Is Iran at a crossroads? The recent US - led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought new opportunities and dangers that could conceivably either herald a new rapprochement between Tehran and Washington or else bring a sharp detorioration that might perhaps spill over into confrontation. At home, profound demographic changes would seem to make far-reaching political changes appear inevitable in a country whose young population is alienated from the clerical elite that pulls the strings of power. This book looks at some of the causes of these domestic international tensions and considers some of the possible outcomes. In particular, it asks: Is Iran really on the way to developing nuclear weapons? What is the Iranian ‘Qods Force‘ doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? And why? What are Iran‘s connections with Middle East terror groups? Could Iran disintegrate if the current regime crumbles? How much of a threat to the regime do dissident organisations pose? The book explains the likely course of events in Iran and the region for both general readers and specialists.
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About the Author
Roger Howard is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Daily Mail, for which he covered the US-led war in Afghanistan, The New Statesman, The Spectator, Middle East International and Jane's Intelligence Review.
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Iran in Crisis?
Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response
By Roger Howard
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2004 Roger Howard
All rights reserved.
The American mind
Nearly a quarter of a century after the Islamic Revolution, the subsequent hostage-taking of American diplomats in Tehran and the sudden rupture of diplomatic ties, a new chapter in the story of US–Iranian relations looks ready to begin. It is possible that this chapter will tell a happy tale of a new rapprochement, an easing of American economic sanctions and perhaps a more peaceful and stable Middle East. But it is also at least as likely that relations will deteriorate even further as continuing mistrust, hostility and acrimony threaten to spill over into confrontation.
The possibility that US–Iranian relations may be reaching a new juncture reflects several recent developments. The near completion of Iran's nuclear programme – supposedly carried out only for civilian energy – will force its international critics either to take unilateral action against the reactors at Arak and Bushehr or instead decisively to put their faith in the snap inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the Iranian authorities, in a deal struck on 21 October 2003, agreed to respect. While Tehran's compromise was greeted warmly in European capitals, it has been viewed with overt scepticism by many in Tel Aviv and Washington: leading hawk John Bolton quickly pointed out that 'even if Iran follows through with its promises, many further steps are required in order to prove beyond doubt that Iran is foreswearing the pursuit of nuclear weapons', while the CIA informed Congress, in a report made public on 8 November, that 'even with intrusive IAEA safeguards inspections at Natanz, there is a serious risk that Iran could use its enrichment technology in covert activities'.
Major changes in the wider geopolitical picture have also created new opportunities and dangers. In particular, because the US administration is now highly dependent upon neighbourly co-operation in stabilizing the highly turbulent regions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is ready to reward any Iranian support or to penalize any disruption. Correspondingly, this US military presence in the region will either prompt the Iranian authorities to co-operate with the initiatives to rebuild the new political orders or to obstruct such efforts. Moreover, the highly flammable condition of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and of much of the wider world since the rise of Al Qaeda, has also meant that Washington can easily pin responsibility for terrorist outrages upon Iran, no matter how unwarranted such charges may in fact be: a car bombing in Riyadh on 12 May 2003 had prompted the US government to break off unofficial dialogue with Iranian representatives, even though there was no firm evidence of their regime's complicity.
At a more general level, the military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan have also either vindicated or challenged the highly assertive US foreign policy advocated by 'aggressive nationalists' such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and the 'neo-conservatives' such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. At the time of writing, it appears that the White House has retreated from its policy of regime change and pre-emptive military action in order to return to a more traditional diplomatic style that would repackage President Bush as a man of peace: Washington's unsuccessful offer of a high-level humanitarian mission to Iran, made in the wake of the massive earthquake in Bam province on 26 December 2003, clearly illustrated this change of tone. But should the US military succeed in effectively pacifying the two countries and impose its own Pax Americana, then the White House could very well resume its earlier stridency and adopt a much aggressive posture that would inevitably square up to the 'dangerous' Tehran regime.
A softer tone is likely to manifest itself in the more moderate voices of the US State Department that have advocated the establishment of new diplomatic channels and the partial lifting of economic sanctions in return for continuing compliance with the demands of the IAEA and co-operation in the efforts to rebuild post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan. The State Department had signalled its readiness to explore such moves during 2003, some months before the US humanitarian effort to relieve Bam symbolized hopes that relations between the two countries could finally improve. Any such approach would also be welcomed by politicians in Tehran, mindful that a new accord with the USA, after years of sanctions and isolation, would be widely greeted by ordinary Iranians.
