Ally of Evil

Is the U.S. suffocating reform in Iran?

Jehangir Pocha

Iranian police clash with laborers during a demonstration in Tehran, Iran, in May 2007. Demonstrators protested President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government's failure to improve working conditions.
The contentious relationship between the United States and Iran remains one of the longest-running soap operas of modern politics. The story swings from hatred to friendship, with broken promises, treacherous betrayals, blackmail, public antagonism and covert rapprochement.
In a new plot twist, some Iranian opposition leaders claim that Washington has cut a deal with Iran’s conservatives that would effectively trade democracy in Iran for regime change in Iraq.
“Despite sporadic verbal concern with the condition of human rights in Iran, the U.S. is protecting and providing clandestine support to the right-wing conservatives in Iran,” says Sayed Ali Asghar Gharavi, a member of the banned but tolerated Iran Freedom Movement (IFM), the country’s leading opposition party. “The U.S. government in no way favors the coming to power of the reformist groups in Iran and is secretly supporting the religious conservatives.”
Government insiders in Iran allege that the deal, first proffered by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, is simple: If the hard-liners quietly support the United States in Iraq, Washington will quietly support them. U.S. State Department officials declined to comment.
In the near term, such a bargain may appear rational to U.S. military planners. Iran is in a state of flux. Helping Iran’s hard-liners consolidate their power could prevent domestic instability from compromising U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the hard-liners also control Iran’s military, their acquiescence to U.S. presence in the region is essential.
In the longer term, such a deal could fatally debilitate Iran’s democracy movement. With U.S. support, Iran’s tottering conservatives could re-establish their control over the nation and squelch Iran’s fledgling opposition. If such a deal is proven—or even widely believed to exist—it could crush the growing amity many Iranians feel for the United States.
The widespread anger over U.S. support for the Shah, which for years inspired the regular burning of American flags in the streets, has waned. After two decades of economic stagnation and harsh social restrictions, many Iranians have come to see America, the Great Satan of yesterday, as the great hope of tomorrow.
Since the mid-’90s, as a new generation of Iranians has struggled for the freedoms and opportunities of an open society, they have looked to America for inspiration. As they have built their resistance against the same hard-liners that Washington opposed, there seemed to be an unspoken compact between the two.
On campuses, where a visceral hatred of America once defined student culture and precipitated the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy and the ensuing hostage crisis, the new admiration for America changed perceptions. “Everyone knows America is the best country in the world,” Zara Abddi, a university student, says unflinchingly. “It is best because it is free, and I want to be free, too.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a massive outpouring of empathy for America. Vast numbers of students gathered on Tehran’s streets to hold spontaneous candlelight vigils. Visitors flocked to the U.S. Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy to sign a book of condolences. On national TV, Iran’s national soccer team observed a moment of silence before beginning a game. “September 11 fostered solidarity between Iranians and America,” says Javad Ghatta, an English teacher and reformist in Esfahan. “It was a common bond coming from a sense of both having been violated by Islamic extremists.”
Iran’s three major political groups—the conservatives who run the country, the reformers trying to reshape it, and the pro-democracy parties and students—attempted to reach out to the United States. “There is a strongly held belief that the party or person that can develop a working relationship with the United States will ultimately rule Iran,” Ghatta says.
The conservatives, who control Iran’s secret police and military, cooperated fully with the United States in Afghanistan. Tehran pressured Afghan warlords to support the Karzai government and collaborated in tracking down al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Iran’s reformists, led by President Mohammad Khatami, tried to engage the United States by condemning terrorist groups worldwide and making gestures of goodwill. Last November, on the anniversary of the 1979 taking of the hostages at the U.S. Embassy, former student leader Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who is now a reformist, went on national TV to say the action had been “a mistake.”
In the months after September 11, student groups and pro-democracy activists stepped up their anti-government protests. Some even supported President Bush’s targeting of Iraq. They hoped that the presence of U.S. forces along Iran’s eastern border in Afghanistan and Pakistan would further squeeze Iran’s hard-liners and build regional momentum toward democracy.
Government hallways, college campuses and coffee shops reverberated with talk of a turnaround in U.S.-Iran ties. “People were waiting for the United States to make some gesture of reconciliation with Iran,” says Ghatta, who wishes Bush had used the opportunity to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran that have been severed since 1979.
Instead the president branded Iran as an “axis of evil” nation and increased the country’s isolation by denying visas to even non-political Iranians, including filmmakers and students, says Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran’s ex-foreign minister who is now the leader of the IFM.
