As we approach the one-year anniversary of Mohammad Katami's election as President of Iran, it is appropriate to assess how much Iran has changed over the past year, and how U.S. policy should be shaped to encourage democracy and freedom in Iran. While President Khatami has spoken quite differently than his predecessor, Iran's actions both domestically and internationally, have not materially changed.
Iran still supports international terrorism. Iran continues to deny its people basic freedoms and human rights. Iran continues to treat its women like cattle.
There is chaos and conflict throughout the government. One thing is clear--President Khatami may have--may have--good intentions, but his good intentions have not yet resulted in a change in Iran's behavior internationally or internally.
Yet, our State Department continues to grope, hope and search for moderates in the Iranian regime. Our State Department continues to pursue a flawed policy of appeasement. When will the State Department learn that the moderates in the regime they are so desperately searching for, don't exist!
It's time for the State Department to recognize and support those Iranians inside and outside Iran who are struggling on behalf of a democratic and free Iran--including the Iranian Resistance.
The State Department's refusal to recognize the Resistance, and their labeling the Resistance as a terrorist organization is a travesty! Such a policy of appeasement and weakness plays right into the hands of the terrorist strongmen ruling Iran.
Let me repeat: there are no moderates in the Iranian government. Goodwill gestures from the U.S. will be perceived by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness. Such gestures will achieve little, and will only embolden the Iranian mullahs to continue their non-stop campaign of terror and repression.
Contrary to the hopes of the Clinton Administration, Khatami's election last May has not resulted in any changes in Iran's domestic or foreign policies. Iran still poses a grave threat to U.S. security and world peace. Iran's ongoing support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah continues to threaten the Oslo Accords and other initiatives to establish a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Khatami's election has not halted or diminished Iran's efforts to expand its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including the development of ballistic missiles that could threaten Israel, Western Europe and U.S. troops stationed overseas. Iran also continues its covert efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Instead of trying to appease the Iran regime, the Clinton Administration should adopt tough policies that make it clear that the U.S. will not, in any shape or form, condone the outlaw behavior of the mullahs. Such a policy should include a real trade embargo, an all-out diplomatic offensive to get our allies to abandon their appeasement policies and join the U.S. in a total embargo of the Iranian regime, and open and full support for those Iranians dedicated to the principles of democracy, religious freedom and equality--including the National Council of Resistance.
The NCR has made remarkable and dramatic strides forward in recent years. It has brought together Iranians from all walks of life in a unified effort to bring democracy, freedom and human rights to Iran. Like many groups struggling against a repressive and cold-blooded regime, the NCR has evolved over the years. It has undergone a number of dramatic changes.
Let there be no illusions about how seriously the Iranian regime takes the threat to their rule posed by the NCR. All over the world, members of the Resistance have been assassinated by the regime. If, as the regime claims, the NCR does not have any support inside Iran, why does the regime continue to go to such great lengths to assassinate Resistance leaders? Why does the regime go to such great lengths to discredit and undermine the Resistance? It is because the Iranian Resistance has real and deep support--both inside Iran and among those Iranians living in exile.
Instead of employing a gross and outrageous double standard, the U.S. government should officially recognize and support the Iranian Resistance and other groups struggling for freedom in Iran. History shows that the worst way to deal with a dictatorship is through appeasement. Just ask Neville Chamberlain.
For a quarter of a century from the early 1950's when the CIA restored him to his throne until the late 1970's our policy was one of unconditional support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi. Along with Turkey and Israel, Iran became one of the `pillars of our defense' in the Middle East. Our diplomats, our secret service and indeed our presidents were so beguiled by the Shah that they were blind to unmistakable signs that his people has turned against him. President Carter's New Year's eve 1978 toast to his country as `an island of stability' in a sea of chaos has made the history books. Much worse, the first cable from the Embassy suggesting that his regime just might be in serious trouble was sent to Washington in October, 1978. About the same time the CIA reported that Iran was `not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary stage.'
The Shah fled the country three months later and after a brutal internal struggle, secular opponents of the monarchy were killed or driven out of the country and a theocracy was established. It opposed the West, it opposed all liberal though and it characterized the United States which had been so closely associated with the Shah as the font of all evil, as the embodiment of the Great Satan himself.
One year ago Iran had its first relatively free presidential election. Only four candidates out of 238 aspirants were approved by the Council of Guardians, which itself had been chosen by Ayatollah Ali Kamenei, the supreme religious leader. But there was a real choice. The government's favorite, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, was a dour conservative of the Khomeini model; there were two non-entities and the fourth was Mohammad Khatami, an obscure cleric who had served as Minister of Islamic Guidance in the 1980's.
To the world's surprise and the consternation of the ruling mullahs, Khatami won 70 percent of the votes--not so much for any reputation for moderation but simply because he was most certainly not the government's favorite. He was installed as President and he survives. Some American policy-makers and American businessmen have read much into his implied promises of reform and change. They even argue, in face of strong evidence to the contrary, that internal reforms have already been adopted or that the are about to be so. While some of these Americans are, no doubt, sincere, others who argue for a softening of American sanctions on Iran may have allowed their judgment to be colored by the prospects of lucrative contracts for new oil and gas pipelines form the former Soviet Union through Iran to Turkey or to the Persian Gulf.
