Reform vs. Reality
By David Ignatius
Friday, January 23, 2004; Page A21
DAVOS, Switzerland -- Even by the standards of this annual gathering of the masters of the great and the good, it was a remarkable sight: Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, standing in his black turban and clerical robes before the assembled chiefs of the global economy, lecturing them on the convergence of Islam and the Western philosophy of Max Weber and David Hume.
It was a sort of Davos dream come true: The idea that, as Khatami argued, dialogue and rational debate could save the world from its troubles. The Iranian leader seemed like a man who had landed in the Swiss Alps in a time machine from the Age of Enlightenment: He decried the effects of overspecialization of knowledge; he spoke of the tension between the ideal and the possible and said that only reason and ethics could overcome such contradictions.
Harvard professor Joseph Nye emerged from the hall shaking his head in bemused wonder; it was the kind of presentation that could have been given at an American university and received a respectable grade.
Khatami's speech to the World Economic Forum was a stirring performance, but as a guide to the political future, I fear it was misleading. It's not that he doesn't mean his fine words. You could see the pleasure he took in displaying his intelligence and erudition for the Davos audience. It's just that he doesn't have the political cards back home to deliver on his promise of neo-enlightenment.
The reality is that Khatami and his fellow reformers in the Iranian parliament are being eaten alive by the conservative clerics who really run the country. The reformers have become enough of a nuisance that the mullah's Council of Guardians disqualified nearly half of them from next month's elections. Khatami and his parliamentary allies threatened to quit, but their protests are bootless -- and most Iranians unhappily know it.
Unless Iran's constitution is changed, the mullahs have the ultimate power. And, as Khatami conceded at a news conference after his speech, he has no plans to change the constitution.
Iran-watchers tell me the real power player in Tehran today is former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. He's a classic wheeler-dealer -- everything that the intellectual Khatami is not. Rafsanjani may run for president again, but even if he remains in the shadows, he is a truer image of Iranian politics than the philosophic Khatami. What's more, Rafsanjani is said to be the man coordinating Iran's highly manipulative (and highly successful) policy toward Iraq -- and the one who will coordinate any back-channel deals with Washington.
For me, Khatami embodies that classic dilemma of the intellectual in politics. His world is the library, not the street; however popular his call for modernism may be with ordinary Iranians, he won't win the brawls that determine day-to-day politics.
Over time, I suspect that Khatami's reformist ideas will prove more powerful than they seem today. That's the other paradox of intellectuals in politics: They may seem to lose in the short run, but in the long run, their ideas can transform nations and cultures. Khatami, the Islamic Hegelian who believes that ideas drive history, may eventually win. But he might not be around to savor the victory.
This is the mullahs' moment. Tehran is coordinating a very clever strategy of drawing the United States onto terrain where the Iranians control all the hidden levers of power. President Bush's claim that the U.S. show of force in Iraq has intimidated the Iranians is, as Khatami suggested, questionable. Tehran exerts substantial influence over Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has defied U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer and gotten away with it.
Iran's hegemony extends farther west. The most dynamic political force in the Arab world today is probably the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah -- another Iranian creation. Already, Hezbollah agents are said to be infiltrating Iraq. Are they preparing to use the tactics of kidnapping and hostage-taking that made Lebanon a deadly zone for Americans in the mid-1980s? I hope not, but this is a danger that should concern policymakers.
Finally, it seems inevitable that over the next few years, Iran will emerge as a nuclear-capable power. As long ago as 1995, Iraqi intelligence estimated that Iran was very close to having a bomb. That doesn't necessarily mean the Iranians will build and test a nuclear weapon. They may, like Israel, coast along in a posture of ambiguity, meeting demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency even as they covertly pursue their nuclear ambitions.
The rise of Iran is a decisive fact of life in the Middle East. The learned voice of Mohammad Khatami is part of that Iranian reality, and we should embrace his proposals for dialogue. But the West should remember that the real power lies elsewhere, far from the library.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company