Initially this response was seen in Iran as a U.S. rebuff. But in recent months, the Bush administration’s muted criticism of Iran’s hard-liners, its silence over the arbitrary arrests of several pro-democracy activists, and its increasing cooperation with Iran’s military in the war against al-Qaeda is leading many Iranians to accept Gharavi’s assertion that the United States is “secretly supporting Iran’s totalitarian government.”
Says one reformist MP who asked to remain anonymous, “The United States might like what we say, and what we want to do for our country, but it prefers what the hard-liners can do for them.” What the United States really wants, he says, is what only the hard-liners could supply: military cooperation and a reduction of direct support to the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Such murmurings are already creating a deep resentment among Iranians and invoking bitter memories in Iran of the 1953 coup, in which British and U.S. forces deposed the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and brought the hugely unpopular but pliant Shah to power. Mossadegh had incurred the West’s wrath by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. By deposing him, says Yazdi, who was a student activist at the time, the British and Americans “suffocated the development of democracy in Iran in its embryonic stage.”
The coup made Iranians acutely sensitive to the U.S. propensity for supporting right-wing dictators at the expense of local democracy movements, Yazdi says. This belief was also reinforced when the secular opposition in other Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia were demolished, with the connivance of the United States. “For more than a century, Iranians have relentlessly struggled for a democratic system,” Gharavi says. “This striving has always had its not-so-little price, and the aftermath of each rout has always revealed the influence of the United States and the United Kingdom in thwarting Iranian efforts for liberty.”
The feared scenario is that Iran’s hard-liners will ease the U.S. entry into Iraq, and then use the bogeyman of the “Great Satan” as an excuse to crack down on the opposition. IFM activists say that a crackdown has already begun. Iran’s hard-liners have arrested scores of people making even minor criticisms of their regime. Among them was Hashem Aghajari, a reformer close to President Khatami, who received a death sentence for saying that Muslims need not follow mullahs blindly, “like monkeys.” In an August speech titled “Islamic Protestantism,” Aghajari told students: “In all matters, especially in religion, your reason is a better tool of discernment than all the sayings of prophets and clerics.”
That the crackdown has come just as Khatami tabled two resolutions in parliament aimed at reducing the power of clerics in Iran’s government is not lost on Iranians. Many see it as a direct challenge to the reform movement. Massive demonstrations have rocked Tehran in protest since November. Demanding the release of Aghajari, students have held massive protests, blocking off major roads. Despite the arrest of student leaders, the passionate protests have spread to include disenchanted workers and average citizens.
But Iran’s hard-liners have remained stoic and unyielding. More protests have been banned and additional arrests ordered. The Bush administration’s silence in protesting these actions is further promoting the belief that Washington and Tehran are “dancing to some private tune,” says Azar Bharami, a poet and women’s rights lawyer in Tehran.
Not everyone agrees. Hameed Motafarian, a religious teacher in Qom, scoffs at this idea, dismissing the allegations against the government as political maneuvering. Motafarian says the IFM sees both Iran’s religious clerics and capitalist America as political antagonists. By arguing that both are in cahoots, Motafarian says, the IFM is trying to emphasize its distinctiveness and win new supporters to its “socialist” cause.
Yet secret agreements between the United States and Iran are nothing new. The Iran-Contra deal, where arms were exchanged for hostages during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, is only the best-known example.
Still, Yazdi says the United States “has consistently failed to understand the deep impact” of its suffocation of Iranian democracy. The revolution of 1979 was nothing but a delayed reaction to the coup of 1953, he argues. Having then struggled through two decades of internal turmoil to build the region’s largest grassroots democracy movement, Iranians are likely to react sharply to any U.S. attempt to further undermine them.
If the recent thaw in how Iranians perceive America is reversed, political reconciliation with Iran could be pushed back decades. The cost of losing Iran, just as it seemed so close to returning into the world system, would reverberate globally. As the only nation in the region that has overthrown its “American puppet” and established an Islamic state, Iran is the inspirational model of radical Islamic groups across the world. Resurgent anti-Americanism in Iran could fan a new upsurge in militant Islam across the region.
Standing under the elegant Si-o-Se bridge in Esfahan, surrounded by people singing sad Iranian folk songs, Ghatta worries that President Bush’s excessive zeal in prosecuting the war on Iraq is leading him to miscalculate on Iran. “It’s like a game of pool,” he says, his Western education still coloring his metaphors. “While pocketing the Iraq ball, Bush needs to make sure he is also positioning himself well with respect to the Iran ball. Or else things could go very wrong.”

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Jehangir Pocha is the Asia correspondent for In These Times.
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