Iran in a Fluid Region

Rafsanjani has maneuvering room after Gulf war, Soviet collapse

AS Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani and his supporters have emerged victorious from recent parliamentary elections, they face the country's toughest domestic and foreign policy challenges.

The Islamic Republic's fourth parliamentary election and the first since the death of its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, brought some surprises. In the tiny village of Khomein in central Iran, the birthplace of Ayatollah Khomeini, a non-cleric, independent candidate was voted into the Majlis (parliament).

Candidates of President Rafsanjani's Society of Combatant Clergymen captured a 60-percent majority in the 270-seat Majlis. Although no irregularities were reported from 196 precincts, many Iranians are concerned about the fairness of the election, citing Rafsanjani's influence over the Council of Guardians, which disqualified an estimated 1,000 parliamentary candidates for unspecified reasons.

Among the many powers of the Council of Guardians, a supervisory body of 12 Islamic jurists, is the authority to review, investigate, and disallow candidates. Many of those disqualified are current members of the Majlis and have been vociferous in their disagreement with the president on economic and foreign policy issues.

On the domestic front, a restive population, already exhausted from the eight-year war with Iraq and debilitating ideological-political battles among the ruling clerics, is expecting reconstruction, economic recovery, and social harmony.

Iran has set in motion a five-year plan, which continues until 1996, based on $20 billion in outside investment. To attract foreign investors, Rafsanjani needs a cooperative Majlis, which so far has eluded him. The current constitution prohibits giving written guarantees to foreign companies wishing to invest in Iran. In addition, to attract international loans, the president will have to make rational the country's various exchange rates.

In foreign policy, Iran still faces opposition from Muslim countries that fear the influence of its clerical revolution, the moral authority of its ancient culture, and the power that its oil wealth can bring. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its puppet regime in Afghanistan has left a vast region in political confusion. But the new regimes seek the same goal as Rafsanjani - economic recovery. How can Iran best use its resources to influence events on such a wide scale?

First, Iran's war with Iraq, now itself decimated by Desert Storm, has not been formally concluded. And no one knows what further plans the Bush administration has for Saddam Hussein. How can Iran draft a peace treaty with an Iraqi regime whose days may be numbered?

The American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the suppressed demands for political democracy in Kuwait and among the Shiites in Iraq point to the powers aligned against Iran, and to opportunities for its moral and political influence.

Second, on Iran's northern border instability and opportunity seem even greater. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left 70 million Muslims to develop self-government in Central Asia. Turkey, a country divided between its Muslim links to the Middle East and its membership in NATO, sees itself in competition with Iran for influence in Central Asia. It has just launched a satellite to broadcast in its native language to Kurdistan and the other former Soviet republics. However, Iran's natural gas and oil,

which have been exported to the Soviet Union for decades, can provide a more concrete basis on which Rafsanjani can project his political vision of an Islamic Republic over these territories.

Third, a similar situation seems to be developing in Afghanistan, whose mujahideen chieftains have been attempting to negotiate among themselves on the outlines of their new regime. Here, however, Rafsanjani faces more direct competition from the United States, which has supported the resistance fighters for a decade. Now that they have become the legitimate government in Kabul, will they wish to remain tied to Washington or will they seek friendly contacts over their Islamic borders?

Fourth, the migration of Kurds into Iran from both Turkey and Iraq suggests that the Rafsanjani regime can bridge gaps between Persians and neighbors with other ethnic roots. Rafsanjani's own ability to mediate between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan further testifies to his skills. Can he operate within a much wider region with the same skill that has allowed him to emerge as the political master of his own country?

The US, however, while approaching Rafsanjani for help in releasing hostages in Lebanon, has continued to impede him by freezing Iranian assets in American banks. And despite the war against Saddam, the US government retains sanctions against Iranian exports imposed during the Iran-Iraq war. Within the region, Iran can be seen as a mediator for peace - in Lebanon, between former republics of the USSR, even between Saddam and the US.

But Rafsanjani's efforts have received no recognition, let alone overt support from the Bush administration. Washington should be cognizant that isolation of Iran is not salutary policy, especially in lieu of the uncertainty in Iraq and Libya, and the continuation of Palestinian homelessness.

With a new Majlis in place, Rafsanjani will have more political maneuverability to implement his domestic and foreign policy agenda. But if Rafsanjani is to be successful in building bridges with political and ideological groups within the country and in healing the wounds in the society caused by the ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, he has to build a new political and economic infrastructure free from corruption and patronage.

To usher Iran into the 21st century, its leaders must instill a national sense of purpose and hope in a country that has been a torchbearer in the civilized world for thousands of years.

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