The Magazine

On to Iran!

Checkmating the clerics.

Feb 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH'S stunningly forceful State of the Union address has probably forever altered U.S.-Iranian relations. It may provoke a redrawing of the intellectual map of the Middle East, giving liberal democracy its best chance in the region since the end of World War II. In following through on his promise to counter and preempt hostile Iranian actions, the president will likely accelerate the collapse of the clerical regime. This is a good thing, for unless the regime falls, the Islamic Republic's penchant for tyranny, terrorism, and unconventional weaponry will not evanesce. As the sad experience of the "moderate" president Mohammad Khatami gives ample evidence, the clerical regime isn't evolving into a humane, "Islamic democracy." Indeed, we may well be watching the clerics immerse themselves again in a wave of anti-American terrorism.

You wouldn't likely grasp, of course, the momentous possibilities in the president's "axis of evil" speech by reading the Iranian reaction to it. Ali Khamenei, Iran's clerical godfather, found the president to be "a man thirsty for human blood" and the United States "the greatest evil" in the world--fairly routine commentary from a mullah capable of much more creative anti-American invective. (The French say more or less the same thing each week in Le Monde Diplomatique.) President Khatami, who usually smiles more forcefully than he speaks, called the State of the Union "belligerent, insulting, and anti-Iranian." Mehdi Karrubi, a radical but utterly corrupt cleric who now fashions himself a reformer and a bridge to American VIPs, just called the president "impolite." Although the clerical regime is unquestionably concerned about President Bush's tough language--the Iranians always pay close attention to American commentary, especially when U.S. soldiers and B-52s have been pummeling one of their neighbors--we shouldn't imagine that words alone will register profoundly with Tehran. The mullahs have seen harsh rhetoric from Washington before, and the follow-up has usually been less fierce.

And if the Near East bureau of the Department of State has much to do with the execution of the new policy, we can rest assured it will be a lot less fierce this time. It is a decent bet that many, if not most, diplomats in the bureau would agree wholeheartedly with Ayatollah Karrubi's sentiment about Bush's speech. Even before May 1997, when Mohammad Khatami was first elected president, there was little enthusiasm within the bureau for the Clinton administration's strategy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran. Export-oriented Europe didn't like it, and the administration didn't really want to enforce sanctions against our allies and the Russians, who are the principal arms-supplier to Tehran. It's the pits to be an American diplomat delivering d marches that no one reads, let alone fears. And it's natural for foreign service officers to be sympathetic to the views of their hosts, particularly if Washington doesn't fight hard for its own side.

Khatami's election and his "dialogue-of-civilizations" interview on CNN in January 1998 whetted hopes at State that the cold war between Washington and Tehran, and the tension between us and our allies, might be over. A good-guy-Khatami-versus-bad-guy-Khamenei view took hold at Foggy Bottom, as it did in the American business community and academe. They all embraced Khatami more eagerly than they had Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the cleric who first dampened the revolutionary fires inside his country.

This philo-Khatami attitude continued past September 11, which is astonishing since the Iranian president had long since become politically irrelevant in Tehran and the clerical town of Qom. He had repeatedly failed to throw down the gauntlet at those in the regime who were increasingly harassing journalists, students, government employees, and women--all important voices in the "civil society" coalition that twice elected Khatami. He was, as an Iranian who'd known him from childhood once remarked, "a chicken," which was one of the most important reasons why Rafsanjani, the first "moderate" president of the republic and the second most powerful mullah in Iran, decided to back him in 1997. With Khatami in the presidency, there would be no radical change.

Nevertheless, the State Department saw the Afghan war as an excellent opportunity to build a bridge to the clerical regime, since the enemy (the Iranians) of my enemy (the Taliban) ought to be my friend. With the department's Policy Planning boss Richard Haass in the lead, State began sending signals to Tehran, and to Congress, that Iran was being helpful to America's antiterrorist coalition. U.S. officials were favorably impressed with Iran's promise to undertake search-and-rescue missions for any American pilot downed over Iranian territory. Ditto with the Iranian military aid program to Ismail Khan, the Afghan warlord whom the Taliban in 1995 chased from the western provincial capital of Herat. In Washington, some U.S. officials spoke with hushed awe of the intelligence Tehran provided about the whereabouts of Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden. And the clerics didn't sabotage the Bonn conference on Afghanistan's political future. All in all, according to Ambassador Haass, the Iranians were playing a "constructive" role in Afghanistan.

