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Actions Speak Louder Than Words

By Ilan Berman
Jerusalem Post
August 9, 2002

Change is brewing in the Islamic Republic. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in what amounts to a groundswell of opposition to Tehran's ruling regime. In unprecedented fashion, they have been joined by senior clerics and regime stalwarts like the Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri - until recently the Imam of Isfahan - who have publicly condemned the country's growing corruption and deepening decline.

But perhaps the most significant event, and the one that could decisively influence the struggle for Iran's soul, has taken place in Washington. Responding to reports of the rising opposition in Iran, US President George W. Bush issued a July 12th statement calling for "freedoms, human rights, and opportunities" and for meaningful change brought about by "political and economic reform." Though largely unnoticed at home, the comments were nothing short of a bombshell in Iran. There, opponents of the regime correctly grasped that the president's message constituted a sea-change in US policy - a shift toward support for real democracy in the Islamic Republic. Such enthusiasm is hardly unwarranted. For years, American policy has been driven by misconceptions about the true nature of the regime in Tehran. Washington's confusion can be traced back to 1997, when the sweeping electoral victory of "reformist" cleric Mohammed Khatami in the country's presidential elections took Foggy Bottom by surprise. After years of diplomatic silence, Washington insiders were overjoyed at what they saw as a more moderate face to Iranian politics. This excitement was only reinforced by Khatami's very public call the following year for a "dialogue of civilizations" between Iran and the Western world.

BUT ACTIONS speak louder than words. For all his moderate rhetoric, Khatami has not strayed ideologically from the regime's animating principles. And internally, despite Washington's fervent hopes, Iran is rapidly headed away from liberalization. Faltering reforms, expanding censorship and mounting repression have all come to characterize Khatami's rule. Far from abandoning the Islamic Revolution, Tehran's "moderate" seems to have made preserving it his top priority.

Despite its internal stagnation, Iran is also charting an increasingly aggressive - and ominous - foreign policy course. Over the last several years, the Islamic Republic has commenced a massive, sustained national rearmament, one that has placed it on the brink of becoming the Persian Gulf's dominant power.

As Admiral Thomas Wilson, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, revealed to Congress this March, Iran's newly revived navy is now capable of controlling, albeit briefly, the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Such a capability gives Tehran tremendous political leverage, not only over its weaker Gulf neighbors, but, increasingly, over the United States and Europe as well.

Iran is also hard at work on ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. After years of lackluster sanctions, it has succeeded in amassing significant biological and chemical weapons capabilities, and - with Russia's help - is now quickly closing in on its goal of becoming a nuclear power.

Tehran is similarly developing a formidable ballistic missile capability, one that has already made it capable of targeting American allies Israel and Turkey. Both publicly and privately, Iran's rulers justify these weapons as the tools by which to achieve military parity with their principal nemesis - the United States.

And Tehran is looking farther afield. In the Middle East, Iran's ayatollahs have spared no effort to tighten ties with regional neighbors, inking a landmark security cooperation pact with Saudi Arabia last year and emerging as a major supplier to the Syrian and Libyan ballistic missile programs. And in Central Asia, Tehran's leaders have been steadily working toward a regional coalition designed to diminish American and European influence, with notable success. Iran has also managed to forge a formidable strategic partnership with Russia, one that is a source of mounting concern in Washington.

The results are nothing short of disastrous. After six years under Khatami, the Iranian people are further than ever from true democracy. And, spurred by the rising ambitions of its rulers, Tehran is on a collision course with American policy.

The lessons are instructive. Fostering true change in Iran requires shifting attention away from Khatami's corrupt, autocratic regime toward the true glimmers of Iranian democracy - those found on the Iranian street. The Bush administration has just taken the first step in that direction.

Related Categories: Democracy & Governance; Iran

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