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The mullah and Iran’s American dilemma | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In a village near Tehran, a young man is voting as TV cameras record the event for the evening news. Suddenly, the reporter shouts: Cut!

The reason? The voter, presented by the TV reporter as a feda’i of the “Imam”, is wearing a T-shirt emblasoned with the US flag and the message: God Bless America.

The footage did not make it to the evening news. But someone with a sense of humour posted it on the Internet for all to see.

Foreign visitors to Iran are struck by the presence of signs and symbols related to the “Great Satan.” Caps bearing logos of US basketball clubs, key rings inscribed with names of American cities, mugs painted in American colours, and posters of American pop stars are everywhere.

For years, opinion polls, some conducted by the Pew Group, have shown that the US is the most popular foreign nation in Iran. There are fewer anti-Americans in Iran than in France.

A strong American presence has been a feature of the Khomeinist regime from the start. Khomeini’s first Cabinet, headed by the late Mehdi Bazargan, included five dual Iranian-American nationals.

In a recent debate in the Islamic Majlis in Tehran, a member claimed to have a list of 400 officials who had US citizenship or “Green Cards”. It was, perhaps, for that reason that a motion to ban dual nationals from public office was buried in the Majlis. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s PR strategist, a dual national, is a former university teacher from Washington.

Inside the US, the Islamic Republic runs lobby groups under different names.

Today, Iranian-Americans number around 1.8 million. There are also thousands of students who may or may not return to Iran. Some Khomeinist officials send their children to study in the US. And exile dissidents of the regime prefer the US than any other country. More than 200 former Khomeinist officials, including Cabinet ministers, ambassadors, members of the Islamic Majlis, and officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard including at least one general, live in the US as asylum seekers.

And, yet, at least once a year, Iran witnesses a feast of anti-American gesticulations with the burning of US flags and effigies of the US president. Khomeini’s slogan “Death to America!” is exhibited in many government buildings. Official discourse is peppered with bellicose themes against the United States, the only country apart from Israel, to be labeled “enemy” (doshman) rather than adversary.

In Iran, America is a national obsession.

Preparing for this article, I went through Tehran newspapers controlled by the office of the “Supreme Guide”. There contained a dozen articles and even more news items concerning US domestic and foreign policies. Of course, some of the items could be classified as anti-American. However, even those were borrowed from US citizens who have made commerce of anti-Americanism. In other words, the Islamic Republic imports much of its anti-American propaganda from the US.

So, why is there no thaw in Irano-American relations, frozen since 1979?

The answer lies in Iran’s political schizophrenia.

As a nation Iran has been profoundly Americanophile since the 1940s when US support helped push Stalin’s troops out of northwestern Iranian provinces. Khomeini’s revolution, however, had to adopt an anti-American profile. The ayatollah had portrayed the Shah as “an American lackey”. He also wanted to deprive the Left of one of its principal themes: hatred for American in the name of anti-Imperialism. A hotchpotch of xenophobia, misogyny, and misunderstood religious concepts, Khomeinism lacked an ideological backbone. It found it in anti-Americanism which, for decades, had filled the intellectual vacuum in other revolutionary movements, from Kim Il-sungism in North Korea to Fidelism in Cuba and, more recently, Chavism in Venezuela.

Deprived of its ideological backbone, Khomeinism would fade into nothingness.

As a nation and country, Iran badly needs to re-establish normal ties with the US and end a futile dispute that has kept it out of the international mainstream for a generation. As a vehicle for Khomeinism, however, Iran must remain anti-American if it is to retain its self-worth.

Ali Khamenei, the mullah cast as the “Imam” in Tehran, faces a dilemma: continuing the anti-American course could ruin the country. Ending anti-Americanism could administer the coup de grace to his moribund revolution.

Khamenei has a choice because, for the first time since the mullahs seized power, the “leader” is in a position to change course. All Khomeinist governments, from Bazargan to Ahmadinejad tried to normalise ties with the US and failed because rival factions sabotaged their efforts. Each faction feared that if its rival settled the “American problem” it would come on top in the power struggle.

With the defeat of the Ahmadinejad faction, Khamenei enjoys a rare moment of supremacy within the regime. Nevertheless, his position remains unstable and his temporary supremacy may not last long.

He could opt for normalisation with the US, hoping to enlarge his support base. In Barack Obama, he faces an American president who, like Jimmy Carter, is willing to acknowledge the Islamic Republic as a regional power.

However, normalisation with US could change the socio-political landscape in the Iran. Queues of Iranians seeking visas at the US embassy in Tehran, a direct American “cultural invasion”, repeatedly denounced by Khamenei, and visits, both as tourists and investors, by millions of Iranians living abroad could create an atmosphere in which Khomeinsim would look out of place.

Khamenei might consider normalisation too risky for the regime. Having obtained Obama’s tacit acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, Khamenei could declare victory over the nuclear issue and further radicalise his regime by intensifying moves against the US on other fronts, notably Iraq and the Gulf. That is the North Korean method of cheat-and-retreat in which a step backwards is followed with two steps forward against “the enemy.”

Which course would Khamenei choose? Though the jury is out my feeling is that he lacks the courage to opt for normalisation.