TCS Daily

Diplomatic Delusions

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - December 18, 2002 12:00 AM

One of the many surprises attendant to the ongoing sociopolitical turmoil in Iran is the relatively little comment it has garnered from the United States government. Many observers believe that this is attributable to the State Department's desire to achieve some form of diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. If that is the goal, the United States is sure to be frustrated in trying to achieve it.

For over twenty years, the United States government and the Islamic regime of Iran have viewed one another as enemies. Absent a change in the Iranian regime, rapprochement is unlikely. The chief hardliner in the Iranian government is, of course, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Religious Guide. Unfortunately for those who hope for a new relationship with the Islamic regime, Khamenei hasn't the power to help establish a new relationship with the United States.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was a bloodthirsty tyrant who set Iran back generations. His hardline attitudes, and medieval outlook on life made for a stifling sociopolitical existence in Iran, and made Iran an outcast among nations through its support for terrorism abroad. Unquestionably, he was a poor and ill-informed leader whose lack of political sophistication would be funny if the consequences for Iran were not so tragic. When asked once about his plans for creating an economic infrastructure in Iran, Khomeini fatuously responded, "What is this talk about 'economic infrastructure' anyway? Why is it important? Donkeys and camels need hay. That is economic infrastructure. But human beings need Islam."

Despite his bizarre economic wisdom, Khomeini was revered by millions of followers in Iran for his hardline political stance. Additionally, he was respected as a learned theologian by his peers, and by the Iranian people, for having helped lay down the blueprint for and establish an Islamic Republic in Iran. This combination of perceived erudition in theological matters, and Khomeini's image as an uncorrupted and uncompromising man of principle allowed him to be elected as an ayatollah al-odma-a Grand Ayatollah. Grand Ayatollahs make up the elite of the Shi'ite clergy, and their status is somewhat analogous to that of the College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church. Khomeini's theological supremacy and public image allowed him to become the first Supreme Religious Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Khomeini's public image as a theologian and a leader allowed him greater latitude in his political dealings, since he was afforded instant credibility with millions of followers. Because Iranians trusted Khomeini's theological learning, as well as his implacable hardline nature, they were willing to give Khomeini the benefit of the doubt when he made a controversial political move. Thus, for example, Khomeini was able to urge the Iranian people to accept a cease-fire with Saddam Hussein in 1988, after the Iran-Iraq war had raged for eight years and cost hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives, without having achieved the military and political goals that Khomeini had set out as the conditions for victory. When Khomeini accepted the cease-fire, and announced to the Iranian people that he would drink "from this poisoned chalice" [the cease-fire agreement], he was able to avoid charges that he had compromised his integrity, and the integrity of the Islamic Revolution in accepting Saddam's terms for the cease-fire.

For many years, Khomeini's anointed successor was Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Like Khomeini, Montazeri was (and still is) a respected theologian in the highest ranks of the Shi'ite clergy. However, Montazeri got into trouble when he criticized the hardliners in the Islamic government, and for claiming that the Supreme Religious Guide was neither all-powerful, nor infallible in the manner that Khomeini had suggested. Montazeri's apostasy cost him his right of succession as the Supreme Religious Guide when Khomeini died. It also cost him his freedom-Montazeri has been under house arrest since 1997 for continued dissent against the hardliners in the Iranian government. Because of Montazeri's dissent, he was passed over as Supreme Religious Guide when Khomeini died in 1989. The post went to Khamenei instead.

When Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, the Iranian clergy accepted him because they wanted to respect Khomeini's choice of a successor, and because, in the turbulent days after the death of the founder of the Islamic Republic, they wanted to ensure an orderly and smooth transfer of power. However, they still had concerns. Despite having played a central role in the Islamic Revolution, and despite having served as President of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei, while an Ayatollah, was not a Grand Ayatollah. Indeed, Khamenei's theological qualifications were rather slim compared to many of his counterparts in the clergy. Were it not for the concern surrounding the viability of the Islamic Republic in the immediate aftermath of Khomeini's death, it is entirely possible that Khamenei's appointment as Supreme Religious Guide would have been met with howls of protest from the clergy.

Those howls came when Khamenei was appointed Grand Ayatollah, joining the other elite members of the clergy at the apogee of the priestly hierarchy. The appointment came some years after Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as the Supreme Religious Guide, and since there weren't the same concerns about the viability of the regime that there were at the time of Khomeini's death, the clergy attacked Khamenei's elevation to the position of Grand Ayatollah as a sham. Khamenei was criticized as lacking the scholarly credentials necessary to be a Grand Ayatollah, and, in a move that would have been unthinkable in Khomeini's heyday, Khamenei's opponents suggested that his elevation to the position of Supreme Religious Guide invalidated any argument that the Supreme Religious Guide should be considered infallible, as Khomeini was when leading the Islamic Republic. Indeed, as Michael Ledeen points out, Khamenei's lack of theological standing prompted one dissident to refer to him as "hojat al-Islam." A hojat al-Islam is a cleric of middling rank in the Shi'ite hierarchy, and the reference, when applied to Khamenei, constitutes an insult considering the fact that Khamenei is a Grand Ayatollah, and the Supreme Religious Guide.

Realizing that he lacked the scholarly credentials necessary to establish his credibility, Khamenei has decided, instead, to adopt a virulently hardline stance that is aimed at making up for his low standing as a theologian. Throughout his career, Khamenei has been uncompromising in condemning the State of Israel and its alleged mistreatment of the Palestinian people. In the mid 1990s, Khamenei was a fervent supporter of the Bosnian Muslims, and played a key role in engineering Iranian financial and military support to the Bosnians as they fought the Serbs. Needless to say, Khamenei has also sought to burnish his hardline credentials by stating over and over that there could never be any compromise with the United States, and that closer Iranian-American ties were impossible and would not be pursued.

Were Khamenei to abandon this stance, he would not only be seen as lacking in theological supremacy, he would also lose his credentials as a hardliner (and his commensurate base of political support). And so long as Khamenei and others hold out against closer ties with the United States in order to preserve their own political positions, the Iranian government will continue to be divided and unable to pursue a coherent foreign policy. While a whole host of reformers view closer ties with the United States to be in Iran's best interests, Khamenei and the hardliners will be able to slow down, if not stop such efforts at rapprochement, given the fact that they are currently able to veto actions by the reformist Parliament, and the pseudo-reformist administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

The Islamic regime in Iran is fundamentally incapable of engendering closer ties with the United States. American diplomats should not put any stock in the false panacea that an Iranian-American rapprochement will be able to take place under the auspices of the current regime. The only way that any such closer ties will take place-and for that matter, the only way the Iranian people will once again be able to enjoy a measure of social and political freedom-is for the regime to fall and give way. America should neither expect, nor work for, anything less.



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