as the united states struggles to put together a coalition against world terrorism, one of the most intriguing players is a state that just a few years ago was one of America's most implacable enemies: Iran. The Iranian government has given tacit support to the United States's efforts to target Osama bin Laden. Iranian president Mohammad Khatami has reportedly signalled to the U.S. that his government would not oppose military strikes against specific targets in Afghanistan.
Iran is by no means a free and open society, but it has made significant strides toward democracy. Graham Fuller, former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council, a U.S. government think tank, says, "At some point it behooves us to get along with some Islamist regimes that are moving toward fairly moderate policies."
How rapid is that movement? Fuller says Iran is probably the most liberal and stable Islamic state in the world.
"One of its signal features is its diversity -- violent and peaceful, democratic and autocratic, modernist and traditional." He cites "ideas developing in Iran about relationships between Islam, democracy and secularism" as examples of "fresh thinking."
Iran is clearly the key to maintaining the balance of power both in the Middle East and central Asia. Iran, as the world's third-largest oil exporter, and America come down on the same side on key issues: containing Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan, stopping the flow of drugs from Afghanistan and keeping the Persian Gulf open to oil shipments.
Like Russia, Iran has also long been a supporter of the Afghan resistance movement and would be happy to see the Taliban fall. In 1999, Iran almost went to war against the ruling Afghan religious party when Taliban forces killed eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist after capturing a Shiite town in southwestern Afghanistan. (Iran is a Shiite nation, while the Taliban are an extreme fundamentalist Sunni sect.)
"To the Iranians, the Taliban are by far a graver threat than the United States," says Robin Wright, author of The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil And Transformation In Iran (2000). "They think they're barbarians because of the way they treat women, among other things."
But shared interests go only so far. In a speech on Iranian national television, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei said the United States was "not sincere enough to lead an international move against terrorism," citing U.S. support for Israel as a key obstacle to Iranian participation in the U.S.-led coalition.
Iran also has strategic fears that will limit its role in any action against Afghanistan. "Iranians would like to see a change of regime in Kabul, but the prospect of U.S. troops in Pakistan, Afghanistan and possibly the central Asian republics feeds Iran's perennial fears of encirclement," says Shaul Bakash, professor of history at George Mason University.
As well, Iran remains on the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, thanks largely to its sponsorship of Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shiite group that led the successful war against Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans, as part of its campaign to drive the U.S. out of Lebanon. Whether at this point it should still be considered a terrorist, or merely militant, organization is a point of controversy.
Fuller acknowledges that Iran continues to support Hezbollah and smaller terrorist groups, but says Hezbollah has moved away from terrorism since it drove the U.S. and Israel out of Lebanon. "They haven't really been engaged in terror attacks for six or seven years,' he says.
The United States imposed sanctions against Iran in 1996 when Iran attempted to acquire biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. If the sanctions have been the greatest obstacle to improved U.S.-Iran relations, the looming clash between the West and Islam has the potential to push the two nations even further apart.
"The Iranian leader has posited himself as the spokesman for Muslim interests, so it's difficult for him to just stand aside," Bakash says. "If the United States makes good on its position that you're either with us or against us, relations between the U.S. and Iran could deteriorate.'
In The Last Great Revolution, Wright argues that the Iranian Revolution against the Shah in the 70s was not so much a religious as a political revolution that aimed, like the French or Russian revolutions before it, at expanding freedom. Unfortunately it was hijacked by the clerics.
"Iran's revolution was always a part of the broader global expansion of democracy," she says. "Iranians twice before in the 20th century had tried evolutionary political tactics to end a monarchy dating back two and a half millennia."
Since Khatami's election in 1997, U.S. hopes of re-establishing a diplomatic relationship with Iran have swelled. Despite this détente, however, throughout Khatami's first term as president it was clear that the opponents of reform remained strong. Khatami and the moderates had little control over the military and intelligence services, which assassinated some opposition figures and closed many reformist publications.
As for the hard-liners, Fuller says they're eventually doomed. "Time is clearly on the side of the reformers. Most of the hard-liners know the end is coming." James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says the combination of economic depression and widely perceived mismanagement by the Shiite clerics who run the judiciary and military have even alienated key allies in the revolution.
The majority of Iranians are now under 30 years old; the older mullahs are often perceived as out of touch. "It's often said that the mullahs are making Iran a nation of atheists, because they're subverting the authority of Islam," says Phillips.
Western reporters in Iran have frequently noted the abundance of satellite dishes in Tehran, and the inroads of the global consumer culture: name brands everywhere and American sports jerseys on the streets.
But Michael Jordan T-shirts and reruns of Dynasty may not be enough to bridge the gap between the two nations.
Says Bakash, "My impression was that the Bush administration was eager to be able to relax sanctions and open up a dialogue with Iran. But there have been moments like this before, and they have fallen apart.'
Regardless of the immediate future of U.S.-Iran relations, Robin Wright believes that in the long run Iran and its yet-unfinished revolution may point toward a possible Third Way for Islamic societies -- a welcome possibility since September 11.
"Here's an Islamic country where you have women who are vice-presidents and members of parliament. This is where women can be nobodies and run for office. And that's sometimes in spite of the clerics' wishes."