Iran, the ambivalent enemy

In his State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran as one of three nations in his “axis of evil.” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded with an angry warning that the U.S. would “regret” any armed acti

What is the state of U.S.–Iranian relations?

Nonexistent. The two nations broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled Shah Reza Pahlavi. That year, amid rabid anti-American sentiment, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage for 444 days. The event—one of the most humiliating in recent American history—left such rancor that when Iran went to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, America supported Iraq.

Why does President Bush call Iran “evil”?

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The State Department lists Iran as a prime exporter of global terrorism. Iran funds Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon that routinely attacks Israeli forces. The U.S. also believes that Iran backs Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—all groups violently opposed to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Israel recently found evidence of Iran’s antagonistic role in that process on a seized ship that was loaded with weapons from Iran intended for the Palestinian Authority. U.S. officials believe that Iran already has biological and chemical weapons, and are concerned it’s now trying to develop nuclear bombs, as well. Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, still publicly condemns the U.S. as the “Great Satan,” and frequently ends his addresses with the stock phrase “Death to America!”

Did Iran fund al Qaida or the Taliban?

No. Iran, a Shia Muslim country, was no friend to the Sunni Muslim Taliban rulers in neighboring Afghanistan. The two sects are separated by a major theological schism. Shia, a shortening of Shiat Ali, or Partisans of Ali, believe that the head caliph of Islam must be descended from Ali, brother of the prophet Muhammad. The Sunnis believe the caliph can be descended from other disciples of Muhammad. The split between the two sects occurred hundreds of years ago but, like the Protestant Reformation in Christianity, has caused fervent discord. Iran did not like a militant Sunni state on its border and was glad to see the Taliban go.

So Iran supports the new Afghan regime?

No. Iran is also uncomfortable with a pro-American regime on its border. Instead, U.S. analysts believe, Iran prefers that Afghanistan remain divided by factional war, unstable, and thus unable to pose any threat. That may be why hundreds of Taliban fighters were allowed to escape U.S. bombers by crossing the border into Iran. Iran last week admitted that Afghan fighters may have fled there, but says they had no permission to do so.

Do all Iranians hate the U.S.?

No. Iran is a deeply divided country. More than half of Iranians are younger than 25, and they have no memory of the virulent anti-Americanism of the Iranian revolution. In fact, many young people are entranced with Western ideas and consumer goods, and eagerly buy up Levis and Leonardo DiCaprio T-shirts. Recent riots after a local soccer victory turned into jubilant pro-American demonstrations, with some young people waving American flags. In the 1996 elections, these more liberal Iranians voted many reformists into parliament, and in 1997 elected a relative moderate, Mohammad Khatami, as president. Re-elected in a landslide in 2000, Khatami has given indications of being much more open to relations with the West. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he supported parliament’s wish to begin a new dialogue with the U.S.

Why didn’t that happen?

The clerics were opposed. Ultimate power in Iran does not reside with the president or parliament, but with the supreme leader, the ayatollah. He and the hard-line mullahs control the courts and the police. They have been rounding up members of a dissident group that advocates tolerance and political pluralism.

Are those Khatami’s supporters?

Some of them are. But Khatami is no social democrat. He wants a reformed Islamic government—not pure democracy, but rule by Islamic law as administered by an elected parliament. Under his tenure, Iran has been wooing Western Europe, to attract foreign investment and diversify its oil-dependent economy. In 1999, Khatami symbolically ended Iran’s political isolation by traveling to Italy and France.

How did he respond to Bush’s speech?

He was furious. The outrage of being called “evil” seemed to unite the reformists and the mullahs—at least temporarily. Khatami immediately canceled his foreign minister’s trip to the World Economic Forum in New York and gave a strident speech condemning Bush’s words as “meddling, warmongering, insulting, and a repetition of old propaganda.” Even the main reformist party said the U.S. tone was unacceptable, though it blamed the hard-liners, saying it was their policies that provoked Bush’s denunciation.

Is a thaw still possible?

Not unless the mullahs are overthrown—and there’s no sign this will happen in the near future. Iran has a terrible human rights record, led by a judicial system that routinely uses torture and summary judgment. The current government is unlikely to heed Bush’s demand that it stop trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction and funding international terrorism. That leaves the U.S. and Iran no closer to a rapprochement than they were in 1979.

Will Iran go nuclear?

For more than two decades, say U.S. intelligence officials, Iran has been buying the technology to make nuclear bombs. Iran admits to buying some of these sophisticated tools, mostly from Russia, but claims it is conducting peaceful nuclear-energy research. But with its huge oil and gas resources, Iran wouldn’t seem to need nuclear power as an energy source. Western governments are convinced that Iran is, in fact, trying to build nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The Center for Strategic and International Studies says that Iran already has all the basic technology to build a bomb, and lacks only the plutonium or highly enriched uranium that is the raw material of nuclear fission. In as little as five years, Iran could refine its own. Perhaps sooner than that, though, it could buy or steal the uranium it needs.

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