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From Militant Exporter of Islam to Would-Be Gulf Peacemaker : Iran: After a decade of self-imposed isolation, Tehran re-enters the world community to facilitate the country's economic reconstruction.

February 10, 1991|R. K. Ramazani | R. K. Ramazani is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, specializing in the Middle East

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — By giving sanctuary to Iraqi planes and offering to mediate an end to the Persian Gulf War, Iran has surprised the world. Yet these moves reflect significant, though subtle, changes in revolutionary Iran's foreign policy. In the long run, their effects on the Middle East may be as consequential as the changes in Soviet foreign policy have been for Eastern Europe.

The potential to wield such influence is not simply a function of Iran's large population and strong industrial base. Nor is it primarily due to Iran being home to the world's second richest natural-gas reserves, as well as important oil reserves. Rather, revolutionary Iran is now breaking free of 10 years of self-imposed isolation and anti-Western confrontation, directly extending its conciliatory hand from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the banks of the Potomac. Why?

Within Iran's leadership, pragmatists, led by President Hashemi Rafsanjani, now control foreign policy. Despite his harsh rhetoric, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was actually the author, when he was president, of Iran's "open-door foreign policy," first hinted as early as 1984. Even within the Majlis, or Parliament, where the most anti-Western, anti-American deputies hold influential seats, there are more than enough representatives to support such important moves as the resumption of diplomatic relations with Britain. More important, the radical leaders find little support among the Iranian population, as evidenced by the poor turnout at anti-U.S. rallies they call.

Tehran's highest priority today is economic reconstruction. Toward that end, the Rafsanjani administration stresses economic growth and productivity, the return of skilled Iranians from abroad and privatization of the economy. Iran's first five-year plan had to await the end of its nearly eight-year war with Iraq and the presidency of Rafsanjani, but its implementation requires massive amounts of domestic and foreign capital, the latter estimated at $27 billion. Hence, the need for Iran to re-enter the world economy through cooperation with other nations.

Iran is competing with Soviet and East European demands for Western capital. The emergence of the European Community as a world economic giant also compels Iran to behave. While the end of the Cold War has diminished the traditional strategic and political usefulness of the West for Iran as a counterweight to the East, it has made both the East and the West attractive sources of aid for Iran's economic reconstruction.

Iran's fear that a prolonged Gulf War will interfere with its economic plans provides added impetus for its shift of emphasis in foreign policy. The reasons are numerous:

--Iran does not want to be sucked into another unwanted war.

--It does not wish to see the multinational forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein weaken, because that may leave his war-making machine still too strong relative to Iran's.

--Tehran would like to see Hussein cut down to size but not destroyed, for that may result in the imposition of a U.S. or Saudi puppet regime in Baghdad.

--Iran opposes the territorial disintegration of Iraq, because either Turkey or Syria may be tempted to appropriate a chunk of Iraqi land.

--It is deeply concerned about the continued military presence of foreign, particularly U.S., forces in the Persian Gulf after the war.

--Tehran suspects that Hussein will renege on the peace terms he accepted from Iran in August, 1990. Rafsanjani now complains that a recent Iraqi map shows both Kuwait and the Shatt al-Arab waterway between the two countries as Iraqi territory.

--The pragmatic leaders do not wish to see the war play into the hands of the pro-Iraqi and anti-American factions within Iran, which have been increasingly marginalized in the political decision-making process.

The dramatic transformation of Iranian foreign policy--from militant confrontational to conciliatory cooperative--has turned the doctrine of the export of Islam on its head. This doctrine was the prime contributor to Iran's isolation.

The first acid test of this change occurred in January, 1990. With thousands of Soviet Azerbaijanis rioting near the Soviet-Iranian border and the Soviet military cracking down, radical Iranians clamored for the export of revolution into Soviet Azerbaijan, where their fellow Shia Muslim brothers were defying authorities. Yet the Iranian leaders confined themselves to "deep regrets" and counseled "restraint." While expressing concern about the well-being of all Muslims, they emphasized that Iran was "firmly committed to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries." Iran's national interest in maintaining budding cooperative relations with the Soviet Union received a higher priority than the export of Islam.

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