'Operation Iranian Freedom'? Unlikely

Article published on May 5, 2003
community published
Article published on May 5, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The possibility that military action, based on the Iraqi model, will be repeated appears remote. But that does not mean that the Ayatollahs can sleep easy in their beds.

In one of those ironies that history seems to enjoy spreading in its complicated journey, the Iranian revolution could be exported to neighbouring Iraq at the very time of its greatest decline; a decline begun de facto immediately after the victory in 1979, that continued with the holy war against the Iraqi invader in the 1980s, and carried on relentlessly throughout the whole of the last decade; a decline that is economic, international (the Islamic Republic has never succeeded in presenting itself as an actor equal to the task) and above all ideological. The ayatollahs, brought to power thanks to one of the greatest popular thrusts that the 20th century has known, appear even further removed from the feelings and needs of the people.

'Hezbollah? Humanitarian'

Since the Revolution, the Iranian population has grown out of all proportion, from 33 million to almost 66 million today. The economic and social fabric of the country cannot deny their annoyance, especially as this is an extremely young population: two thirds of Iranians today have no memory of the dark days of the Shah. Their childhood has instead been characterised by restrictions and poverty caused by a decade of war against Iraq. They simply ask of their leadership that it faces up to and resolves the country's problems.

To understand whether Iran will shortly become a new Iraq, we must start from this point. In Iran there is deep-rooted popular opposition to the position of the Islamic Republic. In 1997 this opposition came together in the election of Mohammed Khatami, the 'reformer', as President. I put the word in inverted commas because today the majority of these people, who six years ago brought him to power, are disappointed with his work. The reforms, judged to be necessary, came in dribs and drabs, thanks to the 'wilãyat al-faqîh' system that gave the Supreme Guide, who governed in the name of the 'hidden Imam', the power to block all the laws approved by Parliament. Khatami was swallowed up in a battle with the more reactionary ayatollahs, who control the Guardians Council, and the promised reformist action has not been very incisive. Result: you tend not to see a great difference between him and the other Iranian leaders. The demand for change by the population, that in 1997 flowed towards his party, is today 'motherless'.

In 1997 Clinton's United States had watched Khatami's election with interest, which in turn opened a sort of 'critical dialogue' with the Islamic Republic. In fact, they fell into line with the European position, whose aim was (and is) to encourage every internal reformist position and not to put into progress any policy that could weaken it vis-à-vis religious power. However, the opening taken on faith has not been followed, in American eyes, by significant changes: Iran continues to consider Hezbollah as an 'ideological and humanitarian movement' (Khatami's words) and not as a terrorist organisation (both the State Department and the EU's view); the assistance that Iran reserves for Hezbollah has been one of the biggest obstacles in the path of the Middle East Process. Above all, Washington's opening does not seem to have stopped the desire of Iranians to furnish themselves with atomic weapons. On all these salient points of foreign policy, the 'reformers' and the 'reactionaries' have spoken with one voice. In consequence, in July 2002 President Bush, who had already warned the Islamic Republic by placing it within the 'axis of evil', declared that co-operation with the 'reformers' had ended and co-operation 'with the Iranian people' would begin.

The EU in critical dialogue

Will this new co-operation be confirmed by the overthrow by force of the Teheran regime? The question is spreading with a sense of dread among the members of the Iranian leadership, as it is in Europe, after the rapid victory in Iraq.

During the conflict against Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran maintained a low profile. In contrast to Syria, it has not promised the influx of men and arms and has moderated - within the limits of its 20-year rhetoric against the Great Satan - its verbal opposition to the USA. Here is the reason why, after the victory in Baghdad, the American leaders turned with particular vehemence towards Damascus. In Teheran, the importance of not making an enemy of Washington was better understood and, in addition, because Washington - as it is understood in the Middle East - does what it says and announces what it is going to do (the famous Bush quote: 'I mean what I say and I say what I mean'). The neo-conservatives have always declared that they want a 'change' in Teheran (as in Damascus) without making explicit reference to the use of armed force like in Iraq. And then there is the EU; and, inside the EU, Great Britain. If there was no shared position on Iraq, and even less a common policy, among the 15 members, for Iran there is. It is the policy of 'critical dialogue' based on the utilisation of energy resources in which Iran is rich (and that Washington has decided not to consider as funds for control of the Islamic Republic) and in the conviction that change is possible from within thanks to the action of the reformers. In the first months of 2003, while the 15 member states were divided on Iraq, the European Commission began negotiations for a trade treaty. The continuation of these negotiations, according to the formula of 'critical dialogue', is dependent on an improvement over issues such as human rights and nuclear testing. A beginning, in any case, indicates that all 15 members think it better to continue the dialogue and - in the words of the Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten - 'not to isolate Iran'. Among these countries were Great Britain, Spain and Italy who supported Washington's position on Iraq. Towards Teheran, therefore, the EU seems to speak with one voice. I believe that Tony Blair, who has already denied the existence of any plan to attack Syria, intends to make this unity of use in relations with Washington.

All these elements should prevent Iran soon becoming a new Iraq. Given Teheran's 20 years of experience, it would be well to avoid Iraq transforming itself into a new Iran.