The Magazine

Toadying to the Mullahs

The triumph of hope over experience.

Feb 23, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 23 • By AMIR TAHERI
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A PERSIAN PROVERB SAYS, "He who makes the same mistake twice deserves disillusion." The British government is about to find out the truth of that saying, for once again it is wooing the mullahs of Tehran.

Last week Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, was dispatched to Tehran to raise the profile of the new policy. The pretext for the royal visit was a four-hour visit to Bam, the southeast Iranian city destroyed by an earthquake on December 26. But it was Charles's photo opportunities in Tehran with a string of mullahs, including President Mohammad Khatami, that dominated the visit.

Iran's state-owned media presented the visit as a tribute by the Western world to the Khomeinist revolution on its silver jubilee. At exactly the time that Charles was coddling the mullahs, the Iranian capital was hosting the notorious "10 Days of Dawn Revolutionary Festival" attended by terrorist masterminds and militants from all over the world.

Although it has critics within the British government, the policy of wooing the mullahs is backed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. It began to take shape early in 2002, shortly after President George W. Bush described the Islamic Republic as part of an "axis of evil." Blair and Straw designed the policy as a means of counterbalancing their support for the liberation of Iraq.

The Blair-Straw argument is simple, not to say naive: The Khomeinist regime has matured and understands the realities of power. All that it demands now is an assurance that it will not be threatened with regime change. If the West lets the mullahs do as they please inside Iran, they might meet the West's demands on issues concerning the region.

Iran's cooperation is seen as important in three areas: bringing long-term stability to Afghanistan, creating a new regime in Iraq, and keeping the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin as tension-free as possible. The Blair-Straw policy is based on the classical imperial doctrine according to which "the natives" may be allowed to do as they wish with themselves as long as they do not threaten the interests of the empire.

This message was conveyed to Iran's "Supreme Guide," Ali Khamenei, in the spring of 2002, when one of his closest advisers, Ardeshir Larijani, visited London and met with senior government figures. Since then Straw has visited Tehran five times, an all-time record for a British foreign secretary.

The trouble is that the Khomeinist regime has split between "reformers," as they are known in the West, and "conservatives," led by Khamenei. It now seems clear that the British connection has been one factor encouraging the conservatives to clip the wings of the reformers and tighten their own hold on power. They are expected to clinch that state of affairs on February 20, when a general election from which they barred a large number of candidates should give them control of parliament.

The British hope that the mullahs will do what Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has done and, once assured they will not be overthrown, start cooperating. To show that their policy is working, the British point to Iran's decision last month to freeze its uranium enrichment program--a program it had denied having for 20 years--and to allow additional inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The British policy of working with the status quo is, of course, in direct opposition to the Bush Doctrine, according to which the democratization of the Middle East is a vital security interest of the United States and other Western democracies.

British officials say London is trying to establish a dialogue with Tehran because the Bush administration is paralyzed by its divisions on Iran. It is no secret that the State Department has pursued a dialogue with Tehran in a string of meetings with mid-ranking Iranian officials over the past 10 months. Also, after the Bam earthquake, Washington sent a humanitarian team to Iran, the first official American delegation since the revolution.

But when the State Department attempted to capitalize on its "earthquake diplomacy" by proposing a delegation headed by Senator Elizabeth Dole, the Iranians backed out. Now London is presenting Prince Charles's visit as an attempt to resume that dialogue.

Will the Blair-Straw gamble pay off? In the short term, maybe; in the long term, no.