Rafsanjani's `Thankless' Job

A fresh US approach to Iran could bolster reform efforts

AFTER 2,500 years of reigning shahs, Iran reinvented itself with an Islamic revolution and constitution in 1979, instituting the modern world's first theocratic republic.

The new republic, initially given a life expectancy of six months, is now 14 years old and well-entrenched in Middle Eastern politics. On June 11, it held its sixth presidential election since 1980, reelecting Hashemi Rafsanjani for a second four-year term.

President Rafsanjani, who won by a landslide in July 1989, did not enjoy the same overwhelming approval from Iran's 32 million eligible voters this time, although his opposition consisted of three candidates with no political power base. In a pre-election television appearance, where his rivals debated the issues, Rafsanjani did not take part. The task of taking Iran into the year 2000 is a thankless one. Internally, a burgeoning population of 61 million, half of whom are 25 years old or younger, is rest less and impatient. The young already are straining overcrowded schools and universities; soon they will be looking for jobs in a society with a 30-percent unemployment rate.

A country whose genius always has been in trade must now move toward modern production and technology. That translates into some sort of cooperation with the West. Iran has resumed ties with the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, implementing the economic reforms recommended by the former and borrowing $25 billion in the last four years from the latter.

Its credit rating has improved through increased oil production. By 1988 and the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran pumped 2.4 million barrels of oil per day (b.p.d.). By 1992, it had almost doubled to nearly 4 million b.p.d. That is good news for the country's five-year economic development plan; 65 percent of its financing comes from oil revenue. During his first term, Rafsanjani cut the budget deficit and reduced government control over imports, boosting real per capita income by 20 percent. Despite these

achievements, Rafsanjani's efforts to diversify the economy have been frustrated by the country's unicameral Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Majlis. Its conservative deputies are suspicious of the West and Western-based financial institutions, believing that foreign economic aid usually is a precursor to political interference.

Nevertheless, the economy and unemployment have been so dominant a topic that different groups encouraged the electorate to boycott the election: the conservative clerics, on the grounds that no candidate had proposed an alternative to Rafsanjani's free-market policies; and the National Party secularists, who suggested that the system has brought nothing but misery and hardship.

Iran's economy and political life still are recovering from its bloody eight-year war (1980-88) with Iraq, which Iranians thought was provoked by the United States to squelch the nascent revolution. Although a United Nations-brokered truce silenced the guns, it has brought no formal peace treaty.

Because of a history of foreign interference, Iranians have an aversion to outsiders. This has become part of the national will, shaping Iran's modern Realpolitik. The US presence in northern and southern Iraq, which has a 720-mile border with Iran, and America's well-established involvement with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Persian Gulf states, Egypt, and Israel reinforces the Iranian aversion.

A May 26 US State Department policy paper, which calls for economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Iran by the US, its European allies, and Japan, is seen by Iranians as one more attempt by Washington to control them. The perception of American hegemony fuels the discontent among Islamists in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. Since Islam as a political idiom guided the Iranian revolution against America's 37-year ally, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, it has become a rallying cry against governmen tal injustice in other countries.

Islam inspired, shaped, and maintains Iran's revolution. The task before Rafsanjani and the political elite is to work toward a society that balances Islamic values with economic welfare and social justice for all Iranians. They have endured revolution, invasion, scarce goods and services, and unemployment, among other vicissitudes, during the past 14 years. The new Rafsanjani administration should bring the reality of the revolutionary promise to a people who have sacrificed so much. It should begin by opening the political and economic process to more-diverse opinions, particularly those of the secularists. He needs their managerial skills, and they were promised participation.

This must be encouraged by a new US foreign policy no longer based on intrusion, intimidation, and coercion. The US must overcome the villainous role it established for itself in 1953 when the CIA fomented the removal of Iran's nationalist prime minister, Muhammad Mossadeq - a negative image that has prevailed in Iranian minds ever since. The US also must initiate a policy that balances the interests of the Middle East's Muslims with its interests in Israel. As a first step, the US should formally recogn ize Iran and unfreeze its assets in the US. This would allay the discontent of Iran's Islamists, enhance the status of secular managers, and cultivate friends in Iran and among Muslims in general.

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