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Book Review

Zionist think-tank in Washington charts course of US policy towards Islamic Iran

Ghada Ramahi

Iran Under Khatami: A Political, Economic, and Military Assessment by Patrick Clawson et al. Pub: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington DC, 1998. Pp. 114. Pbk. US$19.95.

In the first half of the twentieth century there were major turning points for the Muslim Ummah. These events began with the dissolution of the Uthmaniyyah (Ottoman) khilafah. Corrupt as it was, especially in its last days, it was still a Muslim entity that kept Europe at bay. Soon after Europe divided the spoils of this Empire, the tragedy of Palestine began. By the time the Eurocentric west created Israel, the superpowers thought that Islam had been laid to rest once and for all. The Muslim lands, now divided and conquered, were settled under the boots of puppet regimes, whose major duty was to muffle any potential Islamic movement. But the end of the century brought a surprise. The west was forced to realize that Islam never ceases. The Islamic Revolution in Iran came to shock the west. Islam not only did not die but continues to be the only challenge to the hegemonic ‘superpowers’ of the world. Both east and west saw that Imam Khomeini (ra) had shaken the world up and reinstated Islam as a political power.

Since the Revolution, the USA and its allies have come to understand that direct confrontation with the Muslims will not bear fruit. In fact they now see that even military force might not always be reliable and that the west’s ‘state-of-the-art’ weaponry can be thwarted by a "desert storm". This time the threat is serious because it is contagious. It echoes worldwide and not only in the Muslim world. The US overestimated its hold on Iran and has found that tyrant puppets are not guaranteed, nor military force always an option.

So US think-tanks have become instrumental in devising ways and strategies to prevent the repetition of similar situations (first), and to diffuse this particular revolution and to let it consume itself (second). The Washington Institute for Near East Policy is such a think-tank. Founded in 1985, this institute describes itself as "a public educational foundation dedicated to scholarly research and informed debate on U.S. interests in the Middle East"; it also "provides policymakers, diplomats, and journalists with fresh thinking and ‘new ideas’ to promote peace, security, and stability in one of the world’s most volatile regions." On the board of advisors one finds the names of Warren Christopher, Alexander Haig, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Robert McFarlane and George Shultz; among the names of the visiting military fellows one reads Colonel Haldun Solmaztörk of the Turkish Army and Brigadier General Majed al-Maqableh of the Jordanian Armed Forces.

This book is one of the Institute’s publications on Iran. It reports recent results of analysis and assessments of change (or the lack of it) as seen by the Israeli ‘experts’ of the US. The book consists of five short chapters. In the first, "The Khatami Paradox", Patrick Clawson, the director for research at the Institute, has given an overview of the analysis. Clawson thinks that Khatami’s "problems at home" are caused by the retardation of his reforms resulting from the resilience of his conservative opposition and from Iran’s gloomy economy. Clawson welcomes Khatami’s dramatic initiative on Iranian-American relations, specifically the interview with CNN which "caught the American imagination", in which Khatami supposedly commented on the hostage crisis of 1979 by saying "I do know that the feelings of the great American people have been hurt, and of course I regret it".

However, Clawson argues that, although Khatami’s election in 1997 offered a number of opportunities to the US, and while his tone might be softer, the US should remain cautious because Khatami’s "pronouncements on the evils of Zionism are no change from the past". Clawson believes that although "individual contacts can play an important role in reestablishing more normal relations between Iran and the United States", "the major issues dividing the two countries will be resolved only in the context of government-to-government" which "Tehran has ruled out for now". Clawson recommends that "In the meantime, people-to-people contacts should continue as they can help create a psychological climate in both countries in which open, routine official contacts can eventually occur".

The second chapter is by David Menashri, "Whither Iranian Politics? The Khatami Factor". Menashri is a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv University Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and also chair of the university’s department of Middle Eastern and African history. With such credentials, Menashri sees that "Khatami is not an ‘average mullah’" and that "he is not ‘the best representative of the ruling religious institution’". Further, he goes on to say that, seen as "Ayatollah Gorbachev", Khatami could lead to an "Iranian-style perestroika"! But Menashri argues that "Khamene’i’s position in the revolutionary hierarchy limits Khatami’s freedom, mainly as the rahbar does not share many of the president’s convictions and in fact often identifies with the president’s rivals." Optimistic that "the revolution has already deviated from many of its ideological convictions", Menashri discusses Khatami’s choices and the challenges of his cabinet members, and how Natiq Nuri’s dogmatic devotion "turned into the symbol of the establishment and conservatism [while] Khatami became the symbol of pragmatism, openness, and change." Menashri considers specific domestic issues as those pertaining to the detention of Tehran’s mayor Karbaschi, minister of the interior Abdullah Nuri’s backing of Khatami against the conservatives, the role of minister of Islamic guidance ‘Ata’ullah Muhajirani in antagonizing the conservatives since 1990, and the "great deal of coordination" between the views of Montazeri and Professor Soroush regarding the velayat-e faqih.

Eliyahu Kanovsky is another Israeli ‘expert’; in the third chapter he discusses "Iran’s Sick Economy". Kanovsky thinks that "The president, who is constitutionally charged with dealing with economic affairs, is hampered by the lack of sufficient authority to make basic changes". He further avers that "The existing system of governance makes it very difficult or impossible to institute far-reaching economic reforms" because they can be "emasculated by the religious authority", i.e. the rahbar. Kanovsky strongly criticizes the bunyads (institutions unique to post-revolutionary Iran), and places a large part of the blame on them. His main criticism of the bunyads, beside the fact that "One of them unilaterally took the initiative in 1989 to offer the $2 million ‘bounty’ for Salman Rushdie" is that they are outside the jurisdiction of the president and are accountable only to the "religious leader".

