Ally of Evil
Is the U.S. suffocating reform
by Jehangir Pocha
In These Times magazine,
The contentious relationship between the
United States and Iran remains one of the longest-running soap
operas of modem 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
"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
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
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
In the months after September 11, student
groups and prodemocracy 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 turn-around in U.S.-lran
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 nonpolitical 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
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 govemment 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
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."