THE accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by the USS Vincennes comes at a particularly inopportune moment. The incident could very well have a negative impact on the evolution of Iranian domestic politics. In light of Iran's grave economic problems, military reverses, and international isolation, its leaders have been reassessing past policies and searching for ways to extricate the nation from its current predicament. Yet the political debate within Iran goes beyond the immediate problems to include concerns about the future course of the Iranian revolution.
Such debate has been under way almost since the revolution began; but the degree of urgency has increased in response to the economic and military situation and to the deteriorating health of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
As in the past, Iran is sending mixed signals as to which viewpoint in the debate will prevail - extremism, or a shift toward moderation and pragmatism. Contributing to this confusion have been conflicting statements made by different Iranian political figures. They were not even united on the proper response to the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655.
For example, the composition of the newly elected Iranian parliament is weighted in favor of the so-called radical factions; it indicates a leftward shift on domestic, economic, and social matters. Similarly, the rising fortunes of the relatively pragmatic parliamentary speaker and armed forces chief, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, have been accompanied by increased influence for the relatively radical minister of the interior, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Mohtashemi.
Yet Iran's efforts to restore diplomatic ties with France and to improve relations with Britain indicate a more realistic approach to foreign policy issues. Some Iranian officials, notably the oil minister, have made interesting remarks about trade and economic opportunities in postwar Iran for European countries that adopt no hostile policies toward it.
It is generally assumed that Iran's political debate will be resolved by the playing out of internal dynamics, and that outsiders can do little to affect the outcome. Internal factors will be most important. But external factors, too, will have a role. There is a close interaction between these two sets of influences, including the way the outside world reacts to movement in Iranian foreign policy toward greater realism and moderation.
Since the Iran-contra affair, the approach to Iran of the West, particularly of the United States, has not been helpful to the pragmatic factions in Iranian political debate. Despite a considerable change in Iran's position with respect to ways to wind down the Gulf war, the West has responded in the United Nations and elsewhere only with an ultimatum: Either accept the (one-sided) Security Council Resolution 598 without change or face the consequences. This attitude makes the position of relatively pragmatic Iranian leaders rather difficult. With some justification, their opponents argue that pragmatism and flexibility do not pay.
Iran has also been cautious to avoid unduly provoking the US in the Gulf. The response, however, has been increased US intelligence and other aid to Iraq - and a broadening of the US Navy's Gulf rules of engagement, which in effect give Iraq a free-fire zone.
To this gross tilt toward Iraq, add the near-indifference with which the world community has treated Iraq's use of chemical weapons. This reaction has also given ammunition to the more radical Iranian elements which argue that the West, and especially the US, will never come to terms with Iran, even if it changes its ways.
Thus in responding to the latest tragedy and to Iran's efforts to cope with the situation, Western actions can have a considerable impact on the evolution of Iranian political debate. Awareness of this linkage need not mean taking Iranian statements at face value or abandoning the policy of containment of the most disruptive aspects of Iranian behavior.
A sound policy toward Iran, however, should be a mixture of firmness and willingness to respond to positive Iranian moves. Tehran's current reassessment of policies largely results from outside resistance to its most disruptive acts; it reflects a painful process of adjustment to the international system and the realization by the more pragmatic Islamic leaders that the world will not easily bend to their ideological desires. Thus firmness must remain an important component of Western policy.
By the same token, the international community should show a willingness to deal with Iran on reasonable terms, to listen to its grievances, and to abandon the idea of humiliating it. Otherwise, the Iranian mood will be dominated by despair, the hand of Iranian radicals will be strengthened, and there will be a greater chance of destructive behavior by all concerned. The negative repercussions of that behavior would not remain limited to Iran.
It is thus in the best interest of all to take a clearsighted view of the current Iranian debate. The principal responsibility for what happens to Iran rests with Iranians themselves. But the West in general and the US in particular share some responsibility for developments, as well as consequences, in Iran.
Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.