The State Department is clearly divided and confused. In an admitted effort to curry favor with the mullahs at no apparent cost to the United States, one branch of the State Department branded as a `terrorist organization' the Majahedin Khalq, the largest and best organized of the
Iranian opposition movements and the prime target of official Iranian terrorism at home and abroad. History repeated itself; during the Iran-Contra affaire the mullahs insisted on the same condemnation of the Mujahedin and the State Department complied. The mullahs welcomed the announcement as a triumph of their regime as they did 15 years earlier but, again exactly as in the mid-1980's made no changes in internal or external policies. Not much later another branch of the State Department ranked Iran as the `most active state sponsor of terrorism.'
But hasn't there been some evidence of change? Well, in the last several years a few restrictions on social life have gradually been relaxed; the Revolutionary Guard is less fervently revolutionary and can now usually be bribed not to break into private homes where `immoral activities' might be suspected. Visitors to Tehran--but no place else--notice that the all-encompassing chedors prescribed for women are not quite as concealing as they had been; some have even reported seeing wisps of feminine hair slipping out from the head covering. The state-run press is free to criticize certain actions of government officials, mostly those of rival factions. As American team of wrestlers was allowed into the country where it was received with wild popular enthusiasm. And Khatami spoke of `opening up informal contacts' with the United States.
But nothing more. The basic reforms and changes in theocratic rule which most Iranians want have not been made. Any one suspected of questioning the religious basis of the ruling theocracy is arrested, tortured and murdered. In the year of Khatami's presidency tens of thousands of `enemies of the people' usually accused of `drug use', `adultery' or general `corruption' have been arrested and often tortured. According to official figures, 199 have been executed; Iranians believe the true figure is much higher. Moderate religious leaders, including the highly respected Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who have questioned the actions of the ruling mullahs, are imprisoned or kept under house arrest.
Opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace talks is as strong as ever but the tone has changed to triumphalism now that `the peace talks have clearly failed'. Iran continues to give financial and military support to the Hizbullah and Hamas and to welcome their leaders to Tehran.
The death threat against Salman Rushdie has not been lifted; indeed, the reward for his murder has been increased. Critics of the regime continue to be assassinated abroad. In the year of the Khatami presidency 24 have been killed, a sharp increase compared to the previous year.
Iran, whose natural gas reserves are the second largest in the world, could enjoy exceedingly cheap electricity. Yet electricity remains in short supply and the regime continues the fiction that the nuclear reactions under construction are exclusively for production of domestic electricity. It imports missile technology from China, North Korea and Pakistan, and has recently tested missiles with a range of 1400 kilometers.
The `opening to America' which Khatami seemed to favor was dismissed contemptuously by Ayatollah Kamenei. Khatami then quickly explained that he had been misinterpreted. The United States remains the `great Satan' and the anniversary of the capture of the `Nest of Spies', the American Embassy, is still celebrated.
The failure to proceed with a rapprochement with the United States can not be ascribed to Khatami who, for all we know, may well be a closet moderate, a modernizer who would really like to make life easier for his countrymen. He simply does not have the ability--even assuming the will--to make significant changes. His title of `President' implies authority when he has little; he is outranked and frequently overruled by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Council of Expediency and by the Supreme Guide himself, the Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Iranian people revolted against the Shah not to turn the clock back to the Middle Ages but because they were sickened by the corruption of his court and his government, by the lack freedom of expression and by the excesses of SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. Ayatollah Khomeini promised them a `government of God on earth' but he and his successor have given them a government whose corruption exceeds that of the Shah and whose human rights abuses are an order of magnitude worse. In the 20 years of the rule of mullahs, 120,000 Iranians have been sentenced to death after quasi-legal proceedings--some 40 times the number executed during the entire reign of the late Shah.
The election a year ago was important. Although it was not so much the victory of Khatami as it was the humiliating defeat of Neteq Nouri, the Ayatollah's favorite, the Iranian people convincingly demonstrated its desire for real change, real liberalization and an end to corruption and oppression. Some, perhaps many Iranians hoped that Khatami would be the instrument to achieve these goals but he has done nothing. And now, after a year, all illusions about the new President have evaporated; the mass of Iranians who want radical reform must look elsewhere. And they do. In almost daily demonstrations in Tehran and in all provincial capitals the mullahs' favorite old chant `Death to the Israel and America' has given way to youthful shouts of `Death to Despotism'.
The leader of the Iranian Resistance, Massoud Rajavi, may well be right when he said recently `The government of the mullahs is entering its final stage; the time to prepare for its overthrow has arrived.'
My enduring nightmare is that one of our major foreign policy blunders in the Middle East is about to be repeated. The United States supported the Shah long after it was clear to every objective observer that almost all Iranians had turned against him. It would be ironic, it would be tragic if we were to open relations with the Iranian theocracy just as the Iranian people have concluded it must go.