"Mizanan, ya na?" (Will they hit or not?) In Tehran these days, this question is the talk of the town. The "they" is seldom spelled out. Yet everyone knows that it refers to the United States.
The question is wreaking havoc on Iran's fragile economy by fomenting an atmosphere of uncertainty even before the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council start to bite. Many in Tehran expect the Security Council to decree even tougher sanctions in March when the ultimatum for the Islamic Republic to halt its uranium enrichment program will end.
|Ayatollah Ali Khamenei|
The Khomeinist leadership is divided over the reality of the threat, and over ways of dealing with it. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that the U.S. is in no position to do much damage, and counts on the new Democratic majority in Washington -- he calls them "the wise people" -- to restrain George W. Bush.
The bulk of the Khomeinist leadership, including the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, however, take the threat seriously and are preparing public opinion for a climb-down by the Islamic Republic. The American naval build-up in the Persian Gulf, the new U.S. offensive against Iran's agents and armed clients in Iraq, Tehran's failure to seize power in Beirut through its Hezbollah proxy, and plummeting oil prices are all cited by Ayatollah Khamenei's entourage as reasons why a climb-down might be necessary.
Sometime in the next few weeks, Iran is likely to offer a "compromise formula" under which it would suspend its enrichment program, as demanded by the Security Council, in exchange for a suspension of sanctions. This will be accompanied by noises from Tehran about readiness to help the U.S. in Iraq, plus possible concessions in Lebanon and over the Palestine-Israel issue.
The expected climb-down is sure to bring back the Baker-Hamilton "realists" with fresh calls for offering the mullahs a seat at the high table. It would also prompt the guilt-ridden "idealists," who blame the U.S. for whatever goes wrong in the world, to urge "Bush the warmonger" to engage the Islamic Republic in a constructive dialogue, whatever that might mean. The French and the Russians would applaud the mullahs and urge the Americans to be "reasonable."
So, what should the Bush administration do when, and if, the mullahs unveil their compromise formula? First is to see the mullahs' move as deja vu all over again. Each time the mullahs are in trouble they become the essence of sweet reasonableness. They deploy their traditional tactics of taqiyah (obfuscation), kitman (dissimulation) and ehtiat (caution) to confuse the "infidels" and divide their ranks. The Iranian leadership did this in the early days of the Khomeinist revolution in 1979 by persuading the clueless Jimmy Carter that the ayatollah was the only force capable of preventing Iran from falling into communist hands. In 1984 and '85, they seduced the Reagan administration with an offer of releasing the American hostages in Beirut in exchange for the secret U.S. arms deliveries Iran needed to stop the Iraqi advance. In 1987 they stopped their attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf after an American task force sunk the Revolutionary Guard's navy in a 10-hour battle.
In 1988, fear of an even bigger U.S. military attack persuaded Ayatollah Khomeini to "drink the cup of poison" by agreeing to end his eight-year war with Iraq. In 1998, the mullahs offered a "grand bargain" to the Clinton administration as a means of averting U.S. retaliation for the Iranian-sponsored killing of 19 American soldiers in an attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.
The second point to bear in mind is that a suspension of uranium enrichment will cost the Islamic Republic nothing. Iran does not have any nuclear power plants, and thus does not need enriched uranium anyway. Even if the country does not have secret parallel nuclear facilities, it could always resume weapons-making activities once it is no longer under pressure.
Successive U.S. administrations have assumed that the problem with the Khomeinist regime lies in its behavior, which they hoped to modify through traditional carrot-and-stick diplomacy. The problem with the regime, however, is its nature, its totalitarian ambitions and messianic claims. Being an enemy of the U.S., indeed of all democracies, is in its political DNA. A scorpion stings because it is programmed by nature to do so. A regime that is the enemy of its own people cannot be a friend of others.
The threat that Khomeinism poses to stability in the Middle East and, beyond it, to international peace, will not be removed until Iran once again becomes a normal nation-state with the interests and ambitions of normal nation-states.
For more than a quarter of a century, Iran has suffered from an affliction faced by most countries that experience revolution. The conflict between state and revolution makes the development and practice of moderate domestic and foreign policies difficult, if not impossible. Leading a revolution is like riding a bicycle: One keeps going for as long as one continues to pedal, regardless of the destination. To stop pedaling means to fall.
As a nation-state, Iran may be a rival and competitor for other nations. But it would not be an existential threat. As a revolution, however, Iran can, indeed must, be such a threat not only to its neighbors but also to a world that it regards as "the handiwork of Jews and Crusaders."
The Khomeinist revolution has not succeeded in destroying the plurimillennial idea of Iran as a nation-state. But each time the Khomeinist revolution found itself on the defensive, the Western powers, including the U.S., helped it restore its legitimacy and regain its breath. The same illusions that produced the détente, which arguably prolonged the life of the Soviet Union, have also helped the Khomeinist revolution survive long after its sell-by date.
Today, Iran is once again facing the schizophrenia imposed on it through the conflict between state and revolution. A majority of Iranians, including many in the ruling elite, wish Iran to re-emerge as a nation-state.
The U.S. has no interest in helping the Khomeinist revolution escape the consequences of its misdeeds. This does not mean that there should be no diplomatic contact with Tehran or that pressure should be exerted for the sake of it. Nor does it mean that military action, "to hit or not to hit," is the only question worth pondering with regard to the Islamic Republic.
No one should be duped by a tactical retreat in Tehran or a temporary modification of the regime's behavior. What is needed is a change in the nature of the regime. The chances of setting such change in motion have never been as good, and the current showdown should be used to communicate a clear message: As a nation-state, Iran can and will be a friend. As a revolution, it would always remain a foe.
Mr. Taheri is author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).