Foreign Service Journal - June 2013 - page 16

JUNE 2013
Iranian policymakers must accept that it makes no sense to
seek a nuclear deterrent that raises international alarm and,
in the final analysis, will not deter.
through two well-placed merchants
from the Tehran bazaar who trav-
eled to Paris in late 1978 and returned
deeply disappointed; then through the
American embassy in Paris; and finally
through my own visit to Khomeini’s
right-hand man, Mohammed Beheshti,
after the ayatollah’s return to Iran
in January 1979. But all these efforts
came to naught, for Khomeini was just
not interested in talking to the “Great
Satan.” (And Beheshti was assassinated
soon after.)
Then came Iran’s illegal seizure of
the American embassy and imprison-
ment of its diplomats for 14 months. In
response to that provocation, the most
the U.S. attempted was a limited (and
unsuccessful) rescue operation in April
1980; the hostages were freed in January
1981 pursuant to the Algiers Accords,
when the U.S. made it clear that it did
not intend to overthrow the Khomeini
American and Iranian resentments
certainly linger to this day from that
drama, as well as from some other
unfortunate events since then (e.g.,
America’s erroneous shooting down of a
civilian Iranian airliner during the 1980-
1988 Iraq-Iran War, and Iran’s apparent
involvement in some outrages against
Americans in Lebanon and Europe). But
neither Ronald Reagan nor any of his
successors has ever tried to overthrow
Iran’s regime, despite the heavy pres-
ence of U.S. military forces in the region
since the early 1990s. If anything, they
have done Tehran the favor of removing
threats from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and
Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Indeed, in the 1980s, “Irangate” in-
volved Tehran’s leaders in covert trans-
actions for American arms with the
Reagan administration and Israel, who
wanted to procure Iran’s assistance
for the release of American hostages
in Lebanon (dealings which were only
partly effective).
Despite some limited congression-
al support (and possibly covert U.S.
financial assistance) for the die-hard,
pro-shah opposition that has persisted
ever since the 1979 revolution, it is only
after the extent of Iran’s nuclear fuel
enrichment program came to light that
American policy began to harden.
The threat of an Iranian nuclear
weapon, coupled with the regime’s calls
for the destruction of Israel, its public
support for Hezbollah and (Sunni)
Hamas, and warnings of imaginary plot-
ting by Americans and “Zionists,” has
mobilized the United States, Israel and
others to wield progressively tougher
sanctions and other pressures against
Although these measures seem to
be hurting more and more of Iran’s
people, those in power are often able
to evade them. Some Iran-watchers
in academia and think-tanks believe
this situation, taken together with the
serious demonstrations in Tehran fol-
lowing the last national elections, may
be kindling fears in the government of
a rising internal opposition (even if the
demonstrations were brutally put down
by the Pasdaran and Basij militias that
protect the regime). This trend could
prove significant, and disturbing to
older hardliners, if a younger genera-
tion without memories of the revolution
becomes less enamoured of govern-
ment under the mullahs and their
paramilitary militias.
I sometimes ride in a London taxi
driven by a man named Ali. Now in his
40s, Ali left Iran when he was 23, and he
returns to visit his family every few years.
He told me they were suffering economi-
cally. But he is not interested in politics,
though he hears politics discussed all
around him when in Iran. For him, the
supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
is a religious leader, and Islam teaches
that its leaders do not lie to their follow-
ers. The ayatollah says that Iran’s nuclear
fuel is for peaceful purposes, and for Ali,
that settles the matter.
Ali was interested when I explained
that the fuel was being enriched
beyond the level needed for peaceful
uses. If the ayatollah turned out to be
lying, Ali replied after some thought, he
would not know what to believe in any
There are probably a lot of people
like Ali in Iran today—people who
formed the backbone of “Imam” Kho-
meini’s revolution, and on whom the
regime counts for legitimacy. This, too,
is something that Tehran’s leaders no
doubt keep in mind.
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