Iran’s Secret Diplomacy


When George W. Bush named Iran as part of the “axis of evil” last month, he took pains to make clear he wasn’t talking about average Iranians or their reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, but about the right-wing Muslim clerics who dominate the judiciary and undercut efforts to establish a civil society. Iran “exports terror,” Bush said, “while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.”

But ironically, Bush now finds himself squashed between two byzantine factions in Iranian politics. Sources close to President Khatami say the same religious hard-liners singled out by Bush have been quietly ferreting about behind the scenes for years, meeting with members of Bush’s administration just as they met with those of Clinton.

Last month, Iranian UN ambassador Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, who was handpicked by the religious conservative leadership, met in Washington with State Department officials, according to a well-placed source in Iran. A spokesperson for the Near East section of the department said he knew of no such meeting, but that any talks held recently between U.S. and Iranian officials would have taken place at the UN and were aimed at forging cooperation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

A spokesperson for Hosseinian said he also thought no such meeting had happened, but the alleged January confab wouldn’t have been the ambassador’s first waltz with American leaders. A few months earlier, on October 17, Hosseinian had traveled to Washington for a meeting with several members of Congress, organized by Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter to map out plans for an exchange of parliamentarians. In addition to Specter, the gathering was attended by Capitol Hill pols Mike DeWine, Jim Leach, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Ney, and Paul Kanjorski.

Twelve days later, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, said, “Any official who talks with Americans is committing treason, and must be removed from office.” His remarks were intended to keep Khatami from meeting with the U.S. during a planned appearance at the UN, but in a country with no statute of limitations they could have applied to Nejad-Hosseinian as well.

And a few months earlier, in March, Ayatollah Khazali, perhaps the most prominent leader of Iran’s radical right and former member of the nation’s powerful Council of Experts, arrived in Washington to speak at the Islamic Center and to attend to his medical problems. President Khatami’s people say he, too, spoke with government officials. Khazali’s group is known as the Hojatyeh, and was so far out that Ayatollah Khomeini banned it in 1982. That didn’t stop Khazali, whose messianic cult believes Christians, Jews, and atheists are all doomed and that the end time is at hand but needs a bit of prodding from the Hojatyeh. So a war with the U.S. might be right up his alley.

Those close to Iran’s elected president have eyed the clerics’ U.S. overtures warily. Hosseinian had two meetings with members of the Clinton National Security Council in Washington in June and July 2000, according to the Foreign Ministry source. Iranian religious conservatives also sought a visit with Bush’s presidential campaign. It’s unclear whether they succeeded, but there was talk among the team of relaxing sanctions against Iran.

The political situation in Iran is complex, with power divided between the reformist Khatami and the conservative leaders. Religion is not the deciding factor, since both sides are religious. And both are anxious to deal with the U.S., albeit on quite separate terms.

Khatami is popular, having won reelection last year by a wide margin. But the hard-liners still wield great power. They control internal security police, courts, radio and TV, wealthy foundations, and the nation’s oil reserves. They dominate the Revolutionary Guard and limit Khatami’s authority. “It is not true that Khatami’s hand is completely tied,” said Shaul Bakhash, a former Iranian newspaper editor and currently a professor at George Mason University. “He was able to rescind the death ruling against Salman Rushdie and normalize ties with Persian Gulf nations and Europe. But on critical issues like talks with the U.S., the supreme leader has the final word.”

Despite Bush’s saber-rattling, the U.S has good reasons for drawing closer to Iran. While Pakistan was the incubator for the Taliban, Iran opposed Afghanistan’s religious fundamentalists from the start, and funneled aid to the Northern Alliance. Relations between the U.S. and Iran are formally nonexistent, although American oilmen badly want access. Most important, Iran offers a counterweight to Iraq, with which it spent the 1980s locked in combat in the greatest war since World War II. Before Bush’s axis-powers speech, U.S. relations seemed to be thawing slightly, with residents of Tehran gathering to show support for the victims of September 11.

It was this thawing of relations that especially irritated the right wing, since Khatami’s ascendancy accompanied their own decline in popularity due to corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement. Their time may be up, but they are constantly trying to find some foothold, some machination to stay in power. On the eve of his first election, they dispatched an emissary to Britain to offer a deal: If the British were to offer tacit support for their internal repression, then the clerics would open the economic spigots. Now, while Khatami gets the U.S. headlines, the conservative clerics are trying to cut a deal behind his back, whether it’s to exploit Iran’s oil or to protect their trade routes in southwestern Afghanistan.

Overnight, Bush’s speech gave the conservatives a shot in the arm. As angry Iranians took to the streets, the clerics promised to retaliate against any American strike by blowing up oil wells. Thus Bush has reinvigorated the very political group he supposedly opposes. Whether Khatami can reassert leadership, take charge of Iran’s foreign policy, and head off U.S. attacks is more and more in doubt.

Additional reporting: Gabrielle Jackson