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Is There a Saddam Hussein Lurking Behind Tehran's Moderate Face? : Iran: Rafsanjani understands the need to "clean up" his country's image to get on with business. But he also wants weapons of mass destruction.

April 26, 1992|Howard R. Teicher | Howard R. Teicher, a staff member of the National Security Council, directing Middle East affairs, from 1982-87, is author of "Twin Pillars to Desert Storm," to be published this year by William Morrow

WASHINGTON — Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani's victory in Iran's parliamentary elections, coupled with the Iranian campaign to turn a gentler face to the world, may indicate that the Iranian revolution has entered a more pragmatic stage. But before Washington concludes that the time is ripe for improved relations, it should recall that Rafsanjani's fundamental goals remain unaltered.

They are to preserve and nurture the revolution, to restore Iran's military strength and economic vitality and to expand Iranian influence in the Islamic world and Southwest Asia. Toward these ends, Rafsanjani is systematically pursuing political, military and economic strategies that seem more "rational" than the approach of his predecessors even as they preserve a measure of anti-Western rhetoric and action.

Since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death and Rafsanjani's ascendancy, pragmatic elements within Iran have weakened radical Islamic forces intent on maintaining the revolution's most militant social and economic features. The president's popularity, with the public and the mullahs, has grown as a result of his shrewd maneuvering and ruthless tactics against adversaries within the Majlis and government bureaucracy.

The government frequently uses coercion and terror to discourage dissent. Opponents of the regime, like the People's Moujahedeen, and critics, like former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, are attacked or assassinated. Human-rights abuses and religious intolerance also endure, as illustrated by the recent execution of a leader of the Bahai faith.

Rafsanjani's capitalist economics are key to his political success. With his family background of pistachio farming and commerce, Rafsanjani understands the structural imperative of financial stability. Thus reforms undertaken in 1990, in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, succeeded in reducing Iran's budget deficits, in stabilizing its currency and in increasing confidence in its investment climate to attract foreign capital. International trade and overseas borrowing are growing rapidly, local commerce is flourishing, the economy is growing and people are making money.

It may surprise many Americans to learn that, notwithstanding the dismal state of political relations between Tehran and Washington, the United States exported $500 million worth of goods to Iran in 1991. Despite their ideological disdain, most Iranians have no "allergies" to buying Japanese, European and U.S. consumer and industrial goods.

During the last two years, Rafsanjani has repeatedly encouraged wealthy Iranians to "come home" without fear of political reprisal or financial expropriation. He needs their capital, technology and business connections to rebuild Iran's infrastructure and to resume economic modernization. But, though many are tempted, few are heeding his call.

Changes in Iran's foreign policy are less clear-cut. Most noteworthy to the West is the apparent reduction of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, though some find Iran's fingerprints on the March 17 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and Tehran maintains its military, financial and political ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Rafsanjani understands the need to "clean up" Iran's foreign image and present a "moderate" facade that will enable his country to get on with business. Taking a leaf from Saddam Hussein's book, Rafsanjani has calculated that a "kinder, gentler Iran" is better able to buy advanced weapons and technology. Tehran spends at least $2 billion a year on advanced aircraft, armor and long-range missiles. Like Baghdad, it is intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Thus, Iran used its influence in bringing about the freedom of the Western hostages in Lebanon. Coincidentally, longstanding claims between the United States and Iran in the Hague were settled.

The United States and the West have been unable to put together even an informal regional security structure to balance competing interests in the region in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Iraq's limited defeat. Iran is cleverly exploiting the vacuum, flexing its muscles to test the will of the Gulf states to resist its expansionism and to ensure that whatever structure emerges takes account of Iranian interests.

Markers were laid down last week, when Iran expelled resident Arab administrators from islands it seized in the 1970s. The failure of Desert Storm to reap a political victory and remove Hussein has encouraged Iran to gradually, but deliberately, intensify such tests.

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