PARIS — Behind the Reagan Administration's opening to what it hoped would prove newly moderate elements in Iran lay the same old liberal optimism that brought down the Carter Administration. Reagan's people believe that inside the Iranian revolution there are reasonable, progressive men struggling to get out, prepared to make America their ally.
The White House insists that it has not been trading arms to Iran for hostages but exploring the diplomatic and political possibilities of what will happen when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dies. They say they have made contact with elements in Iran who might influence that country towards a more moderate future course. If these presidential negotiations, and the arms supplied Iran by Israel at American request, could also free hostages, so much the better. President Reagan has insisted to Congress and in his televised speech Thursday that nothing has changed in his policy. Nothing was done that contradicted the country's declared position on arms sales to Iran or hostage negotiations.
The aim is Iran's "return to modernism and civilized international relations," says William E. Colby, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and critic of the form, if not the objective, of what Reagan has been doing. Colby, though, also believes the internal affairs of Iran could be successfully manipulated by the United States, which should "actively encourage the appearance of a new Reza Shah, preferably out of the army rather than the clergy."
Put less obliquely, Colby wants a military coup. The Reza Shah, then Reza Khan, the late shah's father, seized power in a coup d'etat in 1921. Only later did this army officer arrange for his family's transformation into hereditary monarchs--not, as we know, a lasting success.
Reagan, his former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, his current National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and Colby are all reasonable men who believe that in the Middle East other reasonable men are irresistibly attracted to "modernism and civilized international relations." They do not acknowledge that the Iranian revolution is driven by the rejection of exactly that modernism--and that it is a profound movement, encompassing elites as well as the masses.
Another state may confront Iran with external obstacles to what the Iranian government would do. There are external pressures, penalties and incentives that could influence its conduct. But an attempt to affect its internal succession, or sponsor a military coup, is at this point futile, even fatuous. Only people devoid of even theoretical acquaintance with the historical course of revolutions and with the modern-day character of Asian nationalism and Islamic religious revival could think seriously of such things.
McFarlane's mission--its failure, a White House official is said to have told Congress, followed from "a miscalculation" on whom could be trusted in Iran--was one more case of the amateurism, historical ignorance and political irresponsibility that has increasingly marked U.S. foreign policy during the later 1970s and the 1980s, under both liberal and conservative presidencies.
There has been a failure of the contemporary American political class to come to grips with realities outside the United States. Skillful as the men and women now in Washington are in domestic political operations and image-making, their attempt to turn such skills to external affairs has repeatedly collided with forces beyond the ability of the United States to control or the manipulation of images to affect.
The result in policy has too often been demagogy, proclaiming one politically profitable line of action while practicing another. At worst it has been failure. Reagan's overall foreign policy record is one of failure. What has distinguished Reagan's presidency has been his extraordinary ability to present failure as success. More striking yet has been the public willingness to accept the retreat from Lebanon, the Grenada operation, the undeclared war in Central America, the Libya raid and the abandonment of serious negotiation on arms limits and political relations with the Soviet Union in favor of the woolly idealism of the Strategic Defense Initiative, as successes.
We have had three generations of U.S. foreign policy-makers since the 1940s. The first was the group mostly recruited to government by the New Deal and the war. These were the Dean Achesons, John J. McCloys, W. Averell Harrimans, Robert A. Lovetts--drawn from international law and banking--plus career diplomats, notably George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen, and soldiers, most notably George C. Marshall.
Nearly all could be called men of affairs--practical, liberally educated, with wide personal knowledge of international matters and a sense of public responsibility inspired by the Great War, the formative experience of their generation.