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Widen the Focus and See the Big Picture in Iran

By Stanley A. Weiss
International Herald Tribune
February 11, 2000, Friday

WASHINGTON -- In advance of Iran's parliamentary elections next Friday, most Western analysts are under the illusion that who controls the legislature will determine whether Iran moves from clerical dictatorship to representative democracy. By focusing exclusively on an electoral sideshow, outsiders miss the main event.

The prevailing vision reduces Iran's domestic scene to a convenient plot of good versus evil, with the good guys called reformers and the bad guys called conservatives. Oversimplification in Washington has narrowed the dialogue with Iran to focus on the ''reformers'' alone, which helps explain why U.S. relations with Iran never seem to go anywhere. America has lost sight of the big picture in Iran.

Conservatives may be as open as reformers to improving ties with the West. But neither group is likely to have much effect, either on foreign relations or on its own society, as long as the ultimate political authority rests not with any popularly elected Parliament or president but with a ''supreme leader'' chosen by fellow clerics.

In other words, the Iranian political dynamic is not democratic in the sense that the term is understood in the West.

Nor is Iran's current constitutional structure merely the product of the whimsical fantasies of a few theocrats. Washington should not treat the notion of a head of state being a member of the clergy as an aberration. Separation of church and state does not have strong roots in most Islamic societies.

Washington should try altering its approach to promoting change in Iran. That means engaging Iranians across the political spectrum. Not all conservatives are opposed to relations with America, just as not every reformer wants to see a rapprochement. The reality is less cut and dry.

For example, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri recently called for the position of supreme leader to be popularly elected. This senior cleric was the designated successor of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who fathered the revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, until Ayatollah Khomeini shoved him aside.

And the current president, Mohammed Khatami, for all his populist style, has within his camp such figures as Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkali, a man notorious in Iran for sentencing thousands of people to death for violating Islamic doctrine.

The diversity of Iranian politics makes labels almost meaningless. Hard- line conservatives, traditional conservatives, independents, old leftists, new leftists, liberals and reformists abound. But what unites most of them is pragmatism, and the master of this political art is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, current chairman of the powerful Expediency Council and probable next speaker of Parliament. He is now running as an independent.

A popular story in Tehran points up his ability to be all things to all people. In 1988 he was riding with the president and the prime Minister when they came to a T junction in the road. The driver asked which way to turn. The president said ''right.'' The prime minister said ''left.'' Mr. Rafsanjani said, ''Signal left but go right.''

He recently suggested that Tehran and Washington would one day bridge their differences.

But in Iran, it is two steps forward, one step back. Until his conviction for heresy, Abdullah Nouri was a leading candidate to become speaker of Parliament. Mr. Nouri, a popular cleric who published a widely read newspaper, had openly challenged the idea of Islam as a monolithic ideology subject to interpretation by a select few. His assertion that the supreme leader is ''just another Iranian and not above the law'' is reminiscent of the 17th century movement in Britain that challenged the power of the king to override the laws of Parliament.

Increasing numbers of Iranians who supported the revolution are challenging the supreme leader's claim to be God's representative on earth and refusing to accept the notion that arbitrary arrests and executions are the will of their God. The frustrations of ordinary Iranians, especially women and young people, can only further democratic reforms if these are fostered constructively.

Rather than take sides in a largely meaningless election and tailor sanctions to the result, America should take a more practical approach. This means continuing to expand the sale of agricultural and other products as a step toward lifting all sanctions and normalizing relations.

The best way to advance reform in Iran is by offering the Islamic Republic a remarkably simple commodity that has been sorely lacking - respect.

The writer is founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, an organization of U.S. business leaders. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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