free trade, unilateral and economic trade sanctions




February 10, 2002

A Risky Message to Iran


NEW HAVEN Iran's recent promotion from a rogue state to a member of the "axis of evil" appears to be a belated rhetorical response to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's portrayal of the United States as the Great Satan. Demonizing Iran may play well with the American audience, but it has already caused discomfort among America's European allies. Actual military action against Iran would be disastrous. But after the United States' success in Afghanistan, there may well be willingness in certain quarters within the Bush administration to entertain that idea, given its statements that Iran supports terrorism and wants to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Making an enemy of Iran much less attacking it, even surgically would have the effect of rallying the Iranian public behind the conservative clerics of the Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The losers would be the voices of moderation and political reform among Iranians deeply frustrated with the domination of the hard-line clergy. Mohammad Khatami's lethargic presidency, which has been battered by these hard-liners, can hardly fulfill promises for civil liberties, the rule of law, democracy and political accountability.

But for the electorate that returned him to office with an overwhelming majority last year, Mr. Khatami is still the only option. An aggressive posture by America would give the regime's hard-liners new ability to embarrass Mr. Khatami, repudiate reforms and block further chances to normalize relations with the United States. Having made the rhetoric of "death to America" the centerpiece of the revolution, they cannot afford to abandon that cause now. There can be no underestimating the fear among the hardliners that the ultimate objective of the United States is to dislodge the clergy in power.

Indeed, certain adventurous elements within the regime might even welcome a limited military engagement with a superpower as a way of brightening their sagging fortunes. Memories of the Iraq-Iran war as an effective means of suppressing the regime's domestic opposition are still alive. Although the top clerical figures in the Iranian government will resist the temptation of engaging a superpower, knowing well the risks involved, Washington's threatening words give them an immediate reason to intensify their anti-American diatribe, which indirectly is aimed at Mr. Khatami as well.

Yet despite the internal power struggle, it is important to recognize that Iran is one of the more stable regimes of the Middle East. Destabilizing Iran would have a direct and immediate impact not only on the security of the Persian Gulf and the flow of Middle East oil (Iran has strategic command over the Strait of Hormuz), but on the international efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan. If militarily threatened, Iran is likely to engage in a range of actions to counter the United States and its regional allies.

For instance, it is not implausible for Iran to respond by entering into an implicit alliance with its foe, Iraq, another member of the "axis of evil." The normally unthinkable option of coming to terms with Saddam Hussein may be possible if the regime in Iran were to face a threat to its survival. Both nations may see a benefit to accommodating each other's security needs; neither would welcome an increased American presence on their border or in the region. Furthermore, as an intermediary power between Iraq and Saudia Arabia, with which it has developed closer ties, Iran is positioned to gain a greater strategic advantage in the Persian Gulf than it had in past decades.

Placing Iran on the enemies list may also encourage it to reassert its claims over the offshore Caspian oilfields that are in dispute with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Only last year, Iran reacted with a threat of military action when British Petroleum began its offshore oil exploration. This would be a serious setback for American oil interests and investment in that region. Increased tension between Iran and the United States would also allow Russia to regain its place in Iranian power politics as a counterbalance to Western powers.

Heightened tension also gives the hard-liners within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and their intelligence affiliates, a pretext to back the Lebanese Hezbollah in a new round of attacks against Israel. Under greater American pressure, those elements in Iran may seek to gain Palestinian sympathizers by providing support to Hezbollah and indirect aid to Islamic Jihad. Iran's alleged involvement in shipping arms to the Palestinians aboard the Karine A, though denied by the Iranians, could become the start of a new trend.

This kind of result would isolate the United States across a vast and crucial region stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. In terms of true security, the United States gains little by threatening Iran. And it stands to lose much: support in the Middle East for its actions in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and credit as a responsible guarantor of the global order. In the Muslim world, action against Iran would add weight to the belief that the United States is primarily interested in advancing an Israeli agenda at the expense of regional stability. The United States and its allies should recognize Iran's longstanding role in Afghanistan through its support of the Northern Alliance and its sheltering of more than two million Afghan refugees.

The charge that Iran is producing weapons of mass destruction has never been substantiated. If Iran is developing a nuclear program, or chemical and biological weapons, a surgical military strike is unlikely to eliminate such projects entirely. The persistence of such threats in neighboring Iraq is a case in point. But unilateral military action by the United States, if successful, might well be used as license for other nations to take retaliatory actions against their real or perceived enemies. This potential effect is reason enough to oppose the use of force against Iran.

Iran's transition into a less autocratic regime has been slow, but it is coming. As a leader of the international community, the United States can support reformist change without appeasing the Islamic republic. It must remain critical of Iran's conduct on human rights and treatment of its voices of dissent. It should keep pressure on the hard-liners while being careful not to undermine the efforts of the weakened Khatami government to allow more social freedoms.

And it must not lose sight of the complexity of Iranian society, which has its own sense of cultural continuity and yet desires to break out of the isolation imposed after the revolution. The dynamics of a shift into a democratic society should be encouraged, not disrupted at the very moment when reform is supported by most Iranians. The success or failure of
Iran's transformation will have important implications for the peaceful resolution of the Muslim world's acute political and religious predicament.

Abbas Amanat is a professor of history at Yale and the author of the forthcoming "In Search of Modern Iran."


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