In an interview Monday with Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iranian President Muhammad Khatami accepted recent overtures by U.S. President Bill Clinton in which Clinton acknowledged the West's past abuses of Iran. But the olive branch was unable to persuade Khatami to succumb to U.S. desires for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Khatami said that U.S. words should be matched by action and that the U.S. was still victimizing Iran and many other countries in the region.
Although Iran's recently elected reform President has improved Iran's relations with several previous enemies, Khatami has not been able to surmount perceived U.S. inflexibility. On May 18, Iran established formal relations with Britain, the first such ties since the 1979 Iranian revolution. For Britain, Iran's withdrawal of a fatwa (religious edict) calling for the death of writer Salman Rushdie was sufficient justification to reestablish ties. But America has presented a near impossible list of demands for the Iranian government to meet before the United States will ease the 20-year diplomatic and economic isolation of the country. According to the BBC, Washington is concerned over supposed Iranian support for international terrorism, Iran's alleged quest for weapons of mass destruction and its opposition to the Middle East peace process.
While Khatami has gracefully accepted U.S. overtures and has even extended his own tentative peace offers, he has bristled at the U.S. preconditions to a lifting of the sanctions and diplomatic isolation and remains steadfast in his objections to U.S. foreign policy in the region.
And Khatami has every right to remain wary of moving too close to the United States too quickly, given the U.S. foreign policy of the past. Since the Nixon Doctrine of 1969 and the Twin Power policy, also established in the late 1960s, the United States has attempted to make Iran a regional ally in order to help stabilize U.S. interests in the Gulf. Although U.S. support for the Shah and opposition to the Islamic revolution was thought to be part of a larger containment policy for Soviet expansion, the continued U.S. presence in the Gulf following the collapse of the Soviet Union reveals something more critical: American oil interests.
In the days before the revolution, America attempted to protect its interests through alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, as friendly "twin powers" in the Gulf. After the revolution, the United States improved its ties with Iraq and backed it against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. And the United States maintains support for Iranian opposition groups, including the Mujahideen Khalq.
Despite Washington's approval of Khatami's reform measures in Iran, the continued sanctions against Iran show that U.S. policy is more concerned with maintaining its regional interests than the progress of democracy. An easing of the U.S. imposed isolation against Iran would be a substantial victory for Khatami's reform politics in Iran and would help him stem the conservative backlash from the revolution's old guard.
But Khatami has not lived up to U.S. standards as a regional puppet. The Iranian president places his reforms squarely within Islam and his idea of an "Islamic democracy" seems to be gaining momentum. His party scored widespread victories in recent parliamentary elections. Yet far from making the new reformist an ally for democracy and peace in the Middle East, the U.S. remains wary of Khatami and is perhaps feeling increasingly threatened. Khatami's recent visits to Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as his overtures to Egypt and Iraq demonstrate the possibility for increased regional cooperation, a prospect that could work to undermine U.S. hegemony in the region.
Khatami represents a popular movement and, as evidenced in a May 24 IRNA interview in which he stated, "We adapt good things from the west and push back things which we do not accept," there is the real possibility of adapting Islam to the modern world. In his book The Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky says that the U.S. remains hostile to Iran, despite its democratic reforms, because of "the threat that it might inspire democratizing tendencies that would undermine the array of dictatorships that the U.S. relies on to control the people of the region." While ideological concerns force Washington to condone reforms within Iranian society, U.S. policy in the Gulf remains committed to the protection of U.S. interests. As Khatami becomes aware of the threat his popular reforms pose for American interests in the Gulf, his recent interviews show increasing skepticism for America's willingness to ease Iran's isolation.