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Iran's Foreign Policy Realists Take Charge

By W. Scott HarropW. Scott Harrop teaches Middle East politics at the University of Virginia. / June 21, 1989



On June 3, China's door to the world slammed shut as Iran's swung open. In sharp contrast to China, the foreign policy implications of political trends in Iran is cause for reasoned optimism. With the passing of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, revolutionary Iran's pragmatic realists are well positioned to guide Iranian foreign policy. Yet most American media speculation on Iran's future has been pessimistic. Editorialists knowingly assert that Iran's foreign policy ``moderates'' will remain on the defensive, or that ``moderates'' never existed. Worse yet, exile sources such as the Shah's son, former president Bani Sadr, and the radical left Mujahideen-e Khalq insurgents have been uncritically quoted, though all have a vested interest in disingenuously portraying post-Khomeini Iran as at the brink of civil war.

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Most academic observers of Iran have long known that revolutionary Iran's foreign policy has evolved amidst a public debate between what R.K. Ramazani, author of many books on Iran, terms ``radical idealists'' and ``pragmatic realists.'' The former advocate militant struggle with all ``satanic'' forces in the world; the latter value ``political expertise diplomacy,'' in which Iran's revolutionary ideals are adapted to the concrete realities of world politics. Iran's acceptance of United Nations Resolution 598, effectively ending the carnage with Iraq, was at least partially a triumph of pragmatic thinking. While Ayatollah Khomeini spoke of drinking ``the poisonous chalice,'' Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani asserted that ``the main issue is that we can stop making enemies without reason.''

Iran's realists remain politically ascendant. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri's resignation as successor to Khomeini was hardly a loss to the realists. Linked with the radicals who had leaked Iran's dealings with the United States to a Beirut newspaper, Ayatollah Montazeri also had called for the targeting of United States interests after the Iranian airliner was shot down. Khomeini then rebuked Montazeri, imploring him to spend his ``time in building a world of virtue'' by supporting Mr. Rafsanjani - who was blandly advocating that the tragedy be ``discussed and studied'' by world opinion.

The Salman Rushdie uproar was among the temporary setbacks to the realists. Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Larijani, a key advocate of good relations with the West, did indeed resign, but he has since reemerged as a prominent adviser to Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.

The designation of President Ali Khamenei as Khomeini's successor strengthens pragmatic tendencies. Since 1984, Mr. Khamenei has advocated the balancing of Iran's ``needs'' with its ``message'' in order to achieve ``rational, sound, and healthy relations with all countries.'' Khamenei thus periodically spoke of normal ties with any state, even the US.

Khomeini's will is no bar to such relations, even though it calls for adherence ``to the straight divine path ... which is independent of either the atheist East or the infidel oppressor West.'' The ``neither East nor West'' slogan has long been interpreted as meaning domination by neither East nor West. As Khamenei once said, ```Neither East nor West' does not mean not having friendly ties with the East or West.'' Khamenei's recent visits to China and North Korea, and Rafsanjani's upcoming trip to Moscow are thus in line with Khomeini's will if they begin to balance Iran's good relations with many Western states.

The present Constitutional Review Committee is of double significance to foreign policy. First, Khomeini's appointments included realists Rafsanjani and Khamenei as vice chairmen and excluded radical Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. Second, the televised debates over where to vest executive power appear to favor a strong president, a position Rafsanjani should win in August.

Ideology will surely remain a factor in Islamic Iran's foreign policy, as it does with most countries. Yet Iran's pressing economic and social ills demand that its international environment be ``normalized,'' a fact working against the most xenophobic of the remaining radicals. Rafsanjani's recent suggestion that the US should help in freeing Iranian hostages in Lebanon was significant because it showed his willingness to publicly contemplate cordial dealings with the US, so soon after the Ayatollah's passing.