U.S. can aid Iran's reform, cautiously


IRAN IS in the midst of a bitter struggle between pro-democracy reformers and anti-Western hard-liners. What can the United States expect and how should it respond? Paradoxically, the answers are, expect little change soon on the issues of most concern, and do little so as not to be counterproductive.

The reformers won both the February and May rounds of the parliamentary election hands down. But the hard-liners still control many levers of power in Iran's checks-and-balances system of government.

Most important, supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei is a strong supporter of the hard-line cause. He has the power to overturn any law, and he alone appoints the six Islamic jurists in the Council of Guardians, which must approve every law. Moreover, hard-line vigilantes have been used effectively to intimidate or kill pro-reformers. As they proved in the past two weeks by shutting down all 16 pro-reform newspapers and arresting prominent journalists (with vigilantes shooting one), the hard-liners are ready, willing and able to go on the offensive.

Will reformers or hard-liners win?

The optimistic scenario is that, over the next few years, the hard-liners will retreat slowly, content to retire from public life with the fortunes they have stolen through corruption. After all, the hard-liners know they have lost the support of the great majority of the clerics, who think religion is suffering from its close association with the unpopular government. And the hard-liners cannot be sure that those who hold the guns would actually carry out orders for a crackdown.

The overwhelming majority of the rank and file in the army and the police support reform. During riots around Tehran University last summer, special elite units had to be called in to crack student heads because the hard-liners could not be sure how the ordinary police would react.

What happens next?

The new parliament meets later this month. The reformers probably have the two-thirds majority needed for a quorum; if not, the hard-liners can, by staying away, prevent the parliament from doing any business. The reformers have a full agenda they want to enact.

First and foremost is easing the chafing social restrictions and fixing chronic economic problems. The reformers also want to clean up Iran's disorganized mess of a government: the country has dozens of quasi-official revolutionary institutions that pay little attention to the central government. Critical government departments, like the military, are only loosely controlled by the president and the parliament.

With so many difficult domestic issues to tackle, it seems unlikely that the reformers will make foreign policy their priority. It is not the issue their voters care most about, it is not the issue on which their coalition is united and it is not an issue the president and parliament can do much about (Khamenei is commander in chief and sets the lines of foreign policy).

But it is an issue about which the reformers' hard-line opponents care intensely. So do not expect much change soon on the issues of most concern to the U.S. government, like terrorism and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

If the reformers do gain full control of the government, then at some point they will turn to issues of lower priority for them, like foreign policy. At that point -- probably several years off -- there is good reason to be optimistic that Iran will dramatically scale back its support for terrorist violence that undermines the Middle East peace process.

Although the reformers are no great allies of the United States, their victory is in U.S. interests, if for no other reason than that the hard-liners have defined themselves by bitter opposition to the United States.

It behooves the United States to do what it can to help the reformers, and the most important step Washington can take is to stay away from a death hug: too close an embrace would make the reform cause look as if it was made in the U.S.A. At the same time, the United States needs to reach out to the broad majority of Iranians to show that U.S. hostility is to the hard-liners rather than to Iran.

Patrick Clawson is director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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