Iran Is Not Just Khomeini

IRAN evokes excess. Something about the place drives everyone who touches it to extremes. A people of subtle culture and intelligence, Iranians appear to outsiders to despise balance and perspective. The very diverse people who live in that complex land or in exile have become regular victims of uninformed, undifferentiated attacks. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini outraged civilized norms with his death sentence condemnation of Salman Rushdie. In response, Western governments and media abandoned rational analysis to denounce the ayatollah's nation and government for his offense.

A few weeks later, the vehicle of the Vincennes captain is bombed and the press headlines the usual anonymous caller who names Iran responsible. A Federal Bureau of Investigation official implies all Iranian students are suspect. A full-page ad demands military action against Iran.

Only days before Ayatollah Khomeini's explosion, experts in the West were discerning a more pragmatic, open outlook in Tehran. Iran's official relations seemed headed for improvement with all Western governments, including our own. All that seems now on indefinite hold after the blast of Western criticism, withdrawn ambassadors, suspended contracts, reduced oil purchases.

Here we go again - confusing Iran with its leader. In the 1970s, Iran was not the Shah, despite the preference of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski for that approach to a country of 45 million highly fractious individuals. In those days, to keep the Shah content we praised his cooperation and modernization efforts. We ignore the reality of Iran's true religious and cultural values and the groups opposed to imperial rule.

Now we confuse and condemn Iran with Khomeini, ignoring the quiet voices of evident distress from other leaders - their pragmatic plans for development dragged down by the cycle of anathemas exchanged between Khomeini and the West. To be sure, no one in Iran can confront the supreme ruler. But Iran is not now, as it was not before the revolution, a Pahlavi land where only one voice counts. When President Khamenei said an apology from Mr. Rushdie might help ease Muslim feelings, he and others making similar statements were trying to undo the political damage done by the ayatollah's excess. They failed, but their voices still merit attention.

The Khomeini-Khamenei difference in approach to Rushdie gives us a sense of the difficulties confronting lesser clerics and technocrats who must govern under the 88-year-old boss. Only in retrospect and with some imagination can we understand how long and hard it was for those around Khomeini to prevail in getting a cease-fire with Iraq. Let us pause to pity the plight of those elusive Iranians we cherish, the moderates.

There was a team of them hitchhiking on the plane that took the official Iranian delegation to Hirohito's funeral during the height of world reaction to Khomeini's blast. Economists, planners, technocrats, they went to their ambassador's, where two days of seminars had been arranged with Japanese counterparts.

Recovery from the devastation of the Iraqi war was the Iranian concern. How did Japan rebuild after the destruction of World War II? What roles did the government and private sector play? What were the priorities for allocation of resources? The sources of capital?

According to a Japanese participant, the Iranians were serious, competent men; none would discuss politics or religion. Shortly after their return to Tehran, they learned the Japanese government had responded to Western pressure by cutting oil purchases 20 percent.

Someday, the experts assure us, Khomeini will be gone. That will deprive us of a favorite target for abuse, but Iran will still be there. And it will be almost as important as it was in the days of Nixon/Kissinger/Brzezinski, despite improved relations with the Soviet Union and diminished interest in energy sources.

Whatever its geopolitical significance and potential, Iran - by any objective standard - deserves better treatment at the hands of those who shape public opinion. Let them strive for the restraint, recognition of limits, and integrity of classical Persian culture. An informed analysis before pronouncing and respect for our normal standards of fairness are good starting points. (A good test case might be whether we stick to our high principles and compensate the families of the Vincennes' tragic error.)

Finally, we should resign ourselves to the reality that Iran will not again become the country it was. Like it or not, the inevitable changes ahead will bring rough moments as religion and traditional culture adjust to the demands of a modern economy, as revolutionary virtue conflicts with historical values.

In time, Iran's technocrats will be able to resume their work of reconstruction and evolving a new society. We in the West can ease their way a bit by a little ``moderation'' in our attitude toward their country.

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