Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Are U.S. and Iran Condemned to Repeat Past Mistakes?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Are U.S. and Iran Condemned to Repeat Past Mistakes?

Article excerpt

Are U.S. and Iran Condemned to Repeat Past Mistakes?

Henry Precht was the State Department's head of Iranian affairs during the 1979 Revolution and hostage crisis.

"Governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." --Hegel

More than two decades after the fall of Shah Mohammed Rezi Pahlavi, Tehran's clerics and Washington's politicians--both certainly aware of past mistakes in Iran--continue to pursue blindly the same unbalanced policies that defeated the shah and his friends in the U.S.

The clerics understood the reasons for the success of their revolution against the shah--although its quick success surprised many at the time. They know it was led by university youth who were joined by workers and the middle classes. Iranians suffered from a sagging economy and an autocratic regime that had lost touch with them and appeared to encourage corruption and foreign dominance.

The mullahs saw how the shah dithered, sometimes ordering the "iron fist" that left hundreds dead in the street, other times promising future "liberalization" that no one believed. Desperate to preserve his dynasty, he was schizophrenic--unable to decide firmly on a policy of either force or favor and pulled in opposite directions by advisers from both extremes.

In one of history's unending ironies, Iran's clerical regime now suffers from the same split personality. Both the conservative leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the reforming president, Mohammad Khatami, have as their supreme object the preservation of the Islamic Republic. Both are part of the clerical system; each fears the other's friends will bring it to ruin. The idea that Khamenei and Khatami have opposing goals is inaccurate. They differ only in how best to make Islamic Iran secure and stable--i.e., how to direct Khatami's resounding electoral victory toward that shared goal.

Khamenei would bottle up radical dissent, while Khatami would open channels of communications. Both get nervous when students demonstrate, because both know that the cure for youth is a revived economy generating jobs. Khatami better appreciates that the rule of law and foreign investment are essential to jump start the economy.

Khatami's next term will be a test of whether the leader will restrain the "iron fists" of his conservative friends and whether the president can persuade his radical supporters to be patient with his gradualist approach. …

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