More Talk, Less Action
by Jim Lobe
Amid rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program and renewed charges
that it is sheltering senior al-Qaeda leaders, including the son
of Osama bin Laden, a major international think tank is calling
on the administration of President George W. Bush to seriously engage
Tehran rather than to seek confrontation with it.
a new report entitled "Iran: Discontent and Disarray,"
the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) concludes that,
despite continuing growth in popular unhappiness with Iran's conservative
leadership, swift political change, let alone a popular insurrection
as some US neo-conservatives have predicted, is highly unlikely.
more probable, on the other hand, is the rise of "conservative
pragmatists," such as former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, who have supported opening up to the West for
economic reasons while continuing to resist far-reaching political
should be no let-up in the world support for political reform and
greater respect for human rights," said Robert Malley, ICG's
Middle East program director who served as Middle East specialist
on the National Security Council staff under former president Bill
Clinton. In that respect, the report notes that the decision to
award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, a human-rights
lawyer, could be considered particularly helpful.
the regime is not likely to collapse soon, so there is no serious
alternative to engaging it on urgent security matters," Malley
went on. "And that engagement is going to have address, as
well as everybody else's anxieties, Iran's own sense of strategic
encirclement and nuclear disadvantage," he said.
policy has been a major point of contention with the Bush administration
virtually since it took power almost three years ago. On the one
hand, the State Department, under Secretary of State Colin Powell,
has supported continuing with the gradual detente policy promoted
under Clinton. On the other, hawks based primarily in Vice President
Dick Cheney's and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's offices have
opposed engagement, arguing instead for a policy of isolation and
September 11 terrorist attacks marked the hawks' ascendancy within
the administration. While contacts between Washington and Tehran
which haven't had direct diplomatic ties since the embassy hostage
crisis 23 years ago picked up sharply during Washington's military
campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Iran's inclusion in
the "axis of evil" described by Bush in his state of the
union address in January 2002 resulted in an instant cooling of
the State Department maintained discreet contacts with the Iranian
government until mid-May when US intelligence concluded that a series
of al-Qaeda attacks carried out in Saudi Arabia that left some 35
people dead, including eight US nationals, were planned and possibly
ordered in Iran by senior leaders of the group. As a result, the
contacts were put on ice.
the same time, tensions were rising over Iran's nuclear program
which, according to Tehran itself, is designed exclusively for civilian
use. The US, on the other hand, believes that Tehran intends to
build a nuclear weapon and has accelerated its efforts to do so.
The issue has moved quickly to the top of the agenda of the International
Atomic Energy Agency, which has given Tehran until the end of this
month to explain a number of inconsistencies which its inspectors
have recently discovered.
the same time, the Pentagon has declined to disarm and dissolve
a heavily-armed Iranian rebel group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK),
that is based in Iraq and was closely allied to the ousted regime
of former president Saddam Hussein. Its failure to do so, despite
the MEK's inclusion on the State Department's list of international
terrorist groups, is seen in Tehran as evidence that Washington
may be willing to use the group as a source of pressure against
the Islamic Republic.
a number of prominent neo-conservative thinkers close to the administration
hawks have become increasingly outspoken in favor of providing covert
aid to student opposition and exile movements, including one led
by the son of the former shah, in hopes of setting off a popular
of them, including Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute,
a think tank that enjoys strong influence in Rumsfeld's and Cheney's
offices, have formed a "Coalition for Democracy in Iran,"
which is pressing Congress to approve a bill that would, among other
things, provide some US$50 million in aid to opposition forces in
are now engaged in a regional struggle in the Middle East, and the
Iranian tyrants are the keystone of the terror network," he
wrote shortly after US troops took Baghdad in spring. "Far
more than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the defeat of the mullahcracy
and the triumph of freedom in Tehran would be a truly historic event
and an enormous blow to the terrorists."
new ICG report confirms that students and others are indeed unhappy
about the prospects for political change in light of the refusal
of the conservative clerical establishment, led by Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khameini, to support the reform program sponsored
by the twice-elected president, Mohamed Khatami, and his allies
in the Iranian parliament, the majlis.
frustrations are being taken out primarily on the reformers, who
have been unable to carry out their programs, according to the report,
which pointed to the huge drop in turnout in municipal elections
earlier this year, which actually resulted in major gains by conservative
problem, however, is that this frustration is turning more to political
apathy. "Student protests persist, but they remain contained;
most of the public is reluctant to challenge the state security
services directly, sensing both that the regime would not hesitate
to resort to violence and that, for the time being at least, there
is no readily available credible political alternative."
"international policy-makers need to recognize that internal
paralysis is a far more probable outcome than radical change,"
the report concludes.
this context, according to the ICG, it makes sense for the West
to take advantage of any opening by the regime to economic reform,
as well as engage directly, as Europe has for some time, in critical
issues, including security. "Such contacts need to be encouraged
and expanded," the report says, "as they ultimately help
to open up Iran's political space."
need is to strengthen Iran's civil society, and that can best be
done not by isolating the country but by maximizing economic and
cultural contacts while continuing to urge political reform and
more respect for human rights," according to ICG analyst Karim
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC. Visit
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