Enemy of My Enemy?

While Bush ?liberates? Iraq, he may be aiding oppression in Iran

| May / June 2003

IRAN MAY BE a member in good standing of George W. Bush?s ?axis of evil,? but it?s no secret that Washington wants Tehran?s help with its mission in neighboring Iraq. And, of course, Iran has been Saddam?s enemy from the get-go?unlike the United States, who turned on its erstwhile ally only after Iraq?s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The bloody Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980?88 brought grief to nearly every Iranian family. Iran?s majority Shiite Muslims also share religious history with Iraq?s oppressed Shiites, who, although a majority, are kept down by Saddam?s Sunni Muslim regime.

So there was a certain logic earlier this year when Washington and Tehran appeared to cozy up slightly to one another. The Washington Post reported that at a secret meeting between American and Iranian officials, the United States asked Tehran to refrain from intervening in a U.S.-led war. The March 2003 issue of the London-based online newsletter Iran Focus (www.menas.co.uk/ir_current.htm) points out that although Iranian officials denied that any such deal had been made, there were signs of rapprochement: Iran agreed to assist in search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots, and the country has been playing host to Iraqi opposition leaders; meanwhile, Bush, in his State of the Union speech, reined in his rhetoric on Iran slightly, criticizing its attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction but implying that he viewed the country in a different light from its ?evil axis? cohorts, Iraq and North Korea.

Iran, of course, has internal troubles of its own, chiefly an ongoing struggle between reform-minded forces (President Mohammad Khatami and many members of parliament) and hard-liners in the judiciary and the military. And many reformers are concerned that cooperation between Tehran and Washington ultimately hurts their cause. The progressive newsweekly In These Times (Feb. 17, 2003) quotes officials of the banned-but-tolerated Iran Freedom Movement (IFM) and other opposition figures expressing concern that Washington secretly favors the hard-line mullahs.

In These Times quotes the IFM?s Sayed Ali Asghar Gharavi: ?Despite sporadic verbal concern with the condition of human rights in Iran, the U.S. is protecting and providing clandestine support to the right-wing conservatives in Iran.? Although its sources don?t provide a ?smoking gun? to prove the point, In These Times notes that hard-liners in control of Iran?s secret police and military worked harmoniously with Washington during the war in Afghanistan, pressuring warlords to support the U.S.-backed Karzai government and helping in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And Washington has been stonily silent on recent jailings of pro-democracy activists. Tehran-Washington exchanges, however, have again grown acerbic over Iranian efforts to develop nuclear energy.

Whatever the most current status of its relationship with Iran?s leadership, the Bush administration?s actions have alienated reformists who sought closer ties with America. ?In the immediate aftermath of 9/11,? writes In These Times, ?there was a massive outpouring of sympathy for America. Vast numbers of students gathered on Tehran?s streets to hold spontaneous candlelight vigils.? The article quotes reformist leader Javad Ghatta?s remarkable claim that ordinary Iranians identified with America from a common feeling of ?both having been violated by Islamic extremists.? Former student leader Ebrahim Asgharzadeh even claimed on national television that the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the subsequent hostage-taking, had been a ?mistake.? Yet after Bush?s ?axis of evil? speech in 2001, Washington began denying visas even to nonpolitical Iranians like filmmakers and students. It was a painful rebuff at a moment when Iran?s most liberal elements thought they had a chance to connect with America, bypass the mullahs, and build a viable reform movement.

The reformists? frustrations mounted as they suffered a crushing setback in municipal elections in early March, losing all 15 seats of the Tehran city council to right-wingers in a contest in which, as Agence France-Presse reported, a mere 12 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. (They took similar hits elsewhere in the country, where turnout averaged only 39 percent overall. Experts cited the seemingly endless and fruitless tug-of-war between reformists and conservatives as a demoralizing factor, particularly for reform-minded urban voters.) ?This defeat,? reformist Ali Shakourirad tells the Guardian (March 3, 2003), ?has made our path longer and more difficult.? And Uncle Sam?s war isn?t making it a bit shorter or easier.