In the initial days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Iran's two-decades-long enmity toward the United States dissolved in an extraordinary outpouring of compassion. President Mohammed Khatami boldly declared: "On behalf of the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic, I denounce [the attacks] which led to the killing of defenseless people." Days later a similar condemnation came from Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Could the horrific attacks spur rapprochement between Iran and the "Great Satan"?
If Khamenei's remarks last week are anything to go by, the answer is: not yet. Speaking to a gathering of veterans of the war with Iraq, Khamenei bluntly told the U.S. "We are neither with you [nor] with terrorists," as the crowd chanted "Death to America" for the first time since the Sept. 11 atrocities. Iran's mercurial response to the American effort to build a global coalition against terrorism highlights the country's internal struggle between hard-liners who cling to anti-Western ideology and reformers who want to open Iran to the world. For the most part, this debate has raged in the Iranian press and parliament. But as the U.S. forms new alliances with old enemies in the wake of the attacks, Iran's domestic politics have taken on international dimensions.
Both sides stand to gain from better relations. For Iran, support for an anti-terrorism coalition could get sanctions lifted and frozen assets released. In exchange, Washington would expect Iran to provide valuable intelligence on the Taliban and to stop supporting extremist groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Not least, Khatami's moral authority in the Islamic world could help dampen any anti-Western backlash in the wake of military attacks on Afghanistan.
Last week's unprecedented visit to Tehran by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw the first by a British Foreign Secretary since the 1979 Islamic Revolution was meant to be a dramatic sign of this newfound cooperation. "If you're trying to get across that this isn't the West vs. Islam, a good way to symbolize that is [having] the British and Iranian Foreign Ministers on the same platform," says a Foreign Office official. Despite Khamenei's stridency, British sources say Straw left talks with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi concluding that Iran would remain neutral during any attack. On Friday former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said, "If the U.S. decides not to impose its own will, we are ready to join the antiterrorism coalition under the umbrella of the United Nations, despite our differences with the United States."
Whether Iran acts on words like these depends on complex and competing forces within the country's political and religious élite. Since the attacks, many reformists have pushed to take advantage of the changed diplomatic landscape to improve ties with the U.S. Yet some within the reform camp, notably the hard-core left-wing militants who helped establish Hizballah, are standing their anti-American ground. Even among right-wing clerics there is disagreement: fundamentalists decry American hypocrisy and arrogance, but pragmatists see the wisdom of temperance. As Taha Hashemi, editor of the daily Entekhab and one of Khamenei's closest advisers, observed just days before Khamenei's rebuff to the U.S.: "Opportunities that come up like this should be used to create a common understanding."
This sentiment is echoed on the streets of Tehran. Ordinary Iranians see the current flurry of diplomatic activity as an opportunity to rescue the country from internal stagnation and external threat. Many, particularly those who recall the war with Iraq, fear a belligerent stance will make Iran still on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism a target of renewed U.S. wrath. "If America attacks, we're the ones who'll have to fight," says Ali Hojjati, 20.
The day after Khamenei's speech, an old man at a kiosk gazed at a headline in the right-wing paper Kayhan: America is insincere, we won't cooperate. "I remember during the Gulf War, one of the reformists said we should help the Iraqis fight the U.S.," he recalled. "How come every time there's a war outside, Iran has to have a war inside?"
The winner of this internal struggle will decide not only Iran's response to the antiterrorism campaign, but the country's place in the world.