This was nonsense. The "pro-American drift" (Washington Post) of the Iranian government during the Afghan war was an illusion--Persian realpolitik, as fear of American airpower dovetailed with Western hopefulness and gullibility. The clerics in Tehran, attentive students of history who keenly understand the anti-American ideological underpinnings of their regime, knew that the American enemy of a Muslim foe must remain the enemy. In the war against the Taliban, the clerics actually gave us little to nothing. Allowing U.S. warplanes and helicopter crews overflight and search-and-rescue rights in Iranian airspace would have been something; offering to aid a hypothetically downed pilot was not. (The Iranians probably would have returned any stranded U.S. pilot--B-52s and smart bombs concentrate the mind--but it might not have been the quickest homeward voyage.) And Tehran's providing information about the whereabouts of senior Taliban and al Qaeda officials isn't particularly compelling evidence of friendly intentions. Whatever they gave us obviously wasn't top-drawer stuff since most of the leadership of the Taliban and al Qaeda appear to have escaped. Also, if the clerics could get Americans to bomb Taliban leaders they hate, this again seems most sensible and sound--a bit like getting Washington to give you anti-tank missiles in exchange for liberating American hostages whom your foreign proxies kidnapped. Tehran's arming of Ismail Khan, as we can now clearly see, is a double-edged affair, since with the strategic city of Herat back in the Iranian orbit, the clerics can once again become players in Afghanistan's hardball internecine politics.

Which is, of course, why the Iranians had no need to complicate the Bonn conference. The facts on the ground, not any arrangements in Germany, will decide Afghanistan's fate. All the Iranians really needed from the conference was the assurance that the exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah, wasn't immediately going home. The clerics, who understandably felt uncomfortable with the image of a shah returning to unify his nation, found all the discussion of the king's return frightfully loathsome. Since the return of Zahir Shah is a troublesome issue for the Afghans themselves, the Iranians need not have worried. Tehran now just has to bide its time, hoping that the Americans--whom the clerics fear far more than the Afghan-meddling Pakistanis--don't have the perseverance to long remain a force in Afghan politics. Given America's post-Vietnam aversion to nation-building, and since Washington hasn't even yet opened a U.S. consulate in Herat, it's probably a good bet.

Many U.S. officials and Iran experts have believed for nearly a decade that the Iranian regime has retired from anti-American terrorism. The Iranian intelligence service might regularly murder expatriates in Europe and the Middle East, and Tehran might send lethal aid to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad for their attacks against Israelis and Jews, these experts think, but the clerics no longer really want to attack the United States. By the 1990s, Iranian intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and their faithful followers in the Lebanese Hezbollah, particularly its voraciously lethal security chief Imad Mughniyah, had stopped blowing up embassies and Marine barracks and kidnapping and killing American citizens and U.S. officials. The clerics were, so the reasoning went, tired of the battle against the "Great Satan." Thermidor had arrived. The mullahs now preferred trade to terrorism. After America's war against Iraq, they were scared of U.S. military power. The Europeans, who were all over Iran trying to find a way to make a profit, kept telling Americans how the country had changed. One just had to ignore the occasional expatriate killing spree, the clerical regime's penchant for supporting radical Palestinians, and its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, which were justified in any case since Saddam Hussein was still right next door. The mullahs would outgrow their bad habits, we were told, as the regime aged and democratized.

The 1996 bombing at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 American soldiers threw a kink into this analysis, but the election of Mohammad Khatami arrived just in time to quiet serious reflection on that bloody episode the summer before. As one think-tanker (now a senior official in the Bush administration) remarked offhandedly, it was not wise to underscore probable Iranian complicity in the Khobar bombing for fear of derailing Khatami's reform movement and the "thaw" in U.S.-Iranian relations. Though this was an absurd and dangerous analysis of Iranian culture and the clerical system--the "be-nice-and-the-moderates-might-win" approach to Middle Eastern power politics--the view was quite widespread in the Clinton administration.