By contrast any dispute between Iran and the USA would be likely to reflect the influence of, or pass the initiative to, hawkish influences whose antipathy to the Tehran regime has long been vociferously expressed. At the same time that the State Department sounded notes of compromise in September 2003, for example, senior figures in the Pentagon were meeting with the cleric Hossein Khomeini, the grandson of the Iranian revolutionary leader, who openly advocated US support for regime change in Iran. Plans 'for an aggressive policy of trying to destabilize the Iranian government', even allowing for the covert support of an exiled militia movement hitherto blacklisted by the State Department as a terrorist organization, are also said to have been actively considered by the same Pentagon figures. And in the offices of its influential think-tanks, where policy proposals are pitched before governmental audiences, some hard-liners have argued a passionate case for 'taking the fight' to Tehran, while on Capitol Hill senators and representatives are sponsoring new legislation to fund Iranian opposition movements with lavish grants similar to those previously provided to Iraqi exiles. The legislation of Senator Sam Brownback, the Iran Democracy Act, for example, seeks to destabilize the Tehran regime by funding dissident organizations inside Iran, an arrangement that would break new ground by contravening an American deal, struck in Algiers in 1981, not to interfere in Iranian domestic affairs.
Such hawkish influences have already strongly influenced US policy. In particular, relations between Tehran and the Bush administration had been badly strained after the President's State of the Union address in January 2002, a speech that even relative Iranian moderates such as President Khatami had furiously denounced as 'threatening and humiliating'. Iran, Bush had famously asserted, was a member of an Axis of Evil' that he argued was 'arming to threaten the peace of the world' and thereby posed 'a grave and growing danger' to the United States. Such views had in any case been deeply held by many others within the administration for much longer, including those who had argued ever since the 11 September attacks that the disposal of the Iranian government – its 'mullahcracy' – should be prioritized over the toppling of Saddam's rule. In particular, Tehran had earned a prominent place on the target list produced by an influential pressure group, the Project for the New American Century, forty-one of whose members had addressed an open letter to Bush on 20 September that urged the President to retaliate against Iran if it failed to cut off its support for the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
Few would dispute that the potential for any forthcoming confrontation is in part a direct consequence of Iranian provocation. The United States clearly has every reason to fear the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and to insist upon the strict enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Additional Protocol that the regime has more recently agreed to respect. In a country where unaccountable, hard-line elites undoubtedly have some scope to pursue their own private agendas, Western fears that Iranian WMD could be secretly passed to third parties, perhaps of suicidal inclination and therefore indifferent to the mutually assured destruction that their own actions would guarantee, hardly seem misplaced. And although the exact amount of influence that Iranian elites hold over some of the militant Palestinian groups is far from clear, there can be no doubt that most hard-liners are strongly hostile to the state of Israel and that some pressure is needed on both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute if there is to be any lasting peace in the Middle East. Nor does any respected observer seriously dispute that the Iranian people suffer considerable political repression and human rights violation, and that it is within the power of the United States, considered to be the world's only 'hyper-power' since at least 1991, to do something constructive about it.
The Americans have, moreover, on occasion signalled a new willingness to talk, but found Tehran tone-deaf to the overtures they have struck. On 14 March 2002, for example, Senator Joseph Biden of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made a clear offer to his Iranian counterparts to open a new dialogue that would overcome years of mistrust. But these approaches were rejected by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who was anxious not to let rival politicians steal the credit for any new rapprochement. Biden's approaches, as the influential editor of the conservative paper Keyhan argued, were 'aimed at recruiting mercenaries from within the Islamic Republic to advance the US' spiteful objections'.
But such provocation, detailed in subsequent chapters, represents only one side of the coin, for Iran's uneasy relationship with Washington has at times also been fuelled by the particular responses that these provocations have sometimes elicited from the United States. If in January 2002 the US administration had known that Iran had made great efforts to rein in Al Qaeda operatives on its soil and to support the military campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, why did the President's State of the Union address hit only negative notes at the expense of the more positive? If Iranian co-operation would in future clearly be indispensable to maintain law and order both in post-Taliban Afghanistan and a post-Saddam Iraq, why heighten the sense of mistrust between the capitals? And if Washington really did deem the pursuit of co-operation to be a fruitless task, why publicly condemn Iran, instead of assuming the quieter, less confrontational, tone that characterized EU diplomacy?
Viewed in these terms, the possibility that tension between Iran and the USA might eventuate in the foreseeable future represents a combustible mix of Iranian provocation with sometimes belligerent US reactions. This chapter seeks to examine these American reactions more closely for two reasons. At the time of writing, it appears more likely that this more hawkish mindset will gain the upper hand in formulating US foreign policy towards Iran: not only is American antipathy and mistrust of the mullahs' regime too deeply rooted to be quickly banished, but there is no sign of any compromise on the Middle East peace process and Iranian sponsorship of local 'terror'. And even if Washington does signal a more moderate line towards Iran, then the same voices will continue to hold powerful sway over policy and always be quick to find justification for a more aggressive agenda: as mentioned, there remains the particularly strong possibility of the sudden, devastating terrorist attack for which Tehran will be viewed as the culprit. This chapter seeks to look not at the 'objective' issues that concern Washington, such as Iran's nuclear programme, but rather at the more 'subjective' American mindset that responds to those issues in a distinctive way and which remains essential to understanding relations between the two countries.
