By Ehsan Ahari
NORFOLK, VA.--Iran is again "a puzzlement." President Bush has made Tehran part of the infamous "axis of evil," complicating puzzle for a variety of reasons.
In Tehran, the power struggle continues between the hardliners led by the Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei and the moderates supporting President Sayed Mohammad Khatami. The moderates have had impressive gains at the polls, but the hardliners still reign supreme and show little regard for the "voice of the people." Most Iranians want a moderate Islamic democracy and country fully reintegrated into the world economic and political community, but President Khatami remains unable to translate his election victories of 1997 and 2002 into policies that improve the standard of living or human rights. Nonetheless, for many international experts, he remains the best hope that Iran soon will become a moderate Islamic state.
Recent events add to the puzzlement for Washington. For one thing, Iran condemned U.S. military actions against Afghanistan, but offered to help in the search and rescue of American pilots downed on its territory due to combat damage over Afghanistan. Tehran also sealed its borders to prevent Al Qaida fighters from escaping to Iran. And it engaged in the Bonn negotiating process in December 2001, actively supporting a stable post-Taliban government. Taken together, this might have provided a basis for progress in bilateral relations.
But then came intelligence reports that Iranian officials had at least one meeting with Osama bin Ladin to explore possible cooperation, plus word that Iran was sheltering Al Qaida fighters. Tehran vehemently denied both reports. And, on January 3, 2002, Israel captured the Karine cargo ship carrying weapons allegedly destined for Yasser Arafats Palestinian Liberation Authority. Omar Akawi, the ships captain, claimed he picked up the arms shipment off Irans coast in the Persian Gulf. The PLA denied any knowledge or involvement in the affair, and so did Iran.
Worst of all, from a U.S. perspective, is the news that Iran is continuing its escalated pace of development on the Shehab 3 ballistic missiles with Russian help. The Shehab 3 is derived from North Koreas No Dong missile, and has a 1300-1500 km. range. In 1998, the Rumsfeld Commission said Iran has a highly active missile development program and was a major threat to the United States.
Russia has also been helping Iran acquire nuclear and missile technologyallegedly for "peaceful use." But U.S. officials point out that India used the same phrase after it exploded its "nuclear device" in 1974. Since 1999, India, along with Pakistan, is a declared nuclear-weapon state.
Irans continuing efforts to perfect Shehab 3 provide grist for the hawks in the Bush administration who are seeking "targets" for the next phase of the U.S. war against terrorism and states that sponsor it. Iran is not currently regarded as a target anytime soon, but lobbyists inside the beltway concerned for the security of Israel point to the Shehab 3 as part of the case they are making against Iran. At the very least, this may escalate the strident tone of U.S. criticism of Iran.
Sharp U.S. criticism of the Iranian government will weaken Khatami and his supporters while strengthening the pro-Khamenei groups who say Washington has never accepted the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and remains ready and willing to pick a fight.
Such issues aside, rapprochement between the United States and Iran is unlikely because of how each views its role in the Persian Gulf region. Throughout most of the post-war period until 1979 and the fall of the shah, Iran was just as determined as now to be a major regional player. But the Shahs aspirations complemented Washingtons own resolve to remain a dominant power in that region, using Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia as the "three-legged stool of stability" in the region.
The real source for dispute involves nuclear weapons. Iran has not abandoned its long-standing desire to be a regional power, and its current leaders think that requires nuclear weapons and missiles. Under the Ayatollahs, Iran is high on the list of Americas enemies. Its nuclear aspirations are viewed in Washington as a threat to regional and global security and to the United States itself. Thus, Washington will take every step short of war to delay or indefinitely postpone the emergence of a nuclear Iran.
About the only realistic basis for rapprochement from the U.S. viewpoint is for Iran to foreswear the acquisition of missile and nuclear technologiesin Irans view a highly unrealistic pre-condition to improved relations. As long as this issue remains unresolvedand there is no reason to think either side will change perspectives or goalsWashington and Tehran will remain at loggerheads. Add to all this the reports that the Bush administration is considering a permanent presence in Central Asia, and we have an abundance of issues and potential sources for confrontation to plague Iran-U.S. relations for many years to come.
Ehsan Ahari is a Norfolk-based strategic analyst who writes frequently on issues in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.