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SLUG: 1-01054 OTL Iran and War on Terrorism 01-17-02.rtf








Anncr: On the Line, a discussion of United States policy and contemporary issues. Today's topic, "Iran and the War on Terrorism." Here is your host, Eric Felten.

Host: Hello, and welcome to On the Line. Immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States, Iranian president Muhammad Khatami expressed sorrow for the thousands who were killed. But soon Khatami was making excuses for the terrorists, saying that United States policies were to blame. U.S. diplomats hoped that a dialogue might be opened with Iran as part of building an international coalition against terrorism. But there's at least one major roadblock to a new relationship -- Iran is the world's most prominent state sponsor of terrorism. Can Iran be persuaded to abandon terrorism? And if Iran is not an ally in the war against terrorism, will it become a target of the U.S.-led coalition. I'll ask my guests, Ray Takeyh, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review. Welcome. Thanks for joining me.

Ray Takeyh, why is Iran reliably on the top of people's lists of state sponsors of terrorism? What terrorist groups have they financed and supported?

Takeyh: In the past, Iran has been implicated in many acts of terrorism, in terms of supporting terrorist organizations. Most notably, Iran actually created the Hezbollah, which later on, of course, targeted not just the United States' installations, most notably in 1983, but has been a relentless force against Israel. On the Palestinian front, Iran has financed Palestine Islamic Jihad, but its links to Hamas are not that substantial. So, Iran has always opposed the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the instrument that it has used to obstruct that peace process has been terrorist organizations -- or those organizations that the United States categorizes as terrorist groups. So in that particular sense, Iran's support for terrorism stems from a larger strategic calculation that it makes, in terms of its opposition to the state of Israel's integration into the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, and potentially a peace agreement. So it stems from a larger strategic calculation that Iran has made over the years.

Host: Tod Lindberg, let's talk about that larger strategic calculation. Why does Iran rely on terrorism to pursue its strategic goals?

Lindberg: I think probably as a result of the calculation that these are the most effective means at the disposal of Iran in pursuit of those goals -- that it's difficult to act openly even in that neck of the woods. Instead, you have to do things more by stealth and indirection than directly in the name of, as a national actor. On the other hand, Iran is not exactly shy about its goals or about its motivations in relation to this. The rhetoric about what the United States is, from Iran, I think would arguably be said to have more continuity, since the days of the revolution in 1979, than change. And the same with regard to Iran's position toward Israel. So we know what they say they want. We know that they are somewhat circumscribed in what they can do as a government in public because of U.S. power and security commitments to the region. But we also know, as Ray has ably pointed out, what they are willing to do privately or secretly or covertly through sponsorship of terrorist organizations.

Host: Ray Takeyh, when Iran is open about sponsoring these groups they'll talk about it being supporting "freedom fighters." In the post September 11th world, has it become more difficult to blur that distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters?

Takeyh: Right after September 11th, Iran and actually most of the Arab states, as they came together in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, suggested that what we need is a definition of terrorism. And essentially they drew a delineation between what they considered to be organizations resisting occupation -- namely all the Palestinian groups and Hezbollah and so on -- and what they consider terrorist organizations. So in that particular sense Iran never suggested supporting terrorism, it suggested it's supporting organizations that resist Israeli occupation as they delineate it. So in that sense there's always been this rhetorical game about how terrorism is defined. And it's defined differently in the United States, where we essentially have long categorized Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist groups that employ violence as an expression of political dissent, as terrorist organizations. While Iranians have suggested that, in fact, those are organizations that are resisting Israel, therefore they [Iran] have a right to be supportive of it [the resistance]. Moreover, Iran never has denied supporting Hezbollah, both materially and militarily. It's not something that they deny publicly or even privately. They have denied, however, the recent episode of sending weapons to the Palestinian Authority. But in terms of their linkages to Hezbollah, at least, they've been very prominent and public about those. And we know that the planes that Iran sends over Turkey that land in Syria have become the main supply of Hezbollah for a long period of time.

Host: Tod Lindberg, Iran was also implicated in supplying weapons to the Palestinian Authority in the ship that was captured recently.

Lindberg: Yes, and that's very disturbing. That is a dagger at the heart of what is left of the peace process, in effect -- and I'm not sure that there is much left of the peace process. The one useful thing about it is that it brings a certain amount of clarity to the discussion. If Arafat -- or, as Arafat denies, of course, personal involvement in this -- but if senior officials of the Palestinian Authority (and that has been credibly shown) are involved in bringing large quantities of lethal cargo into the territories of the Palestinian Authority, I don't think it takes a great leap of logic to imagine that those might be used. And that Iran is a willing provider of these kinds of things is also an indication of where its priorities are.

Takeyh: It does constitute a strategic change on the part of Iran. Because since 1993, when Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Agreement -- even before that, when [during] Iran's war with Iraq, when Yasser Arafat, as with most Arab states, supported Iraq. Iranians have been very consistent in three things: denunciation of the United States, renunciation of Israel, and demonization of Yasser Arafat. They have been vociferous and consistent opponents of the peace process -- but also Arafat as the Palestinian leader who acquiesced to the peace process. So for them to now be supplying assistance to the Palestinian Authority constitute a potentially strategic change for them, and a very disturbing one.

