The lobby for a U.S. opening towards Iran remains strong among Middle East experts and foreign policy analysts. The lobby's central theses are twofold. First, its members have an exaggerated sense of Iran's economic and geostrategic importance at a time when the Islamic Republic is in serious difficulty at home, with massive foreign debts, declining oil income, and a populace profoundly disenchanted with its leaders. Secondly, they claim that the U.S. government must take the next step towards improving bilateral ties, even though Washington has repeatedly said it would be glad to meet with Iranian officials, in secret if necessary, while Tehran refuses all contact and continues to use vitriolic language when addressing American officials.
The serious financial problems, as well as the combination of violent rhetoric against its rich but weak neighbors, raises concerns about the danger posed by Tehran. That is the central topic of two companion volumes growing out of a recent Carnegie Endowment project. Geoffrey Kemp and Shahram Chubin provide informative reviews of Iran's recent foreign and security policies and the dangers they may pose for the region and for the United States. Both books, while short, are packed with information, from which the authors draw sober judgements.
Kemp begins with his weakest section, on the roots of American-Iranian enminty. His chapter subheads revealingly include one titled "Iran's grievances toward America," but not one about "America's grievances toward Iran." Still, U.S. leaders will not soon forget that the Islamic Republic treated two U.S. presidents (Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) so shabbily that it sullied their place in history. The 1980-81 embassy takeover and the 1985-86 arms-for-hostages debacle will continue to poison U.S.-lranian relations; it will make Americans reluctant to take risks in an opening to Iran. If either side owes an apology to the other, it is Tehran for its systematic lying.
Kemp moves on to a short but useful review of domestic influences on Iranian foreign policy and a comprehensive examination of Tehran's relations with each of its neighbors. He carefully evaluates the danger Iran poses to them and concludes that the United States's greatest concern should be, in order of priority, nuclear weapons, Iranian undermining of the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iranian support for terrorism, and human rights. He recommends a U.S. policy that concentrates on getting Iran to change its behavior on these specific points, and suggests two mechanisms: forging a Western consensus to pressure Iran, and offering Tehran a strategic dialogue on issues that interest it (such as better access to world financial markets).
Forever Enemies? concludes with thirty pages of absolutely splendid appendices, which provide thumbnail sketches that pack in everything a U.S foreign policy analyst needs to know about Iran's human rights record, U.S. operational policy towards Iran, the Rushdie affair, and Iran's geographical position vis-à-vis Central Asia.
Chubin traces Iran's national security decision making process, its security perspectives, the lessons about military affairs it has drawn from both of the recent Persian Gulf wars, its arms policies and programs, and its impact on regional and international security. He then focuses on Tehran's conventional weapons programs, arguing that it tries to buy whatever is available out of a strong fear that its suppliers are politically unreliable and it could be cut off at any time. As to capabilities, he concludes, "Iran at present is no more than a nuisance militarily"; despite its ambitions, Tehran lacks the resources to develop a conventional military that could challenge regional stability. But he warns it could become a more serious threat in any one of three situations that could develop over the next decade: destabilization of the present Saudi governnent; a major rift between China and the West (and a corresponding alliance between China and Iran); or an anti-Western Russia assertive in the "near abroad" (the non-Russian portions of the former Soviet Union) working with Iran as a regional partner.
Chubin makes a dubious claim that "the success of the revolution and the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran will be determined by its economic performance." As the name of the republic implies, Islam, not Mannon, is the key to the revolution. Certainly popular discontent is magnified by Iran's miserable economic situation, in which income per person is no more than two-thirds the prerevolution level (itself an increase from 1989, when per capita income bottomed out at about half the 1978 level). But the revolution can survive hard times.
Rather, a crisis of legitimacy among its religious leadership is currently shaking the very foundations of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini's central political idea was that religious and political leadership had to be united through "the rule of the jurisprudent" (velayat-e faqih), a concept that has never sat well with many of the senior clergy. Since Khomeini's death, the leadership has found it increasingly difficult to maintain his ideal, for no individual has won simultaneous acceptance as the political leader (rahbar) and religious inspirer (marja-e taqlid).
Khomeini's successor as spiritual leader, `Ali Hoseyni Khamene'i, has utterly failed in his attempts to gain acceptance as the religious inspirer, a failure that has weakened his moral leadership in political affairs. Meanwhile, many mullahs are moving to put more distance between themselves and the goverment, thereby showing the faithful that religion is not just another government ministry and that the payments due them as religious leaders are not just another type of taxation.
In short, Iran is moving away from a Khomeini-style union of religion and politics towards what has been more the norm among Islamic societies, namely, a government respectful towards Islam and (more or less) ready to enforce such Islamic social practices as marriage law and the observance of the Ramadan fast. Not surprisingly, such a government can less and less call upon the passions of the believers. In an important sense, the Islamic Republic is fading away--a process that should be encouraged by those who support separation of mosque and state. In his review of the alternatives for U.S. policy towards Iran, Kemp would have done well to note that American policy appears to be outlasting the Islamic Revolution. There is good reason to think that the fires of revolution can be contained until they burn themselves out.
Looking to the future, relations between the Washington and Tehran are likely to be influenced less by ideology and more by great power Realpolitik. Unfortunately, Kemp and Chubin spend little time analyzing the differences in U.S. and Iranian interests in this realm. Indeed, the great missing element in these two books is that one factor that guarantees that the United States must remain concerned about events in the Persian Gulf: oil. If the world's great oil reserves were found in the South Pacific rather than the Middle East, Islamic revolutions would strike the United States as an oddity, not as a strategic challenge. Because the United States is the world's largest oil importer, and because Iran is desperately dependent on high oil prices, the two countries have an inevitable clash of interests (a clash that does not exist with other Persian Gulf producers: unlike Iran, they have large oil reserves relative to their population, which allows them to maximize revenue through increasing output at a low price). The Iranian sense of being by right the great power in a Gulf that Tehran sees as truly Persian exacerbates this clash; Washington, on the other hand, is determined that no one state dominate the Gulf's oil resources. This economic confrontation should be at the center of any analysis of U.S.-Iranian relations, not simply an afterthought.
By underplaying the importance of oil, Kemp and Chubin understate the difficulties in developing good Iranian-American relations: Iran is such a difficult problem for U.S. policy because it combines a geo-economic threat with an ideological challenge.