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.
The mullahs have their backs to the wall and, weakened by their internecine feuds, will do almost anything to avoid outside pressure. Their oil industry, the source of almost 60 percent of the government budget, is in a state of dereliction and needs over $50 billion in investment just to stay afloat for the next decade or so. Also, with an American military presence now established in Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and the Persian Gulf, the mullahs feel that a lasso has been thrown around them. Thus, if the mullahs are assured that no one is going to export such dangerous ideas as democracy and human rights to their neck of the woods, they might adopt a low profile for the time being. Almost certainly, they will agree to make less mischief, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
But that will be a tactical retreat. It is unlikely that the Khomeinist strategy can change. That strategy is based on the claim that Khomeini's brand of Islam must conquer the whole world, starting with the Middle East after the destruction of Israel.
This is not the first time that Britain, along with Germany and France, has tried a policy of "constructive dialogue" with the mullahs. Back in 1978, another Labour government, under Prime Minister James Callaghan, endorsed the Khomeinist revolution and pressed the shah to step down. The mullahs repaid Callaghan by closing the British embassy in Tehran and naming the street where it is located after Bobby Sands, an IRA terrorist who died in a British prison.
In the years that followed, Iranian agents and Lebanese Hezbollah militants working for Iran seized over 50 Britons, including a dozen nuns, as hostages, and held some of them for years--notably Terry Waite, a representative of the archbishop of Canterbury. The British embassy was reopened in 1988, then closed barely a year later when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British novelist Salman Rushdie. In 1989 and 1990, Arabian hit-squads murdered several Iranian dissidents in Britain.
Four months ago, Britain again ran into trouble with the mullahs after Argentina demanded the arrest of one Hadi Soleimanpour, the former Iranian ambassador to Buenos Aires, who had become a student in Britain. The British arrested the ex-diplomat and held him on an extradition warrant from Argentina, on charges of involvement in the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people. Tehran reacted by sending gunmen to fire at the British embassy building in Tehran on two occasions. London caved in, releasing the alleged terrorist and allowing him to return home to a hero's welcome.
For 25 years the mullahs have lurched from crisis to crisis, always managing to hoodwink this or that Western power into helping them buy time. Today, part of the blame belongs to the Bush administration, which, having spelled out lofty principles for a new Middle East, appears unable to devise practical policies to implement them. As far as Iran is concerned, Washington would do well to learn from London's mistakes.
Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist, is the author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam.