History repeats itself in Tehran

IN September 1980, my two colleagues and I, held hostage in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, watched from our third-floor windows as Iraqi MIGs dropped bombs on Tehran as part of Iraq's just-launched invasion of Iran. Eight long and bloody years later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has drunk what he calls the poison of United Nations Resolution 598 to accept a cease-fire to save his revolution at home. Immediately after the Iraqi bombing mission, Iran's prime minister went to the UN General Assembly to seek condemnation of a country clearly culpable of open aggression. Instead, the world community was repelled by Iran's holding diplomats hostage and gave it a firm cold shoulder. Having been made dramatically aware of the costs of that hostage venture, the ayatollah gave the go-ahead for overtures that ultimately saw the end of the hostage crisis.

Eight years later, the Islamic Republic went to the UN to seek condemnation of the United States for shooting down a commercial airliner, which led to the tragic death of 290 men, women, and children. The result was strikingly similar to 1980. The international community, weary of Iran's lack of cooperation in ending the Iran-Iraq war, turned what amounted to another cold shoulder. The result: a potentially even more significant shift in Iranian policy - acceptance of Resolution 598, enhancing the prospects of an end to that tragic war.

Both instances serve as a reminder that on occasion the weight of world public opinion can be of great consequence for a nation's policies. A further parallel is evident: The 1979-81 hostage crisis and Iran's acceptance of Resolution 598 remind us that unless and until the ayatollah concurs, substantial policy changes in Tehran do not occur.

No one should underestimate the significance of Iran's latest action. Until now the continuation of the war and the stated objective of toppling what Ayatollah Khomeini sees as a blasphemous regime in Baghdad have been virtual holy writ in Tehran - objectives to be sought whatever the cost to the economy and in human lives. Success in doing so was also to have been evidence of the strength of the revolution in its appeal to the larger Islamic community. That the Iranian leadership is now prepared to concede to its own public that the revolution has fallen short in this respect speaks volumes for the troubles facing the revolution at home.

Our perception of the internal workings of the Tehran regime remains unclear at best. But some things seem clear. Khomeini's will is still paramount, but his time is passing and maneuvering has intensified among those aspiring for control when he is gone. A disrupted and inflation-ridden economy shows the cost of eight years of war. Recent parliamentary elections produced a majority focused on carrying out revolutionary changes in economic and social policies at home. The populace is weary of war, and there is evidence of low morale within the military itself - its unity always uncertain because of rivalry between the Revolutionary Guards and the professional military.

In foreign policy, Iran has witnessed American military power become paramount in the Gulf, its own Navy crippled, and a growing anti-Iran stance among the Gulf states. Resumption of diplomatic relations with France, Canada, and possibly soon with Britain have signaled the regime's appreciation of the need to try to reduce its international isolation.

But while these events and particularly Iran's acceptance of Resolution 598 suggest a possible watershed in the Iranian revolution, the regime will not suddenly set aside its revolutionary ambitions, though the intensity of its zeal may lessen. There is no viable alternative visible on the Tehran political scene. In all probability, Khomeini's passing will lead to an orderly transition, although political maneuvering will become far more heated and visible to the outside observer. For the moment, at least, more pragmatic elements appear to have the upper hand in Tehran - elements capable of persuading Khomeini that continuing a failing war risks defeat, greater international isolation, and erosion of domestic support for the revolution.

For American policy interests, what has happened is a dramatic reversal of the ill fortune surrounding the arms-for-hostages affair. While many factors are involved, not the least of them has been the effective use of US naval power in the Gulf.

What further opportunity might present itself for the beginning of a meaningful US-Iranian dialogue is, however, far from clear - probably little in the short term, lest Tehran be seen internally as having made concessions to the Great Satan as well. But that could change, particularly if a cease-fire in the war prompts a reduction in the US naval presence in the Gulf, something Tehran would pronounce at home as a victory for its policies abroad.

For the moment, at least, it appears that Iran's tactics have changed; whether the revolution's overall strategy is changing as well, only time and very careful probing will tell. Meanwhile, the administration is right to make clear that the US is open to dialogue at any time with Iranian representatives who can speak authoritatively for that regime. America's larger interests in the region and the fate of Americans held in Beirut have for far too long been hostage to a bitter and bloody war.

Bruce Laingen is executive director of the National Commission on the Public Service in Washington, D.C.

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