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Decisions, decisions
Iranian leaders have no grand strategy

September 28, 2001
The Iranian

Once again Iranian authorities are sending contradictory messages at a time of crisis. While some like President Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani appear mild mannered and complacent in their approaches, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts continue to issue uncompromising and fiery rhetorical speeches. What is the meaning of all this, and what can we learn from the history of the Islamic Republic? What can we expect?

No one should read too much into what is said publicly in Iran. Iranian leaders are not "statesmen" yet; rather, they maintain the posture and culture of radical Shi'ite clerics. They deliver unscripted speeches, and as old preachers, their emotions sometimes carry them away. The audience also plays a role in the level of excitement of the speakers. Therefore, one should not expect much precise thinking before they speak -- although they don't seem to have a monopoly over this; remember President Bush's "crusade" statement?

The past two decades has shown that the leaders of the Islamic Republic make decisions day by day, without following a predetermined, thought-out course of action. In a televised interview last year, when President Khatami was questioned about the economic planning model of his administration, he answered in a matter-of-fact manner that his cabinet follows no model, rather, they improvise continually.

In response to the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War, initiatives forwarded by former U.S. Secretary of State Albright, and the current crisis, Iranian authorities have always reverted to last-ditch efforts. By this I mean that they have delivered fiery speeches, made contradictory statements depending on their audience, and eventually made a decision only at the last moment -- if faced with critical situations. Otherwise, they have preferred to take the path of inaction, which has time and again been proven to be safe route.

The Constitution has put the President in charge of foreign policy, but it is always the Leader who has the last word in important matters -- and this is considered constitutional too! The Leader is constitutionally entitled to define "general policies", and any matter related to foreign affairs can be interpreted as such.

Moreover, Khatami seems to have accepted the position of second -- or even third fiddler -- in Iranian politics. Unlike Rafsanjani, who has challenged the Leader from time to time, Khatami seems to be gradually retreating especially in his second presidential term. This trend, to the detriment of the presidency, has reemphasized the role and status of the Leader.

Foreign ministers are always hand picked by the Leader. Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who was replaced by Kamal Kharrazi, now serves as Khamenei's advisor in foreign affairs. Kharrazi himself is close to the Leader's office (beyt e rahbar) and was not replaced in the recent reshuffling of the cabinet.

The erosion of Iranian influence in the region, and all the losses suffered in foreign policy, are also due to the lack of a competent team of career diplomats and regional experts. The traditional elite in the ministry left Iran after the revolution. Those who remained were never given any decision-making positions. Most officials in the Foreign Ministry were granted their positions through nepotism, an issue that has recently been hotly debated in Iran

A number of current diplomats are merely former members of the Islamic Association of Students in various countries, who were instrumental in occupying Iranian embassies during the revolution in protest against the monarchy. The Foreign Ministry also served for a while as a dumping ground for some nefarious characters such as senior intelligence officer, Saeed Emami. However, it must be added that the ministry is being gradually staffed with professionally-trained personnel.

The government has given up the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution. However, two major pillars of its foreign policy, support for Palestine and opposition to the U.S., have damned its maneuvering from day one. By adopting a policy, already discarded by a good number of Arab countries, Iran has not reaped any political gains in the international community. Ironically, being a non-Arab, Shi'ite nation, Iran's political or religious world view is generally not well-received by many Arabs.

Some analysts have argued that the Islamic Republic's anti-American and pro-Palestine policy is aimed at gaining domestic legitimacy. However, it seems that some Iranian authorities are genuinely anti- American, such as Khamenei himself. Anti-Israeli emotions also have precedence in pre-revolutionary Iran.

Besides, most Iranian clerics have strong family ties to the Arab world. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's parents moved from Najaf in Iraq to Khomein in Iran, and one of Khamenei's grandparents migrated to Najaf. The current Judiciary Chief, the Foreign Ministry's Spokesperson, and the former chief of the Islamic Propagation Organization are Iraqi Iranians.

Iran is not positioned to benefit from the present crisis, as in previous ones. There is a tremendous overlap of geopolitical interests between Iran and the U.S.; however, Iran has decided to ignore it. Terms such as "compromise" (saazesh) are taboo in contemporary Iranian political culture.

Iran cannot abandon its previous political positions overnight. Otherwise, it would have been the opportunity of the century for her to collaborate with the U.S., which would have helped dismantle the sanctions, boost the economy, and improve Iran's position as a regional power. Last but not least, Iran would benefit from dethroning the diabolical Taliban regime, ridding Afghanistan of women haters, drug traffickers, and callous terrorists.

As the last caveat, one should consider the fact that in the recent crisis, if Iran has no plan of action, neither does the U.S.! So there is hope! It is likely that the two countries will meet at some point, at the cross road of indecisions, and the whole game plan would change instantly.

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