This attack on the bunyads is repeated in the following chapter, where Michael Eisenstadt claims that "Much of the economic and military aid that Iran provides to Palestinian rejectionist groups is funneled via various bunyads." Eisenstadt’s main objection is to Iran’s views regarding the peace treaty, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran’s development of weapons of mass-destruction. This, in addition to sponsoring terrorism, he sees as an invariant in Iran’s policy. Later, Eisenstadt argues that "Iran’s opposition to Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process serves as a form of ideological legitimation for the country’s clerical leadership, even if the great majority of Iranians are largely indifferent to events in the Israeli-Palestinian arena".

Clawson and Eisenstadt finish the book with a chapter entitled "Opportunities and Challenges for U.S. Policy". They recommend that "US policy needs to respond to recent developments in Tehran"; however, unlike its performance "in the past [where it] relied largely on pressure to achieve its objectives vis-a-vis Iran", rather "Now a mix of pressures and incentives are needed". The authors assess the policy of sanctions against Iran, believing that the sanctions "curbed Tehran’s ability to threaten US allies and interest" by "depriving Iran of the sources it could otherwise use for a military buildup". They also think that "U.S. sanctions have exacerbated Iran’s deep-seated economic problems, which have been an important factor in generating popular dissatisfaction with clerical rule." The authors feel that "Sanctions are part of a policy to pressure Iran, not to isolate it" because "Indeed, U.S. interests are well served by more contact with Iranians at all levels" and "There is no contradiction between holding an official dialogue and continuing sanctions on Tehran"; they "can go hand-in-hand".

Clawson and Eisenstadt recommend that the US should welcome Khatami’s election by "placing the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq on a terrorist watch list as a gesture to Tehran"; by removing "Iran from the list of major illicit-drug-producing" countries; and by lifting "the ban on exports of U.S.-made consumer goods to Iran". In addition to "encouraging wrestling and soccer diplomacy", the list of recommendations further suggests that "The United States needs to find a way to support the 20 million Iranians who voted for change, rather than to support one faction of the regime against another" because "the Iranian people are the main engine for political change in the country" and "they are a source of leverage over the Iranian government."

Therefore, US should reduce restrictions on visa procedures and intensify "people-to-people contacts involving among others artists, agricultural and medical specialists, and American non-governmental policy analysts who are broadly supportive of U.S. policy in the region". Likewise it also should "support the new Persian language service of Radio Free Iran" and an "extended television address by President Clinton to the Iranian people along the lines of Khatami’s January CNN interview". The goal is that "The United States must make it clear to the Iranian people that it is their government that is the main obstacle to increased contact and better relations between the two countries" because "it would be a severe setback for U.S. policy if the Iranian government could make a credible case to its people and to America’s allies in the Gulf and in Western Europe that the United States has spurned President’s Khatami’s call for a dialogue between peoples". The chapter ends with the final and most important suggestion that the US should "offer incentives for Iran to abandon its nuclear power program by offering to help finance and build additional non-nuclear power plants."

A few themes emerge from this book. One is the contradictory stance of the ‘experts’ in assessing the change in Khatami’s Iran. While the book rants over changes taking place in Iran, the only credible change in the eyes of the Israeli and zionist experts of the Washington Institute, stressed in every chapter, is "the willingness of the Iranian government to alter its policies in the areas of greatest concern to the United States: its active support of terrorism, its violent opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and its continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them." Until then, the US and Israel will continue to hope for a pragmatic Iranian president who is "expected to turn into a momentous catalyst for policy change." The experts also have no qualms about implying that such a "pragmatic president" should be a dictator with absolute power over the institutions of the country, with no accountability to or interference from the rahbar. The third theme is that the populace should be prepared to explode if Khatami is threatened by his "conservative" rivals. Finally, think-tanks and their protégés should refrain from mentioning Imam Khomeini in order to avoid igniting the Iranians’ emotions. The approach is that "he was a charismatic leader, but let’s get realistic".

The book is poorly written, and at times belligerent. The writing betrays the authors’ ulterior motives. Clearly, Israeli experts are the policy-makers of the US. This think-tank and others do not hesitate to make public their "fresh thinking", "new ideas" and prescriptions on how other nations and states should be run, leaving no place for ‘democracy’. Two years after the publication of this report, much of what is in it has been done. President Khatami continues to dazzle the Iranians and the west with his "pragmatism", "openness" and "dialogue of civilizations".

The US has succeeded in dividing the phenomenon of Islamic Iran into "Khomeini’s Iran", "Rafsanjani’s Iran" and "Khatami’s Iran", and characterising Iranian governments as "pragmatic", "dogmatic", "liberal" or "conservative", yet there remains only one classification that Iran should be concerned with: Islamic or taghuti, with no in-between, if the government chooses to adhere to the teachings and principles of Imam Khomeini. But think-tanks seem not to be able to realize this truth. When a state revolts in the name of Islam, the Revolution becomes the common heritage of all the Muslims of the world, regardless of their madhhab, and will be held accountable by all of those who rise to carry the torch once it is lit.

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