IRAN: Under a cloud
Patrick Clawson

To no oneís surprise, Iranís recent parliamentary elections resulted in a conservative sweep; by banning most moderate candidates, the hard-liners effectively rigged the poll to prevent a serious contest.

The elections were profoundly depressing. Those reformers already in power declined to put up much of a fight to preserve their position, while the Iranian people were too disgusted to show much interest in their plight.

How things have changed.

After Khatamiís election in 1997 and the reformersí landslide victory in the 2000 parliamentary elections, Iran looked to be on an irreversible path toward reform; the only question was, at what pace?

Instead, however, Iranís revolutionary institutions steadily gained power while the formal government lost both power and credibility. The reformers, whose only power lay in their Ďcontrolí of government, are fading.

As US President George W. Bush put it in his much-criticized 2002 State of the Union address, Iranian politics is increasingly characterized by an ďunelected few [who] repress the Iranian peopleís hope for freedom.Ē

And when push came to shove, the reformers failed to confront the hard-liners, and so failed to provide a voice to their erstwhile supporters.

But as the conservatives consolidate their control over Iran, the Islamic Republic becomes not only less republican, but also less Islamic. That is, they are tightening their grip more out of a concern to retain power than ideological zeal.

Indeed, the hard-liners have been prepared to strike ideological compromises in warding off perceived threats to their power. The most important of these compromises has been with the Iranian people. Social restrictions Ė especially on dress and entertainment Ė have been loosened, taking much of the steam out of protests by young people and women.

No mass demonstrations have been held during the past month, and calls for boycotting the ballot were largely ignored outside Tehran.

The depressing conclusion is that Iran has come to resemble Syria: an anti-Western nation run by thugs who will do the minimum necessary to deflect external pressure while retaining a tight grip on their people, even as the country slips slowly backward economically and socially.

So while the West would prefer to deal with Iranís reformers, the formal government they oversee has no significant powers. Consider the October 2003 nuclear agreement reached with the British, French, and German foreign ministers, which was signed by Rohani, a hard-line official who did not allow Iranís foreign minister any say in the decision. In addition to laying bare the structure of power in Islamic Iran, this episode showed the hard-linersí pragmatism in putting power ahead of ideology.

The quandary for the West lies in the fact that the dictators running Iran may offer an attractive geopolitical concession over their nuclear program, but only in return for the West agreeing to work with them Ė which in practice means abandoning the cause of democratic reform.

Indeed, this is the grand bargain the US has made with regional dictators for years: (minimal) Middle Eastern cooperation on geostrategic issues, in return for America holding its peace on the subject of domestic reform. But by allowing Middle Eastern leaders to crack down on opposition groups, that bargain has directly fueled the forces of radicalism, channeling them into the anti-Americanism that resulted in the attacks of 9/11. In short, the Ďpragmaticí approach of geostrategic deal-making with dictators has been proved to be a failure.

But if US officials were once tempted to go down the same path with Iran, the recent acknowledgement that Iran had a second, more advanced uranium enrichment program has put an end to any such thoughts.

Iranís admission to the IAEA that it built advanced centrifuges on a military base would have been troubling under any circumstances. But the real significance of this development is that Iran acknowledged its actions only when confronted with solid evidence collected from other sources, including the Libyan and Pakistani descriptions of their nuclear programs. In other words, despite the high profile international agreement between Iranís top leaders and three European foreign ministers, and despite Tehranís promises to be fully forthcoming with the IAEA regarding its nuclear program, Iran continued to hide aspects of its nuclear program that had not yet been detected by international inspectors. The obvious concern is that Iran is hiding other nuclear activities, continuing its 18-year pattern of concealment of information that it is obliged to report to the IAEA.

Such concealment would be consistent with Tehranís approach to other international obligations (e.g., counter-terrorism): the regime reveals only what outsiders already know and then offers to come back into compliance with its international obligations only if rewarded.

There is little point in making a deal with a regime that breaks deals regularly and uses this deal-breaking as a bargaining chip to extract further concessions.

In any case, the US priority for 2004 is Iraq. There, the United States is having problems dealing with what is still, in effect, a war. Iran could cause serious problems in that arena if it so desired. And until Iraq is stabilized the US is not in a good position to make a major push on Iran. Washington should therefore urge the IAEA to report Iranís failures to comply with its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to the UN Security Council.

On the whole, Washington would prefer to delay dealing with Iran until a more opportune time. But until then, Washington must broaden and deepen the international consensus against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

To that end, it would be useful if Iranís hard-liners were firmly convinced that Iran would face military reaction (possibly preemptive, but certainly a sharply increased military presence at their borders) if they continue to develop nuclear weapons. Second, Russia should be induced not to send fuel for use in Iranís Bushehr reactor anytime soon. The provision of this fuel would greatly complicate the effort to curb Iranís nuclear ambitions. And in light of recent revelations that Iran has an 18-year record of lying to the IAEA Ė which the international intelligence community failed to spot Ė the question of whether Iran should be allowed to proceed with a facility such as Bushehr, which is large enough to facilitate the concealment of clandestine activities, must be asked. Third, Washington must reassure other regional states (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Turkey) that may decide to rethink their nuclear posture if Iran is in fact moving toward a situation of nuclear ambiguity.

But the most significant US move would be to create a stable, democratic Iraq, providing a powerful example to the tens of thousands of Iranians currently traveling to Iraq to visit the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. Moreover, if those cities once again become the center of Shia learning, the legitimacy of Iranís hard-liners would be seriously undermined, given that the vast majority of Iraqís leading Shia clerics reject Iranian-style direct clerical rule.

Patrick Clawson is deputy director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy