November 1, 2010

Khatami Or Not, Don't Count on Iran to Change (originally posted Feb. 8, 2009)

Mohammad Khatami, the reputed modernist reformer, has announced his candidacy for President of Iran. A former president himself, he will make a formidable challenger to the incumbent, firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Ironically, had the more presentable Khatami been president during the past few years, Iran would probably be considerably further along in its quest for nuclear weapons, it would have wrested greater diplomatic advantage from the toxic U.S. presence in Iraq, and he would have more wisely invested Iran’s windfall from the transitory spike in oil revenues.

Kahatami definitely knows how to talk the multicultural talk of the West. Yet, even if he does “walk the walk” as well (a big “if”), it will not be enough to alter Iran’s substantive behavior and core interests.  Iran has never been ruled by its President. The ultimate voice on national direction and Grand Strategy is the Supreme Leader, beginning with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and continuing with Ayatollah Khamenei since Khomeini’s death. Neither leader has stepped far from the radical inversion of classical Shia submission, favoring confrontation and national struggle in the aftermath of the ancient defeat of Imam Hussein.  Terrorism, opposition to Arab-Israeli reconciliation, regional gamesmanship and the quest for nuclear weapons – all have continued regardless of who sits in the president’s office, which faction dominates in parliament, what the proverbial journalistic “mood on the street” may be, or whether new terms of dialogue are proffered to Washington.

Even before the Islamic Revolution, the Shah’s regime was pursuing a nuclear program and asserting regional hegemony over neighboring Iraq. Persia has historical ambitions and self-image, and modern Iran has lasting grievances against Western imperialist powers. Israel is viewed within that lens, and even secular Iranian “bazaaris” feel more in common with their Muslim Arab counterparts than with Washington-loving Zionists. It is unlikely that even a change of regime – let alone a nominal change of government – will significantly alter Iran’s course.

Does this mean we cannot deal with Tehran? We can probably work out a modus vivendi in Iraq and Afghanistan, though probably more “modus” than “vivendi”, since civilian deaths are likely to continue for some time.  We might also reach some accommodation on the nuclear program, but that is far more about engaging Russia and China than convincing Iran directly or gaining some procedural advantage in the United Nations Security Council.

In Gaza and Lebanon, and in South America, we are more likely to realize a decline in Iran’s venture terrorism by reaching understandings with local agencies – Syria, Egypt, Venezuela – than by believing that what Khatami did not dismantle during his previous presidential term will suddenly be abandoned now.

To their credit, the “mullahs” (Washington-speak for the religious-political establishment in Tehran) have avoided the pretense of modeling their system after our own British-style democratic culture. In some traditional societies, this has proven to be a waste of time and money, except for those who gain personally from the exercise.

If Khatami is elected president, Iran may become a nicer place to live. Reformists in Iran promise to recalibrate the intrusion of theocratic dogma into the daily lives of ordinary Iranians, to rationalize the climate for private enterprise, and revise the tax code. Changing the imbalance of power at the top, or rolling back the revolutionary military and foreign-policy agenda, is not under consideration.

The most immediate benefit of President Obama’s inauguration, beyond the drastic shift in Washington’s image worldwide, may be that funding and political weight will be reduced for the myriad Iranian “opposition” and exile movements promising to turn Iran into a U.S. ally or a Western-style democracy. This will help Washington achieve realistic goals and it will begin to restore grassroots credibility to the brave activists and advocates still living in Iran, who might someday change their society on its own terms and in a lasting way.

No comments:

Post a Comment