U.S. should wait for real Iranian reforms

Since Mohammed Khatami was elected Iranian president in May 1997, the Reformists have swept Iranian political elections, attaining a parliamentary majority last week. A coalition of disparate political groups bound only by their support for Khatami, the Reformists pose a new challenge to the old regime of religious and military hard-liners, despite Khatami’s repeated assurances. They will have little time to celebrate their victory; their diverse platform, including Marxists, nationalists and religious moderates, presents an obstacle to maintaining a solid front against the hard-liners and poses a challenge to U.S. diplomacy with respect to security issues.
Since Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 — which led to the overthrowing of the Shah — political control has rested with the Conservatives, who have sponsored terrorist groups and attacks on U.S. interests and further discord in Palestine. Despite the Reformists’ victories, the hard-line Conservatives still have control of military and judiciary institutions that can yet override the Reformist-controlled legislature. To date, Iran still poses a significant security threat to the United States. Recent reports have confirmed that the Iranian government is pursuing a nuclear program and has received assistance and materials from Russia, China and North Korea. Within a few years, Iran might have the ability to test intercontinental ballistic missiles, some capable of reaching American soil.
Although last week’s election results offered some relief and encouragement, American diplomats — warily hopeful for improved relations — are still ill at ease. Despite Khatami’s repeated intimations and gestures in attempt to abate tensions, the Iranian government rejected U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s offer for talks citing concern for the $12 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets still held by the United States.
The disunity of the Reformist platform further complicates matters. The Reformists have yet to find solid consensus within their own ranks, their main differences centering on three specific areas: cultural freedom, economic policy and foreign policy. Their victory reflects a negative vote for the hard-liners, rather than the people’s support for their vague agenda. As such, their loose organization will make it difficult to reconcile opposing views on loosening restrictions on women, opening up to foreign investment, lifting bans on Western entertainment and other such matters, particularly those pertaining to U.S.-Iran relations.
Accordingly, the U.S. government should be cautious in openly encouraging the Reformists or pursuing relations at the risk of alienating any faction of the coalition. It very well might have been too early to approach the new government for talks, considering that the hard-liners do not currently have the ability to override the new government. Any intimation at alliance with or support of the Reform government might very well inspire the hard-liners to retaliate by exploiting even the faintest tie between the new government and the U.S., increasing their anti-American rhetoric and policies, and expediting their military operations. Rather than undermine the delicate reforms Iran has made, the United States should wait to see the reform process become realized.