Host: Now, has Iran opposed the peace process -- I take it it's because they want to maintain a position of some dominance in the region and they're opposed to anything that would legitimize Israel and create some competing [power]?

Takeyh: Iran opposes the peace process at two different levels. First there is the ideological level, namely that they oppose what they consider Israel as an agent of Zionism and so on. At the Second level there's a strategic objection to Israel's integration into the Middle East, namely that Israel could potentially serve as a regional counterpart and a counterbalance to Iran -- particularly as the other Iranians' principal nemesis, namely Iraq, has been in a period of decline. So both ideologically and strategically Iran finds the success of the peace process as antithesis to its strategic interests in the region.

Lindberg: I just wanted to make one point in response to that, Ray, which is that the inference that is, I think, invited by the change in Iran's view of Arafat is that the conclusion in Iran that Arafat is no longer interested in this peace process. That whatever he might have been dancing around or toward, he is no longer doing so. And that makes not only Iran, but also in this context Arafat, more dangerous.

Takeyh. Right, because Arafat also reciprocated in terms of rhetoric. As Iranians denounced him, Arafat was denouncing the Islamic Republic. So this constitutes, as Tod said, not just a shift on the part of Iranians, but also a shift on the part of the Palestinian Authority. And moreover, I don't believe, at least, that Iran would send weapons to the Palestinian Authority without some sort of a tacit assurance that the Palestinian Authority was not going to be signatory to further peace accords.

Host: Tod Lindberg, the U.S. has declared war on terrorism. Is there any way that the U.S. can pursue that without taking note of Iran's role in promoting terrorism?

Lindberg: The answer to that is, no there is not, but timing is, I think, everything. We have a particular problem in al-Qaida -- where it's operating and how its networks work -- since they were of course the primary parties responsible on September 11th. Broader than that we have a bigger problem with terrorism and I think there is an intention of seriousness of purpose on the part of the administration to address this problem across a wide range of geographical space, entities, non-governmental and other. And I think that at some point, obviously, Iran is apt to be scrutinized. But, it's also -- again coming back to a point that Ray made earlier -- notwithstanding that there is an unwillingness to classify so-called resistance organizations as terrorist groups, possibly there is something like an opening for a limited basis of cooperation on other kinds of organizations. Now I, for one, am taking this with a substantial grain of salt. As Bush is fond of saying, we'll watch what they do, we're less interested in what they say. But there were something like a consensus among even some rather dubious characters -- into which category I would put the government of Iran -- that whatever needs to be to take al-Qaida out of the picture is something we can get a little help with, well then we may have a basis [for some cooperation]. Again, this calls for much skepticism, I think.

Host: I'd like to take a moment to remind our audience that this is On the Line, and I'm Eric Felten. Today we're talking about "Iran and the War on Terrorism" with Ray Takeyh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Tod Lindberg of Policy Review. Ray Takeyh, Iran was no fan of the Taleban. But at the same time, Iran is very concerned about any growing influence of the United States in the region. How is that playing out now that the Taleban fell so quickly?

Takeyh: For Iran the war, and the success of the war has a number of positive aspects to it, and some negative repercussions. On the negative side, it constitutes projection of American power where it had not been before -- Afghanistan and Central Asia. On the positive side, of course Iran had tremendous problems with the Taleban and the instability in Afghanistan, particularly in terms of the drug traffic, which had a very debilitating impact on Iran. There's millions of Iranian addicts at this point, partly as a result of the drugs that were coming through Afghanistan. But also, the Iranians were very much concerned about what they considered to be the increasing Talebization of Pakistan -- namely, the possibility of a radical Sunni regime coming to power in Pakistan with nuclear weapons. That was essentially an existential threat for Iranians. So what the war has done is taken the Taleban out, stabilized Pakistan. Now you have to deal with the other aspect of it, namely the potential emergence of American power. So the war has both good and negative repercussions and ramifications for the Iranians. But certainly, if they look at it objectively, it has further enhanced their security concerns, namely they no longer have to worry about a militant Sunni government on their flank with nuclear weapons. One is enough, on the other side with Iraq. But that [a militant Pakistan] would constitute a significant threat to their security.

Host: Now are these regional concerns for Iran -- of the Sunni threat from Pakistan, and the Iraqi threat -- are those the reasons for Iran's burgeoning missile program? Or has Iran been building that with some larger goal in mind?

Lindberg: It's very difficult to read their minds, but I can't see this as a situation where you have to pick only one reason for them to be doing what they're doing. Obviously there are these particular local problems. This is a point on which Ray, who knows this region far better than I do, can elaborate, but there is no great affection for Shia Islam among the people who have recently been causing this trouble for us. They regard that [Iran's version of Islam] as I understand it, as something of a heretical sect in its own right.

Takeyh: Certainly al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden would, for the sort of radical Wahhabi-ism that they were practicing. Wahhabis not only consider other Sunnis to be lax -- it's a very puritanical sect within Sunni Islam -- but they would certainly view Shiites as heretical. So the theological disagreements are rather intense.

