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Los Angeles Times Interview

Ali Shamkhani

Iran's Top Defense Official Probes Depth of Detente With U.S.

November 15, 1998|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam," covers global issues for The Times

TEHRAN — Ali Shamkhani might not be Iran's top military official today if only he had liked Los Angeles a bit more in the mid-1970s. After high school, Shamkhani went to Los Angeles with his father and two brothers. His brothers stayed, one to study medicine, the other mechanical engineering, but not Shamkhani. "I didn't approve of the culture," he explained during a recent conversation in his large office in Tehran's Defense Ministry Building No. 2.

So, he went home to study engineering at Ahwaz University in the city where he was born--and charted a far different course. While at college, Shamkhani launched an underground movement to challenge Iran's monarchy. After the 1979 revolution, when he was still in his 20s, Shamkhani was rewarded with a job as deputy commander of the new Revolutionary Guards. During Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq, one of the century's grisliest conflicts, he led key ground offensives. Afterward, he was named commander of Iran's navy, reaching the rank of rear admiral before he hit 40. Last year, after a stunning presidential election upset by reformer Mohammad Khatami, Shamkhani was tapped to be defense minister. Today, Shamkhani, 43, heads a force of more than 500,000, the largest military in the Middle East.

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Khatami's victory had produced "a more polite and professional attitude" among Iran's naval forces in the Persian Gulf. In contrast, he said, a year earlier he "went to bed worrying that we would have a confrontation at sea" because of a "very hostile" Iranian navy. But Zinni also charged that Iran's naval buildup of antiship missiles and mine-laying submarines, plus a nuclear-weapons program that could be "on track within five years," will make Iran "a more significant problem than Iraq. . . . In the longer term, Iran is a greater threat." He also charged that the Islamic republic still has not abandoned efforts to build weapons of mass destruction or support extremist groups.

In a CNN interview in January, Khatami proposed people-to-people exchanges with Americans to tear down "the wall of mistrust." Since then, both Tehran and Washington have launched the most serious efforts in two decades of hostilities to repair relations. But Zinni's warning underscores the fact that the biggest gap between the two countries remains in the defense arena.

Iran is particularly angered that the U.S. Congress responded to Khatami's diplomatic overture with Radio Free Iran, launched this month and mandated to challenge the government. Tehran also labels Washington as hypocritical for selling billions in new arms to Iran's neighbors, despite Tehran's recent detente with Gulf Arabs, while criticizing Iran's efforts to rearm after its massive losses in the war with Iraq.

Iran's fears stem from its eight-year war with Iraq. Despite its far larger population, Iran was forced to accept a U.N. cease-fire in 1988 after massive human and material losses. Iraq had been greatly helped in the conflict by its use of chemical weapons and access to U.S. satellite intelligence.

In his limited spare time, Shamkhani, the only Arab in Iran's cabinet, likes to mountain climb at least three mornings a week, aides say. He gets up at 4 a.m. so that he can still arrive at the office by 7 a.m. Married to a teacher, he is the father of four children.

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Question: Gen. Anthony Zinni, the U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, said recently that Iran will be a more significant long-term problem in the Gulf than Iraq. What is your reaction to this?

Answer: The American military has a special view, and it's based on creating a hypothetical enemy and basing their policies on this hypothetical enemy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was this enemy. After the Cold War, [Harvard professor Samuel] Huntington made up this theory about a clash of civilizations based on the suggestions or ideas from the Pentagon. We think this hypothesis does not apply to the current trends. Policies based on theories like Huntington's are from the 1940s. They're old-fashioned.

Q: Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi gave a speech in New York in September suggesting there might be ways, directly or indirectly, for Iran and the U.S. to cooperate in three areas: narcotics control, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Can this happen?

A: Can you insult someone and at the same time claim to be his friend? Is it possible to point a pistol at someone and claim to be his friend? Is it logical to hold joint maneuvers if the enemy is someone whom you supposedly want to make friends with? This is exactly what the U.S. is doing.

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