The controversy over US-Iranian relations has implications as drastic for the government in Tehran as for that in Washington. The disputed character of the opening to Washington forced Majlis Speaker Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to go public about the talks in early November. Even Ayatollah Khomeini himself has come under attack from Islamic radicals after his explicit support for talks with the US. Khomeini, although using the title "imam" or religious leader, has never claimed to be infallible, as the 12 imams of Shi&‘i Islam are supposed to be. But when a congress of radicals in December proclaimed that the imam was “not infallible,” this was designed to challenge Khomeini’s overall authority within the revolutionary regime.
By present indications, the policy pursued by Khomeini and Rafsanjani will remain that of the Tehran government. Some of the more outspoken radicals, such as Sayyid Mehdi Hashemi who used to run the section of the Islamic Guards responsible for the export of revolution, have been imprisoned and their policies denounced. Khomeini himself has instructed dissenting deputies in parliament who tried to question the negotiations with US envoys to be silent.
The dispute over foreign policy forms part of a wider and long-running conflict within the Iranian regime about the direction of the revolution. All indications over the past year have been that the faction represented by Rafsanjani, backed by much of the military and endorsed (for the time being at least) by Khomeini, can maintain the upper hand. This faction, roughly characterized as “moderate” within the overall spectrum of the Islamic revolutionary movement, has to distance itself from a more conservative clerical grouping that opposes the direct involvement of the mullahs in politics. This “quietist” approach may well be dominant within the Iranian clergy as a whole; but by dint of its very refusal to become engaged in politics, it has less overt presence and influence than that of the more politically outspoken position espoused by Khomeini and his followers. At the same time, the “moderate” grouping has clashed with the faction that favors a continued militant “export” of the revolution to other parts of the Islamic world.
The apparent consolidation of power by this “moderate” faction in no way betokens an end of the policies pursued by Khomeini since coming to power in 1979. But, as in other revolutions, the post-revolutionary leadership has found itself constrained domestically and internationally by forces that compel it to select its goals more carefully. There are indications that within the country the revolution has to a considerable extent run out of steam, that its leaders and followers are not sure where the revolution is now going. The Khomeini regime faces no internal threat to its power. The various opponents, including the Kurds in the western mountains and the underground urban guerrillas of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, are weaker than ever. But the Islamic regime has little to show for its monopoly of power: unemployment runs into several millions, the urban population has continued to swell without adequate housing being provided, there has been no significant increase in literacy from the pre-revolutionary level of around 40 percent, and the non-oil sectors of the economy remain stagnant. Meanwhile, corruption and overt income inequalities become greater.
This internal stasis of the Islamic revolution is compounded by the difficulties Iran has faced in its foreign policy. There have not been any successes in other Islamic countries to match the overthrow of the shah in 1979. Iran has proudly proclaimed its policy of “neither East nor West” and sought to rally a wider constituency of Third World opinion behind it, as far afield as Zimbabwe and Nicaragua. But in practice its policy of encouraging Islamic revolution in other states is now confined to three: Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.
Ironically, it is Iran’s continued commitment to upheaval in all three of these that has brought it into a strategic dialogue with the US. In Lebanon, the US would like to use Iranian influence to get US hostages released. On Iraq, both sides want to use the other for their own purposes. On Afghanistan, Tehran and Washington share a hostility to the USSR that probably does a lot more to explain the recent course of events than either side will yet admit.
Iraq probably plays the largest part in Iran’s overall strategy. Despite its inability to score a breakthrough in the war, Iran still insists on the elimination of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. This Iranian insistence constitutes the major obstacle to a negotiated end of the war. The Iranians would clearly prefer to reach this goal by direct military conquest, which they have been trying to achieve ever since they pushed the Iraqi invaders back in the summer of 1982.
In this situation of an overall strategic stalemate on the front, Iran has developed a new, complementary grand strategy. In essence this strategy consists of maintaining military pressure on the Iraqis and keeping them on a war footing while seeking to undermine the regime from behind. In this combined military-diplomatic strategy, the approaches to the US, as to other Western governments, the USSR and to some Arab states, are designed to achieve what outright military assault cannot — namely to shatter the regime in Baghdad and create a situation in which Iran can impose its will.
The speeches and actions of the Iranian leadership over the past weeks suggest that this new grand strategy has at least four main components. The war with Iraq will continue, and talk of an imminent “grand offensive” to end the war by the Persian New Year (March 21) serves, if nothing else, to disorient and unnerve the Iraqis. Reports of severe morale problems in Iraq, both in the army and among the population, no doubt encourage the Iranians to believe that sustaining a war of nerves and attrition can advance their goals.
Secondly, the Iranians can undertake some limited military offensives, sudden one-week attacks that will advance their military position and affect Iraqi morale. Examples of such limited offensives in 1986 were the February attack in the Faw peninsula, the July recapture of Mehran, and the October attack on Kirkuk. The January 1987 offensive follows this pattern.
Thirdly, the Iranians are trying to weaken the Iraqi position in the Arab world by lessening their criticism of states such as Saudi Arabia, looking for common ground on issues of shared interest such as OPEC pricing, and seeking to enlist Arab support for a change of regime in Baghdad. The fall of Saudi oil minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani in August may have been in part a result of Iranian maneuver and suggests how far their diplomatic reach within the Arab world has stretched.
The fourth component of this comprehensive strategy is improved relations with the West and the USSR. These are not so much alternatives as complementary ways of breaking Iran’s diplomatic isolation and undermining Baghdad. Whatever intelligence and diplomatic aid the US has given to Iraq, and however useful French Mirage jets have been, the main source of arms remains the Soviet Union. The US retains dominant influence within the pro-Iraqi Arab camp (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), and a shift in US policy to favor change in Baghdad would be of immense help to Iran.
There is, consequently, a deeper logic to Iranian interest in improved relations with the US. It corresponds not to any overall mellowing of the Islamic Revolution, but to Tehran’s focus on priorities in the confrontation with Iraq. Rafsanjani and others have made clear that they do not at this stage envisage the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Washington, but this need not prevent both sides from conducting business on a wide range of issues. The Middle East is a region where states frequently decline to have formal relations, but talk, trade and collaborate quite effectively nonetheless: Saudi Arabia and the USSR, Israel and China, and (until 1984) Iraq and the US are examples of this form of understanding.
Major difficulties beset this Iranian strategy. Current impressions aside, there is no guarantee that the Rafsanjani line will prevail in the future, before or after the death of Khomeini. Secondly, the Iranians are under considerable pressure from Iraq in the economic domain, as Iraq has been able severely to cut back Iran’s oil exports and thus its overall financial position. Most importantly of all, there is no certainty that the US or anyone else will cooperate with Iran’s plan to end the war by promoting a fundamental change of government in Baghdad. The Soviet Union has responded to revelations of US arms shipments to Tehran by aligning itself more closely to Baghdad. In January 1987, the end of the Iran-Iraq war is not in sight.