In recent negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, which resulted in a cease-fire in southern Lebanon, Iran was obviously a key element. Yet, in reviewing press coverage of that process, it's remarkable how little attention has been paid to what's happening inside that country. Iran is seen by Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans, almost solely in the context of allegations of support for external terrorism. Such an approach risks missing important internal developments.
Iranian parliamentary elections are a case in point. Two rounds were held, on March 8 and April 19, to choose members for 270 seats in the legislative body. A check of a library data bank revealed fewer than a dozen items in the American and British press; and most of those were analyses before the March 8 election. As of this writing, only this newspaper among major US papers, in a brief news-summary item, has reported the tentative results of the voting. This is in marked contrast to coverage of elections in Italy, Israel, India, and even in less democratic countries such as Egypt. Iran appears to be a closed book.
There are reasons for this blackout. Access for journalists is difficult; the sanctions in place make it even more so for American reporters. Journalists and their organizations are legitimately concerned with individual security. And observers are skeptical about the genuineness of the election process. A British newspaper, The Guardian, reported Feb. 29 that a council of senior Iranian clerics had rejected more than a third of the candidates offering themselves for election. Candidacy and voting are still conducted under the controlling eye of the guardians of the revolution.
Presumably, Washington officials may pay more attention to Iran and may have reports from the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Tehran, but little of this has been shared with the public. US officials are reluctant to talk directly with Iranians. As the Iran-contra affair demonstrated, Washington's overtures are likely to be rebuffed and lead to politically embarrassing leaks. Even "looking the other way" and ignoring Iranian actions is dangerous - as the Clinton administration discovered in the case of arms for Bosnians.
Placing US diplomats in an interest section in the Swiss Embassy is ruled out. Such placement would cause a debate on future US policy and would raise concern about the diplomats' safety. Not even those members of Congress who visit other lands in pursuit of information seem eager to visit Iran.
A dilemma exists, however. Observers who do follow events in Iran through direct contact or by monitoring Iranian newspapers and broadcasts believe the political scene in Tehran to be far from static. Iranians appear to have considerable freedom to comment on political issues - so long as the basic tenets of the revolution are not attacked. At the heart of the debates - and of the elections - is the question of Iran's future direction.
The argument is between those who would keep Iran relatively isolated economically under the stricter interpretation of Islamic law and those who would reach out to foreign investment and trade. Such a debate has implications for Iran's foreign policy: Reaching out economically to other nations must involve curbing Tehran's support for the terrorism that isolates Iran from significant parts of the world trading community.
The absence of perceptive attention to Iran's internal developments means much of the information on such matters comes to the American public and, possibly, even to the US government, through exiles and opposition groups who have their own agendas. Iran is a significant and strategically located nation. Its activities have bearings on US interests in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It shouldn't remain a non-country, obscured by outsiders' preoccupation with its external actions. Lack of attention to what is happening internally could result in Washington's again being surprised at events in Tehran - as it was when the Shah of Iran fell from his throne.