Given the op-eds and think-tank papers written just before and during the Afghan war--essays that carried the signatures of former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former secretary of defense James Schlesinger, former congressman Lee Hamilton, and former undersecretary of state for political affairs Thomas Pickering--this d tentist view of commerce and politics still has currency in establishment circles. This perspective, again, is astonishing since Mohammad Khatami--regardless of whatever he believes in his eclectic mullah soul--was a political irrelevancy in Iran even before his reelection in June 2001. The clerical ruling class had coalesced decisively around Khamenei. And the truth be told: Khatami and Khamenei do not in all probability significantly differ on whether the United States, by its very nature, is harmful to the Islamic Republic.

It is also stupefying that anyone, 24 years after the revolution, still believes that trade could have a moderating effect on the clerical regime's behavior. The Middle Eastern mercantile tradition, like the Italian, sees war and commerce as compatible. Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who have probably authorized every Iranian terrorist operation since the early 1980s, have both advocated increasing U.S.-Iranian commerce. Both favored the Conoco oil-and-gas deal cancelled by the Clinton administration in 1995; they both appear to favor Boeing over Airbus if given the choice. They'd love to buy oil-drilling equipment, big electric turbines, and high technology from the United States, not to mention American military equipment, if they could get their hands on it.

The mullahs have been trading with the Western Europeans for 20 years while killing dozens of Iranian expatriates on European soil. If the Americans start to act like Europeans--engage in trade and a "critical dialogue" regardless of clerical behavior--why should the mullahs moderate their comportment? Laissez-faire trade blended with political rationalism inevitably drops you to the lowest common denominator, which is where the clerics, first-rate realpoliticians with a sharp ideological edge, operate against Westerners most effectively.

Nonetheless, it is likely that the State Department, the Europeans, influential voices in the American business and foreign-policy communities, and the American academic crowd specialized in the Middle East will resist the logic of President Bush's "axis of evil" address. A return to non-belligerent dialogue, even if indirect and haphazard, will appear to many as a more reasonable approach.

AFTER ALL, Iran really hasn't changed its spots since September 11. The clerical regime has been seriously seeking nuclear weapons since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Its ballistic missile program is even older. Tehran has been giving money and weaponry to Palestinian radicals and the Lebanese Hezbollah for years. The capture of the Palestinian Authority's vessel the Karine A, laden with 50 tons of Iranian weaponry, wasn't surprising. It seemed shocking only because of the quantity of arms captured in one raid, not because of the provenance of the weapons. And the Khobar affair recedes in our memory, camouflaged by the quick Saudi decision to behead Saudi Shiites convicted of the crime and now blurred by al Qaeda's successes.

Also, the clerical regime has been brutalizing the Iranian people for two decades, and the oppression today is, in important ways, much lighter than it was 10 years ago. Mohammad Khatami may be a limp reformer, but the reform movement, fueled by the frustration and anger of the Iranian people, stays alive, always inflaming the democratic spirit that is woven into the contradictory political ethos of the Islamic Republic's theocracy. So, then, what's the big deal, some "pragmatists" are already saying. The Europeans can, perhaps, be forgiven for being a bit dismayed that George W. Bush has so abruptly changed the ground rules that they and many Americans had long accepted. They can't really see why September 11 fundamentally changed the status quo. As the French foreign minister Hubert V drine put it, America is again being "simplistic."

Now, Iran's possible relationship with al Qaeda is, of course, an enormous wild card. If the information that the U.S. government has on Iranian assistance to al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan is ironclad, the "pragmatic" approach to Tehran will collapse, at least on this side of the Atlantic. In the meantime, however, the "pragmatists" will hope, as Secretary of State Colin Powell does, "that we may be able to talk to Iran, that we may be able to have a reasonable conversation with Iranian leaders."

The al Qaeda link, unfortunately for the "pragmatists," makes a lot of sense. The mullahs have likely perceived that the ally (Osama bin Laden) of my enemy (the Taliban) can be my friend. It is still too early to know how many members of al Qaeda have left Afghanistan. The odds are good that much, if not most, of al Qaeda's leadership has escaped. It will not be surprising for us to learn that the members of al Qaeda who originally came with Ayman az-Zawahiri from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad have found friendly sanctuary in the Islamic Republic. Zawahiri, bin Laden's right-hand man, has long been admired in Tehran, where he has visited on occasion. Al Qaeda, like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad before it, is for Tehran an answer to a 20-year quest to find effective anti-American allies among Sunni Arab Islamic militants. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and to a certain extent the Palestine Liberation Organization have all been successful Sunni Arab allies of Shiite Iran's ecumenical, anti-Western foreign policy. The PLO, which gave significant aid to the clerics and their Revolutionary Guard Corps at the dawn of the Islamic revolution, has never lost its contacts with the clerical regime--the Karine A being only the latest proof of the clerics' fidelity to undiluted Palestinian radicalism.

