In Iran, Feel­ing the Heat

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

Dy­ing from can­cer a quar­ter-cen­tury ago, the de­posed shah of Iran pressed on me a fun­da­men­tal point about his na­tion that has be­come even more vivid over the past two weeks. What the shah said, and al­most said, then sheds light on the cur­rent con­fronta­tion be­tween Iran and the world’s great pow­ers.

Mo­ham­mad Reza Pahlavi died weeks af­ter our 1980 con­ver­sa­tion in Cairo. It has taken the ay­a­tol­lahs and other Is­lamic rad­i­cals who fol­lowed him to re­veal how far back­ward, and for­ward, stretched the deeper mean­ings of the words he spoke, which had to be con­densed into a con­ven­tional news story on that May day.

Iran is af­ter all a place where re­al­ity usu­ally comes not in words but in mean­ing­ful de­tails that un­der­lie — and of­ten be­lie — the words. Fool­ing for­eign­ers and ad­ver­saries is an an­cient Per­sian art form. Say­ing ex­actly what you mean is a crude and dan­ger­ous way to talk, or to ne­go­ti­ate.

Such a telling de­tail lay be­neath the shah’s de­scrip­tions to me of how, in his opin­ion, the Bri­tish and Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments de­lib­er­ately helped Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini bring down his regime in 1979. His bit­ter An­glo­pho­bia came to mind again the other day as I watched film of Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad blus­ter­ing his way through the histri­onic re­lease of 15 Bri­tish mil­i­tary cap­tives and then, in the days that fol­lowed, de­fy­ing the world anew over Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions.

The de­tail was that the shah blamed Lon­don much more than he blamed Wash­ing­ton for his fate. The Amer­i­cans had been chil­dren play­ing at com­pli­cated games of power and es­pi­onage, while im­pe­rial Bri­tain pur­posely mounted the plot to win fa­vor with the ay­a­tol­lahs. Or so the shah as­serted.

The 15 cap­tives grabbed by Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards in Iraqi wa­ters on March 23 sim­ply may have been tar­gets of op­por­tu­nity. But I doubt it. They were al­most cer­tainly seized as bar­gain­ing chips. In any event, Ah­madine­jad played up their na­tion­al­ity in ways that sug­gest the im­print of the colo­nial era has not faded much from the Ira­nian po­lit­i­cal sub­con­scious since the days of the shah. It still pays to twist the Bri­tish lion’s tail, even in na­tions where im­pe­rial con­trol was largely in­di­rect and eco­nomic.

Cul­tural his­tory also plays an im­por­tant role in the con­fronta­tion over Iran’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­trol ura­nium en­rich­ment on its own soil de­spite in­ter­na­tional fears that Iran’s se­cret goal is to de­velop nu­clear weapons.

Ev­ery dis­cus­sion I have had with Ira­nian of­fi­cials on the nu­clear pro­gram has in­cluded a pointed re­minder that it was the shah — with Amer­i­can and French en­cour­age­ment — who started the nu­clear en­ergy pro­gram that Ah­madine­jad and the ay­a­tol­lahs are car­ry­ing for­ward. Th­ese of­fi­cials leave hang­ing un­spo­ken this po­lit­i­cal fact of Ira­nian life: Their giv­ing up con­trol of the en­rich­ment of ura­nium would open them to charges of be­ing less na­tion­al­is­tic than was the shah.

The his­tor­i­cal force of past in­ter­ven­tion in Iran’s af­fairs is ob­vi­ously no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for kid­nap­ping Bri­tish sailors and marines; for pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons; or for sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism in Iraq, Is­rael and else­where. But it is im­por­tant for Amer­i­cans to rec­og­nize how deep is the im­print of the past and how dem­a­gogues ex­ploit it when they are in trou­ble. It will take broad and sus­tained cam­paigns of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic pres­sures to force change in the be­hav­ior of any Ira­nian regime.

Con­sider the bom­bast of Ah­madine­jad and his aides in grab­bing hostages again, in threat­en­ing to pull out of the Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty and in say­ing they will cut off ne­go­ti­a­tions if the United Na­tions con­tin­ues to con­demn Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram. The mean­ing­ful de­tail in Ira­nian threats not to talk to the West is that the Ira­ni­ans are still talk­ing to the West, how­ever the­atri­cally and un­con­vinc­ingly. They stall, but they re­main en­gaged, try­ing to fend off im­pend­ing iso­la­tion.

This demon­strates that the fi­nan­cial and diplo­matic pres­sures or­ches­trated by the Trea­sury and State de­part­ments are tak­ing their toll on Ah­madine­jad’s regime. They should be con­tin­ued and in­ten­si­fied where pos­si­ble. Among those vot­ing against Tehran on the latest Se­cu­rity Coun­cil cen­sure were South Africa, which of­ten breaks with the West on po­lit­i­cal is­sues to bol­ster its non­aligned cre­den­tials, and In­done­sia, the world’s most pop­u­lous Mus­lim na­tion.

Those votes were body blows to Tehran’s pre­tense that the nu­clear dis­pute re­flects a con­tin­u­ing vic­tim­iza­tion of Third World peo­ples and re­sources by the ra­pa­cious Bri­tish and other Western­ers. So is the vis­i­ble ir­ri­ta­tion of Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin with Iran’s re­fusal to con­sider his of­fers to guar­an­tee Iran ac­cess to peace­ful nu­clear en­ergy.

The diplo­matic ef­fort to as­sem­ble a united in­ter­na­tional front against Iran is pay­ing off. One sign: Pres­i­dent Bush dis­plays no sense of ur­gency about hav­ing to de­cide on mil­i­tary ac­tion, re­cent vis­i­tors to the White House re­port. His­tory, an­cient and re­cent, shows that his best op­tion is to con­tinue on the high road of mul­ti­lat­eral, peace­ful pres­sures.

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