Iran reported that it has taken dozens of Al-Qaeda members into custody, but has turned away hundreds more seeking to flee Afghanistan across the Iranian border. Iraqi Shiite leaders deny that they want to form an Iranian-style theocracy, but—according to observers—their visible exclusion from the Iraqi power-sharing process may stem from their ties with Tehran. In any case, Paul Bremer, the civilian head of the American administration in Iraq, last week voiced his own “concern” at Iran’s activities in Iraq. He accused Tehran of sending guerrillas across the border. A Shiite-led Iraq would cause unease not just in the West but in the Sunni Muslim world as well.

Yes, Iran has reason to fear. Even if it need not fear open war, its nuclear facilities can be bombed, and the Americans can arm the Iranian opposition militia now in Iraq, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, as quickly and smoothly as they pacified them. It may have been a symbolic gesture to the Americans three weeks ago when Mohammad Khatami, the president and leader of the “moderate” faction in Iran, went to Lebanon, the first Iranian leader to visit Beirut since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Analysts say Khatami likely tried to urge the southern Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran, to moderate its stance in the conflict against Israel.

It appears that Iran’s religious leadership may now be willing to compromise in the international sphere in order to solidify its domestic power against the reformers. According to the Iranian press and Western sources, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent conservative, recently told the more moderate wing of the Iranian government that Tehran should be sensitive to American concerns about nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Although cooperation with the conservatives—who have a solid grip on power in Iran—might be more fruitful than strengthening contacts with the Iranian reformists, Washington may justifiably see areas for concern with this approach: It could permanently turn domestic reform forces against them, as well as alienating the American-friendly segment of the population that desires rapprochement. The war in Iraq—according to analysts—has also benefited the conservatives domestically: The proximity of the “Great Satan” makes it possible for authorities to keep a tighter rein.

The conservatives had been solidifying their power even before the war in Iraq. Millions voted to make Khatami, who promises social and economic reforms, president in 1997 and 2001. Voters in the 2000 general elections elected a majority of reformist candidates to the Majlis. And while conservatives won majorities in last February’s local elections, only 12 percent of the population voted.

Nevertheless, in May, the Council of Guardians, which oversees the Majlis, struck down two reform laws. Recently, 15 liberal dissenters were convicted on charges of spreading anti-regime propaganda and given harsh prison sentences. Authorities have blocked dozens of Internet sites, and have muted moderate media. Vigilantes have been increasing attacks on women who, according to the vigilantes, dress wantonly. In Tehran not long ago, boutiques selling short and body-hugging products were vandalized.

The hard-won limited social freedom of Khatami’s six-year-old presidency may be a thing of the past. Moderates complain that the president’s experiment in democratizing the Islamist state has failed. Numerous reports suggest that the youthful Iranian population—two-thirds of which is under the age of 30—has given up hope that Khatami might be able to punch holes in the clerics’ power.

According to Ali Anszari, an Iran expert at England’s Durham University, Iran’s population of 65 million has not fallen into apathy; rather, it is waiting to see what happens. In all this, moderates have few choices: Reza Pahlavi—the heir to Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was deposed in 1979—and the opposition groups in exile have no real support at home. According to some analysts, with time there could come to be a third type of movement, rejecting both the conservatives and the reformers.

The enemies of the Islamist state might also get support from an unexpected quarter, the ranks of the clergy. In the revolution’s spiritual center, Qom—which houses in its religious schools and mosques some 30,000 imams—more clerics are beginning to question the political authority of the religious leaders. Declaring themselves by name, a group of mid-level imams has declared that those in power accept no opinions but their own and so shame Islam, which rightfully belongs in the mosque.