But none of these groups operates explicitly and consistently against the United States. Al Qaeda does. If al Qaeda can survive the Afghan war, then Tehran stands to gain significantly. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda will continue their propaganda war against the United States and Saudi Arabia. Just a quick read of bin Laden's declarations and interviews reveals that the similarities between his views and those of the ruling clerics in Tehran are far greater than their differences. Al Qaeda, unlike many fundamentalist Sunni groups, has no nasty anti-Shiite overtones. Like clerical Iran, al Qaeda wants Muslims to put aside their sectarian differences for the greater calling against the United States. The more bin Laden and al Qaeda can roil the intellectual environment of the Middle East, the more America's Muslim allies in the region can be kept off balance. In particular, the Saudi royal family, for whom Iran's revolutionary clerics have a special distaste, can be battered internally if its nemesis, Osama bin Laden and his organization, survives. September 11 has obviously and significantly damaged U.S.-Saudi ties. The Iranians probably believe that al Qaeda, if effectively operational, will continue to strain the alliance as it draws further financial and spiritual support from its extensive Saudi network and fan club, which may well include members of the royal family.

Also, when al Qaeda bombs us, the Iranians--unless they're very clumsy--won't get blamed. The Iranian calculation on anti-American terrorism has always been fairly straightforward: Is there a buffer between Tehran and the frontline terrorists sufficient to conceal adequately its involvement? (There is, by the way, absolutely no evidence, not even good gossip, to suggest that the clerical elite has ever engaged in a moral debate about the ethics of terrorism against the enemies of God and state.)

The Iranians aren't cowards; they're just cautious. They don't require invisibility--their patronage of Hezbollah and Imad Mughniyah was no secret when they were blowing us to bits in Lebanon in the 1980s. And the Iranians definitely feared Ronald Reagan, yet were willing to bomb us on his watch. Indeed the Iranians' success at blowing up 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983, and President Reagan's ignominiously rapid retreat, gave birth to modern radical Islamic terrorism against the United States. Bin Laden sometimes dates "Islam's worldwide jihad" against America from the Beirut action. And it is certainly a distressing datum that many key players from Iran's Lebanese terrorist network in the 1980s have found a happy home in the clerical inner circles around Mohammad Khatami. Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-pur, Iran's former ambassador to Syria and Imad Mughniyah's boss, for instance, has settled in comfortably as a clerical reformer. He remains intimately connected to Hezbollah, an adviser on Lebanon to Iranian clerics of all political stripes.

And Iranians are rather good with, as they say in the trade, "cut-outs." The 1996 Khobar bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which had Tehran's fingerprints all over it, illustrates a classic Iranian technique. Local or rented non-Iranian Shiites are the frontline terrorists--Iran's role is in planning and, if necessary, providing logistical and financial aid. For Tehran, al Qaeda is the best of all possible worlds since its kamikaze terrorists are always Sunni and usually die, thereby enhancing operational security. Al Qaeda would supply the attribute most prized by the clerical regime: plausible deniability, which has usually worked with Westerners, who have never had (the Israelis are the possible exception) the heart and stamina for an unlimited, not particularly fastidious war against terrorism. Al Qaeda's bombing runs also provide Tehran with camouflaging static noise, allowing the clerics more maneuvering room to plan their own unilateral terrorist operations if they so choose.

What would be an acceptable risk for the Iranians in an al Qaeda terrorist operation? Perhaps supplying the organization with approximately 500 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives for its attack against the USS Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000. The first attempt, against the USS The Sullivans in January 2000, failed when the al Qaeda team overloaded the bomb-carrying skiff with conventional charges and it sank, according to official Yemeni sources. Somebody came to the rescue with a large delivery of C-4--not easily available on the arms market in such quantity, and probably not something you'd want to haul quickly from landlocked Afghanistan. Somebody could have delivered the shipment by sea, as the Iranians did when they delivered C-4 and other arms to the Palestinian Authority's freighter Karine A in the Persian Gulf. Or the Iranians could easily have transshipped 500 pounds of plastique via Dubai, where the clerics can move anything and anyone in and out.

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Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.