Host: Ray Takeyh, where do think that Iran has as its primary targets for the missiles that it has been working on?

Takeyh: I always thought that the significant aspect of Iran's defense planning is concentrated on two specific regions. Number one Iraq, and the other one being the Gulf. Iraq, of course, used missiles against Iran, with chemical weapons, in the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war. And that had a very scarring impact on the Iranian national psyche. So for them, an Iraq with weapons of mass destruction is, as I said, an existential threat. On the other hand, Iran has on one of its most important links to the international petroleum market, the Persian Gulf, which is essentially patrolled by the American vessels and American armada and so on. So those two concerns essentially underwrite Iran's defense policy in terms of its strategic planning and procurement practices.

Host: Tod Lindberg, a little over a year ago, one hard-line politician in Iran floated the idea that perhaps there could be some dialogue with the United States -- although the way this one hard-line cleric put it was "For our national interests we can even negotiate with Satan at the bottom of hell." How promising is that for dialogue with the United States? And then, secondly, are there opportunities -- whether it's fighting the drug trade, as Ray mentioned, or perhaps if the U.S. pursuit of the war on terrorism looks toward Iraq -- that there might be some room for cooperation with Iran?

Lindberg: Yes -- I guess that's a start isn't it. The problem is, I suppose, that in certain respects the feeling is mutual. Let us not forget that Iran actually was responsible for a very serious humiliation of the United States some years ago in the form of a yearlong hostage-taking. So I don't think there are any great reserves of affection here either. I don't think anybody's particularly sentimental about Iran. The question is, is there a basis for getting anything done, and we'll see. I think there's going to be something like an effort. And there is also this hope that perhaps among the Iranian the sentiment toward the United States is not the same as the official government sentiment.

Host: Is there a growing pro-American feeling at the grassroots level?

Lindberg: So one hears. This is probably a case where Ray is more familiar with what forms the basis of that impression, but there does not seem to be that degree of hatred. Some have speculated that one of the reasons for this is that Iran, unlike other countries in the region, did go through its Islamic revolution. This is not something that has occurred in the case of Saudi Arabia or Iraq or elsewhere. Which is to say that people there know what such a revolution is like and they know about what oppression can follow in its wake. Therefore, under those circumstances for people, maybe looking at the United States as a relatively open -- as actually an open and democratic society -- there may be some promise for them in that kind of vision, having had this unique experience.

Host: Ray Takeyh, do you think that that's the case?

Takeyh: Iran, like many countries in the Third World, is a young country. Demographically, essentially you see that young people tend -- sixty, seventy percent of Iranians are under twenty and so on. So in that particular sense, the younger generation of Iranians deeply resents their isolation -- not just from the United States, but from the larger international community. They have pride of their Persian culture and Persian heritage and they resent the fact that the Iranian government's policies has led to a certain degree of demonization and a certain degree of negative impressions of it. So I think there's a large sentiment among the younger Iranian generation -- I would suggest, among most Iranians -- for reaching out to the international community and once again becoming a normal state. And of course that also means dealing with a country whose culture they very much are attracted to in all sectors of society. And you see that in anecdotal evidence -- the Iranian purchase of American videos, smuggled of course. So there is that cultural attraction that years of theocracy and Islamic revolution has not only not diminished, but has actually accelerated.

Host: Let's talk about the politics of the government of Iran a little bit. There seem to be two opinions about the struggle between the religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the President, Muhammad Khatami. One view seems to be that the hard-liners and the reformists are in a long-standing tough battle with one another and that it remains to be seen who's going to win that battle. The other view seems to be that Khatami and the religious leaders are sort of playing a good-cop, bad-cop game where the impulse for reform is never really that serious but the fight gets played out to keep people from getting too restless in the country. Which do you think is the more accurate take?

Takeyh: I think there is a segment within the Iranian regime, within the Iranian clerical community, that recognizes that for the Islamic Republic to survive it has to change -- it has to accommodate some of the pressures, in terms of cultural demands of these constituents, in terms of the economic demands, particularly. So the Islamic Republic has to reform itself and become a more liberal, if you would, Islamic Republic -- if that's not an oxymoron. So, essentially, the sentiment for reform within the regime is genuine and it is authentic. Now the question is, how is that going to play itself out in this complex institutional arrangement that Iran has, namely with the conservatives having many of the key institutions in their hands -- whether it's the Guardian Council or whether it's the Supreme Leader -- that have the capacity to veto the decisions and the direction of the elected Iranian institutions -- the presidency and the parliament. So there is an impasse in Iran, but the movement toward reform within the Iranian regime is authentic. It's not some sort of a manufactured [appearance] for Western consumption.

Lindberg: I think in most cases, this supposed good-cop, bad-cop routine that nations are described as trying to pull off -- I think in general one should be very dubious about that proposition. These are actual power struggles going on. This is not some kind of Kabuki dance that's being played out. These are people who are playing politics as a matter of life and death. So, I think what looks like struggle probable is struggle, and probably is only the tip of the iceberg of the struggle.

Host: Well I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. I'd like to thank my guests, Ray Takeyh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Tod Lindberg of Policy Review. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten.

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