Number Two Hundred Fifty-Two

Analysis of Near East policy from the scholars and associatesof THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE


By Patrick Clawson

In banner headlines, newspapers across America heralded the surprisevictor in Iran¢s May 23 presidential election ¯ Mohammad Khatemi¯ as a moderate. This, in fact, marks at least the fourth attemptby the United States to find influential moderates among Iran¢s leadershipsince the revolution. In 1980, the Islamic Republic's first president,Abolhassan Bani Sadr, was thought to be a moderate who would solve thehostage crisis; he turned out be powerless. In 1985, the Iran-contra affairbegan with a CIA effort to reinforce Iranian moderates who opposed Sovietambitions. Only later did it emerge that the U.S.' interlocutors were lying,saying whatever would persuade Washington to sell them arms. In 1989, whenAli Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president, he was described asthe *great white-turbaned hope,* yet he sponsored more terrorism than didhis predecessors.

In terms of his approach to foreign policy, the search for moderationin President-elect Khatemi is likely to also be in vain. Actually, Khatemicampaigned with the vigorous support of long-time radical allies like AliAkbar Mohtashemi, who as ambassador in Damascus organized the 1983 BeirutMarine barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. servicemen. Mohtashemi exultedin Khatemi's victory, saying it signaled positive changes. What littleKhatemi said during the campaign about foreign affairs was to reaffirmthe Islamic Republic's policies, such as opposition to U.S. presence inthe Gulf. At the press conference after his victory, he emphasized continuityin Iranian foreign policy, e.g., the rejection of the legitimacy of Israel,which he called a racist state.

Between Radicals and Technocrats: Importantly, Khatemi was not the firstchoice of those usually thought of as Iran's moderates, i.e., the technocratsgrouped around current President Rafsanjani. Eventually, the technocratsdid support him, but only reluctantly and in a temporary alliance withthe radicals. That is because both knew that neither could win alone. Thetechnocratic and radical leaders explained that they cooperated to oppose"monopolism" by the clergy-bazaar traditionalists who dominateIranian politics. The alliance of technocrats and radicals is actuallynot so strange. Both are modernists with roots in Western politics, coloredlightly by Islamic rhetoric. Liberalism and neo-Marxist radicalism areboth products of the Enlightenment, which Iran's traditionalists reject.A smart campaigner, Khatemi focused on lifestyle restrictions, the oneissue on which he is definitely a moderate. He said people should be freeto listen to Western-style music in their homes if they kept the volumelow enough not to disturb others, without worrying whether vigilantes wouldbarge in. This resonated with Iranians, who are sick of the Islamic Republic'sdraconian restrictions. The issue that brought a 91 percent turnout (comparedto 63 percent four years ago) was not foreign policy: it was whether womencould wear lipstick and men wear blue jeans. Also, Khatemi reached outto ordinary Iranians, campaigning mostly in the provinces, unlike the technocratswhose attention is exclusively on Tehran (the Iranian equivalent of ignoringlife outside the Beltway). The result was a true landslide: Khatemi received20.9 million votes, compared to 10.6 million for the 1993 winner, Rafsanjani.

>From Rafsanjani to Khatemi: Khatemi's moderate stance on lifestyleissues does not make him a moderate on the issues that President Clintoncharacterized on May 29 as the three big hurdles to U.S.-Iran reconciliation:terrorism, the peace process, and weapons of mass destruction. In his publiclife, Khatemi has never shown an interest in these issues. He will facevigorous opposition to his changes in lifestyle policy from a dedicatedminority well represented in the Majlis, and that is likely to keep himbusy. In any case, he has limited authority over foreign policy, whichhas become largely the domain of the supreme leader (Khomeini's successor),Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei

Khatemi's approach seems to be the same as Rafsanjani's: liberalismon one issue, while continuing the hardline stance on the questions thatconcern the United States. Under Rafsanjani, the liberalism was on economics.When elected in 1989, Rafsanjani was called a moderate because of his supportfor economic liberalization. In the end, it was clear he was eager to attractWestern capital but without abandoning Iranian terrorism, weapons of massdestruction programs, or destabilization of moderate neighbors. Some commentatorswho are still amazed to find that Iran wants to do business with the UnitedStates overlook the inconvenient fact that Iran's strategy is to use theresources it gains from this business to fund armaments, instability, andterror at least as much as to improve its people's well-being. During hisfirst presidential term from 1989 to 1993, Rafsanjani borrowed $30 billionfrom Western businessmen. It was during this period, as a German courtrecently ruled, Iranian assassins killed four Iranian dissidents in 1992in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. The Mykonos evidence showed that leadingIranian moderates ¯ President Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister AliAkbar Velayati ¯ personally approved every terrorist operation, asmembers of the *Special Operations Committee.* That demolished the excusethat the moderates were not directly connected to terrorism and that theirhands were tied by anti-Western Majlis members and the Supreme Leader.However, the same excuses may be made for Khatemi. Indeed, he may launcha charm offensive to persuade Europeans that his government is entirelydifferent from Rafsanjani's, while covering up the radical credentialsof his advisors. The Islamic Republic has been expert at the dual-trackforeign policy of speaking sweetly while continuing to pursue outlaw behavior.

Over time, Khatemi's lifestyle policies may herald a change in the IslamicRepublic. Khatemi's intention is to strengthen the Islamist regime by winningthe hearts and minds of young people. He wants cultural products that packageIslamist values attractively, using Western techniques and appealing toIranian nationalism. That is why he, as culture minister, sponsored provocativeIranian films and tolerated Iranian romance novels (suitably chaste andimmensely popular). If Khatemi succeeds, the Islamic Republic will be rejuvenated.However, it is quite possible that he will turn out to be *Ayatollah Gorbachev*:a man who introduces reforms he thinks will strengthen the system but whichin fact lead to demands for broader reforms and the eventual disintegrationof the old order.

Implications for U.S. Policy: Despite U.S. differences with Iran, thereare still many reasons to talk to Tehran. The barrier to such talks, overlookedby many critics of U.S. policy, is that Iranian leaders continually repeattheir own rejection of any talks with Washington. Maybe Tehran could changeits mind. Khatemi made something of a stir when he said that Iran cannottalk to the U.S. now, rather than the usual formula that Iran could neverunder any circumstances hold such a dialogue. Once Khatemi takes officeon August 1, it is worth having others approach him to ask if he wantsto deal. Indeed, Washington could offer to put something on the table,such as an agreement to end all litigation between the two governments,freeing up $1 billion-$2 billion in frozen Iranian assets from pre-paymentsfor weapons not delivered after the 1979 revolution. If Khatemi does notagree, or if he refuses to offer up a return gesture (like canceling theBushehr nuclear power plant in exchange for U.S. non-objection to Japanresuming its suspended $1.8 billion loan for a hydroelectric dam), thenit will be clear he is not now interested in moderation on foreign policyand security issues.

One factor that might lead Iran to accept an offer for talks would beto deflect attention from the investigation of the June 1996 Khobar Towersbombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen. Evidence fromthe suspect soon to be deported from Canada may link Tehran to that bomb,in the same way that Iran was tied to the Mykonos murders. If Tehran werefound responsible, then the United States will have little choice but torespond vigorously. To do otherwise would sow doubts about the credibilityof U.S. resolve in the Gulf ¯ credibility, hard won during the GulfWar, which sustains the peace there by deterring aggressors.

Conclusion: The main lesson from the Iranian presidential electionsis not about moderates ¯ it is that the Islamic Republic is profoundlyunpopular, especially with the young. If Washington can block Iranian externalaggression, then Iran¢s manifold internal problems will eventuallycause the Islamic Republic to fall apart. That is called containment, andit is the basis for current U.S. policy towards Iran. This election showsthat U.S. policy has excellent prospects for success.


Patrick Clawson, an adjunct fellow of The Washington Institute, is asenior research professor at the National Defense University's Institutefor National Strategic Studies and author of U.S. Sanctions on Iran (EmiratesCentre for Strategic Studies and Research, 1997). The views expressed hereare his own and not those of the U.S. government or any of its agencies.