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.