Glints of restraint in revolutionary Iran

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Revolutionary Iran: Challenge and Response in the Middle East, by R.K. Ramazani. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1987. 311 pp. $27.50. During the first week of the TWA 847 hostage ordeal, Iranian Speaker of Parliament Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani summoned Lebanon's Islamic militants to Damascus.

Tehran was sympathetic to their demand for the release of 766 Shiite and Palestinian prisoners taken from Lebanon to Israeli jails in violation of the Geneva Convention. But he also made it clear that the Islamic republic did not want to see another prolonged crisis over new American hostages.

This meeting laid the groundwork for the release on July 1, 1985, after 17 days in captivity, of the final 39 American hostages. Iran's helpful role, which the White House reluctantly acknowledged at the time, also set the scene for the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages swap.

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Two things had become clear during the hijacking: Iran, not Syria, was the channel through which to negotiate the freedom of the other Americans picked up off the unruly streets of Beirut. And, more important, at least some Iranians appeared to be willing to negotiate.

This apparently came as a surprise to the White House's inner circle. Yet several earlier developments should have signaled a greater flexibility and pragmatism in Iran's foreign policy, R.K. Ramazani points out in ``Revolutionary Iran,'' one of the timeliest books of the year.

``With respect to every issue, including the war with Iraq, Iranian policy has consistently contained elements of self-restraint, pragmatism, and even, occasionally, helpfulness,'' he wrote in a manuscript completed before America's secret ``strategic initiative'' was disclosed.

``The revolutionary regime's bark has been worse than its bite, its rhetoric more strident than its actions, its declared policies more belligerent than its intentions,'' he continued.

Mr. Ramazani, a ranking academic authority on Iranian foreign policy who was called in to advise President Carter during the first hostage crisis, strips away that rhetoric and offers a cool-headed analysis of recent history. The zealous campaign to export Iran's brand of revolutionary Islam is but one side, and even links to terrorism are put in context without being apologetic.

The theocracy, for example, never closed the Strait of Hormuz, the global choke-point for Western oil supplies. It showed restraint in responding to Iraq's aerial strikes on oil tankers from Iran. It did not retaliate when Saudi Arabia, aided by US AWACS, shot down an Iranian warplane in 1984.

Tehran's ``increasingly pragmatic orientation'' actually became visible in mid-1984 when the Iranian foreign minister told Parliament, ``the world is determined on the diplomatic scene. If we are not present, it will be determined without us.''

His pronouncement coincided with a visit by the West German foreign minister, the first important Western diplomat to visit Tehran since the 1979 revolution. The Germans subsequently confirmed Iran's new ``open door'' policy. Meanwhile, Japan, Canada, and various West European governments were dominating trade with Iran.

By early 1985, several former rivals, notably Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union, were actively exploiting the change in the diplomatic climate. A behind-the-scenes scramble for better relations with the most important geostrategic property in the Gulf had begun.

The Soviets' rapprochement particularly marked a major departure from Iranian foreign policy, which was symbolized in the rhetorical catchall, ``Neither East nor West.'' Indeed, Russians are in theory more anathema to the theocracy than Americans, since communism is atheistic. The Soviets also invaded Afghanistan, a Muslim nation that borders Iran.

But as the revolution, which will mark its eighth anniversary on Feb. 1, began to settle down, economic and political exigencies tempered the thinking of the inexperienced ruling mullahs who had toppled the Shah.

In other words, the US initiative did not happen in a diplomatic vacuum; indeed, eventual rapprochement was inevitable for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with hostages, Ramazani contends.

``Revolutionary Iran'' is a serious foreign policy book that is not everyday reading. Yet its arguments are so thoughtfully balanced and its facts so carefully analyzed in historical and regional perspective that it would have been ideal for the Reagan administration during debates on its Iran policy.

The final chapter superbly outlines the wide variety of policy options that could have been taken instead of introducing arms into a delicate diplomatic maneuver. They would have required greater patience, but the effects had a greater chance of lasting - and defusing the very tension that has led to airplane hijackings and hostage abductions.

Any politician, foreign policy analyst, or interested layman who is either absorbed in the ongoing debates about Iranian ``moderates'' or concerned about what course the US should take in the aftermath of the recent escapade is well advised to read ``Revolutionary Iran.''

Robin Wright, a former Monitor Mideast correspondent, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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