The common ground between Iran and the West
At first sight, Iran might seem an unlikely recipient of American antipathy. In clear contrast to North Korea, another member of the Axis of Evil', Iran's own history is after all strongly interwoven with that of Western civilization. Ideas, inventions, commerce and migrants had all traditionally flowed to and from Europe through Persia's long and highly porous western border with the Ottoman Empire, ideas such as Manichaeism, inventions that included chess and the stirrup, and commercial artefacts that ranged from ceramics, silk carpets and precious stones in ancient times to oil, tobacco and heroin in the contemporary age. Among these ideas was early Christianity, which was born in the Middle East and spread westwards through the influence of its early converts: at the Council of Nicea in 325 ad, where the words of the Creed were decided, there were more bishops from Persia and India than from Western Europe. Among the most influential migrants, Bernard Lewis has suggested, were the ancient Jews, who had struck up 'a long relationship of mutual exchange' with the Persians that long pre-dated Biblical times. This encounter 'between Iranian religion and the Jewish religion', he continues, was one 'of far-reaching significance' and means that 'we can discern unmistakable traces of Persian influence, both intellectual and material, on the development of post-exilic Jewry, and therefore also of Christendom, and a corresponding influence in the late Greco-Roman and Byzantine world, and therefore ultimately in Europe'.
The West's political influence on Iran has in earlier ages also become evident from the constitutionalism absorbed during spells at European universities by members of some elites, such as Malkum Khan, a chief protagonist for reform during Persia's Constitutional Revolution; Nasir al-Mulk, the Oxford-educated and liberal-minded prime minister of the same time; and, some years later, Mohammed Mossadeq, the nationalist premier who studied extensively in both Paris and Neuchatel in Switzerland. Similar intellectual currents also reached Persia on the printed page, in reformist journals that were smuggled into the country: in the 1890s, for example, Qanun, an influential publication that argued the case for the rule of law, was printed in London before being smuggled into Persia, while thirty years later, publications such as Kaveh, Iranshahr and Farangistan, preaching radical messages of socialism, secularism and scientific education, were also either published or edited in the West. Dissident writings and ideas also seeped through Persia's long borders with the states of Central Asia, including the ideas of Marx, Saint Simon and Comte, whose writings deeply impressed a Persian radical, Mirza Adamiyat, during his sojourn in Russia at the turn of the century. And by a curious irony, a term that had been imported into Persian by Western-educated intellectuals, for 'revolution' (Inqilab), was adopted by the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and given more nationalist and Islamist intonations.
Such intellectual influences help to account for the somewhat stronger foundations upon which the freedoms of contemporary Iran – or rather some semblance of such freedoms – are built. In contrast to most Gulf States, ordinary Iranians enjoy at least some freedom at the ballot box. 'President Khatami was elected,' declared Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on a Washington radio station in July 2003, 'not in an American kind of election but an election that essentially tapped into the desires of the people.' The Iranian people have a right to vote for their president, for the parties that represent them in the national parliament, the Majles, and for their representatives in the tiers of local government that run cities, towns and villages. In particular, the local elections of 28 February 2003 are widely reckoned the most liberal ever held in post-revolutionary Iran, since the candidates who stood for election were initially selected not by the Guardian Council that has usually shortlisted electoral candidates but by an Election Supervisory Body independent of the country's hard-line institutions and whose choices thereby better reflected the true wishes of opposition members and liberal dissidents.
Because unelected bodies and institutions – the Supreme Leader, the Guardian and Expediency Councils, the judiciary and the military – that are overwhelmingly conservative in orientation continue to hold enough constitutional power to block many of the moves made by the president and the Majles, these arrangements hardly conform to the vision of 'democracy' that the Bush administration has always conjured both as a justification for war against Saddam and as a goal of US foreign policy But it is none the less difficult to see why the Bush administration has hitherto singled out Iran's track record for condemnation when some of its own regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, continue to allow their own people far less democratic freedom. 'Iranian students might get beaten up when they go into the streets,' in the words of one former senior Western diplomat, 'but their counterparts in the Gulf States wouldn't even get as far as protesting in the first place.'
There are other liberties, too, that are denied to the people of other Gulf States but which Iranians enjoy, freedoms that help explain why in April 2002 the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted to remove Iran from its blacklist of countries. Despite the closure of numerous reformist journals and newspapers since the reformist president, Muhammed Khatami, was swept into power in 1997, Iran's press is still allowed more freedom of expression than its counterparts in some of these other states and its journalists 'can say more or less what we like about the elected government'.
Excerpted from Iran in Crisis? by Roger Howard. Copyright © 2004 Roger Howard. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Abbreviations and acronyms, vii,
PART I Iran and the USA, 5,
1 The American mind, 7,
2 Iran and international terror, 43,
3 The other domino effect, 68,
4 An Iranian bomb?, 89,
PART II Domestic crisis, 117,
5 Political tensions, 119,
6 Social and economic malaise, 145,
PART III Outcomes, 163,
7 Popular uprising, 165,
8 Dissidents, 190,
Select bibliography, 220,