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Obama and the Iranian Schizophrenia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Two incidents at The Hague, the Dutch capital, last week illustrated the Obama administration’s desperate efforts to obtain at least a smile from Tehran.

Both incidents came on the sidelines of the international aid donors’ conference on Afghanistan.

In the first one, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, managed to obtain a handshake and a “how-do-you-do” from the Islamic Republic’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhundzadeh.

The State Department’s information machine transformed that into “the first contact” between the two adversaries and sold it to the media as a sign that appeasement was bearing fruit.

The Iranians, however, reacted by denying there had been any handshake. Later, a senior Iranian official at The Hague admitted that there may have been a handshake but insisted that Mr. Akhudzadeh had not recognized Holbrooke.

“The Deputy Minister shook many hands,” the official said. “May be Mr. Holbrooke seized the opportunity without introducing himself.”

In the second incident, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a letter had been passed to the Iranians. Again, the Iranians denied this before admitting that they may have accepted a letter without knowing who sent it.

The two episodes might have been written off as instances of comical diplomacy had it not been for the dangerous misapprehension that they exposed on the American side.

That misapprehension was illustrated in Mrs. Clinton’s remarks that Iran was “part of the solution” in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problem is that Mrs. Clinton does not seem to realize that for the past 30 years the world has been dealing with two Irans.

One of the two Iran’s is the old, and largely peaceful, nation-state that has existed more or less in its present shape for almost 500 years.

The other Iran is a vehicle for the Khomeinist revolution and its dreams of world conquest.

For the past 30 years, Iran has suffered from a split personality with its interests as a nation-state clashing with its interests as a revolution. All attempts at solving problems with Iran through negotiations have failed because the outside powers did know which of the two Irans they were dealing with. At the same time, Iran’s schizophrenia prevents it from taking the crucial decisions needed even when national interests are at stake.

On a range of issues, Iran as a nation-state has been part of the solution while Iran as a revolution has proved to be part of the problem.

Let us have a look at the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that Iran, as a nation-state, must be involved in stabilizing Iraq. Almost 90 per cent of Iraqis live within 120 kilometers of the Iranian border. Iran’s six million ethnic Kurds and two million ethnic Arabs have kith and kin among Iraqi Kurds and Shi’ites. Most of Iran’s so-called “holy cities” are located in Iraq. As a virtually landlocked country, Iraq cannot have secure access to the open seas without Iranian accord. The two neighbors share border oilfields of immense potential that cannot be developed unilaterally.

The list could go on.

As a revolution, however, Iran looks beyond worldly issues and sees Iraq as fertile ground for the Khomeinist ideology. The creation of a Shi’ite-dominated Khomeinist republic in Baghdad could give the moribund regime in Tehran a new lease of life. Like all revolutions, the Khomeinist one knows that, unless it grows beyond its present frontiers, it will wither away.

Reporters covering Iraq see many instances of Iran’s dual and contradictory presence there. In some places Iran as a nation state invests in building schools and clinics to win “hearts and minds” in the Shi’ite regions of Iraq. In other places, Iran as a revolution fields terrorists to destroy schools and clinics as a means of keeping Iraq unstable and forcing the Americans out.

Throughout 2007, the two Irans were at war against one another in Basra. Iran as a nation state was building things while Iran as a revolution was blowing them up.

There is a similar situation in Afghanistan.

Iran as a nation-state is the second aid donor Afghanistan and thus has an obvious interest in seeing it stabilized as soon as possible. As a revolution, however, Iran is the second source of support for the Taliban and other Pushtun insurgents, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, after Pakistan.

Ismail Khan, a former Mujahedin commander and Ruler of Heart for several years, often talks of his bewilderment about Tehran’s behaviour. As a Persian-speaking ethnic Tajik, he enjoyed massive support from the Iranian state that hoped to build him up into a rampart against the Taliban in the 1990s. At the same time, however, he was puzzled by persistent discoveries that Iran, as a revolution, was arming and financing his opponents in the province.

Iran’s split personality in the past three decades has prevented it from normalizing relations with the outside world and resolving a host of problems that any nation-state behaving rationally would have tackled long ago. On some issues, the interests of the two Irans coincide and thus there is no problem. On many crucial issues, however, the two Irans have conflicting interests and thus cannot develop a coherent policy.

As a nation-state, Iran’s interest is for the Americans to succeed in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. That would enhance regional security, something that every normal nation-state regards as a priority. As a revolution, however, Iran’s interest is I seeing the Americans driven out in humiliation so that it can advance its Khomeinist message as an alternative to the entire region.

Obama says he wants to talk to Iran. The question is which of the two Irans he wants to talk to?

The only credible policy towards Iran is one aimed at helping to absorb its revolutionary experience and make a full comeback as a nation-state.

Peace with Iran as a nation-state is not only possible, but inevitable.

Peace with Iran as a revolution is both undesirable and impossible.

Appeasing Iran as a revolution would only delay the return of Iran as a nation-state, and thus postpone prospects of peace.

Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution” has just been published by Encounter Books in New York and London.