Enemy of My Enemy?

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.

Jon Spayde is a senior editor of Utne.

In These Times is a biweekly journal of progressive news and
opinion. Subscriptions: $36.95/yr. (26 issues) from Box 1912, Mt.
Morris, IL 61054.

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