Clash of Cultures: Iranian Moderates vs. Hard-Liners; American Official vs. Academic Iran Specialists

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Clash of Cultures: Iranian Moderates vs. Hard-liners; American Official vs. Academic Iran Specialists

Washington was recently the scene of two conferences on Iran. The first, on the U.S. Congress and Iran, featured ex-State Department and congressional staffers. No one giving a paper had spent extended time in the country.

The second session took stock of the 20th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. It was populated by academics, mostly IranianAmericans, who regularly return there. Not only do they know Persian, they speak academic jargon -- even more impenetrable. Balancing each session was a principal speaker from the other side -- an IranianAmerican academic concluded for the staffers while a State Department officer opened for the academics.

The two diagnoses of Iran's condition were cultures apart. Staffers were faithful to Washington's perspective: accusatory, pessimistic, insistent that Iran move toward U.S. standards, little interested in the internal dynamics of Iranian politics. Iran, for all its bitter factionalism, was always discussed in the collective singular. "Iran did this, Iran supports that." No nuances or distinctions. The superb cohesion and discipline that staffers attributed to Iranians are perhaps matched only by the Islamic regime's propaganda about itself.

The academics focused on the outlook for President Mohammad Khatami, with whom they found little fault. Basically hopeful, most seemed convinced Iran's march toward greater democracy was irresistible. Potholes, to be sure. Hard-line religious groups could never regain full power, although their strength should never be underestimated.

The chief challenge for Khatami, academics feared, was economic. Low oil prices constrained him from liberalizing the statedominated economy and dealing with the urgent demands of his supporters, e.g., a million new jobs each year. Khatami also faces the power of foundations that have corruptly exploited assets they took from shah-era enterprises. Iran badly needs investment from expatriates or foreign firms: Neither is coming as long as the economy is unable to modernize and the political future remains in doubt. Academics also were troubled by weak management, especially by Khatami's economic team.

The staffers virtually ignored Iran's economic distress. Consequently, no one asked how a regime struggling to survive and heavily dependent on scarce resources for popular support could invest its limited income in building a military nuclear capability. Nor was there any inquiry into the threats Iran faces and how the nation should best respond to those dangers. Would it make sense to develop nuclear weapons when those facilities would be vulnerable -- as Iraq was -- to a pre-emptive Israeli or U.S. strike?

Neither academics nor staffers discussed Iranian support for terrorism in any detail. A professor asserted the last Iranian assassination abroad was in 1992 (the killing of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant). …