Those Pesky Ayatollahs
Will America stand up for freedom and against terror in Iran?

Saturday, January 19, 2002 12:01 a.m.

When Israeli commandos seized an arms-laden Palestinian freighter in the Red Sea Jan. 3, they added both new clarity and new complexity to the war on terrorism: new clarity because the seizure destroys any lingering doubt that 1994 Peace Nobelist Yasser Arafat is still intent on conquest; new complexity because the weapons came from Iran, the site of a struggle between forces of good and evil the U.S. would like to influence.

For the moment, it appears that the forces of evil, as represented by the bloodthirsty clerics of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have the upper hand. The ayatollah's Revolutionary Guards, descended from the gang that held American diplomats hostage for 444 days two decades ago, most likely supplied the arms captured by the Israelis.

The ayatollah also is active on another front, neighboring Afghanistan. After reports circulated that Iran might be shipping arms across the border to its pet warlord in Herat, President Bush last week warned the supreme leader not to interfere with efforts to set up a stable government in Afghanistan. The president suggested that the penalty for refusal would be exacted by diplomatic means, but added the word "initially."

The complexity lies in the fact that there also are positive forces stirring in Iran, offering hope that this pariah country might some day be returned to the family of peaceful nations. Reza Pahlavi, the 41-year-old son of the late shah of Iran, told Journal editors a few weeks ago that the clerics have become highly unpopular. Riots after an Iranian soccer loss last October took on a decidedly antiregime political tone. Mr. Pahlavi says his Web site promoting passive resistance to the theocrats has had several million page visits.

Iran is a country of about 65 million people, about half of whom were born after the revolution that forced the shah from the Peacock Throne and sent him, ill and friendless, searching for sanctuary--something the Carter administration chose not to provide, by the way. However, the revolutionary fervor that followed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's overthrow of the shah wore off a long time ago as a result of the clerics' brutal treatment of their enemies, the installation of a harsh Muslim law, the subjugation of women and a bloody eight-year war with Iraq.

With the economy stagnant under the dead hand of the clerics, Iran's young population has become increasingly restless. Iranians have elected self-proclaimed moderates to the presidency and Parliament. But under the Iranian constitution, the decisions of these bodies can be overruled by the clerical councils. A new Human Rights Watch report notes a sharp increase in public executions and public floggings over the past year.

A youthful population disgusted with the elderly tyrants who rule them has potential for a new revolution. Many Iranians doubt that Reza Pahlavi has the moxie to lead such a fight, but at least he provides Iranians with a window to a better world outside the country's borders. "Moderate" president Mohammad Khatami seems little more than a lightning rod to draw off popular discontent, rather than someone who might be likely to rebel against his fellow clerics.

Yet the popular unrest in Iran does have one probable consequence. True to an age-old pattern in politics, it makes the ruling clerics more intent on whipping up external "enemies." They have been burning up the airwaves lately with long, hostile screeds against Israel and the U.S., reminiscent of Khomeini's fulminations of 20 years ago. The U.S. can laugh off their rantings, but the Israelis can't. The arms shipment to the Palestinians was an escalation of the war that has been waged for years on Israel's northern border by the Iranian-supported Hezbollah terrorists.

The arms ship, named the Karine A, was a clandestine operation put together, according to the Israelis, by a Palestinian naval officer named Adel al-Mughrabi. He bought the ship in Lebanon, hired a crew that positioned it off the Iranian coast to pick up weapons sealed in floating watertight containers, sent it on a diversionary trip to take on innocent cargo in Dubai and then sailed it toward an arms drop-off point near territory controlled by Arafat's Palestinian Authority. On the way, it was intercepted by the Israelis. They thus prevented Arafat getting his hands on 50 tons of munitions, including antitank missiles and Katyusha rockets capable of delivering high explosives to Israeli cities.

President Khatami told reporters in New York last fall that Iran has no "organic links," whatever that means, to the terrorist organization Hezbollah. But Hezbollah seems to have no trouble getting the kind of armaments Iran was trying to supply to the Palestine Authority, which is itself controlled by another organization that has made its way in the world through terrorism, Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel probably can handle Arafat and the PLO. But it's President Bush's problem to figure out how to handle Iran and its theocratic regime. When it became clear in 2000 that the Iranian people were thirsting for more-moderate leadership, the Clinton administration began to take an interest in finding ways to support politicians friendly toward the West. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made overtures to Mr. Khatami, offering to ease some of the economic sanctions installed during the hostage crisis.
But it now begins to appear that Iran is playing a good guy-bad guy game. It certainly doesn't seem likely that friendly gestures toward Iran will be reciprocated by the clerics who make the real decisions. Rather, the indications are that they may become more and more obnoxious as their popularity declines.
Guiding Iran towards moderation requires a careful reading of whether the Iranian people are yet ready to depose the ruling clerics. Some Iranians have been martyred for trying to stand up to the regime. Usually they have been dealt with by the secret police. As in all police states, it is difficult to organize and support a serious resistance movement.

Mr. Bush has already advised the clerics to butt out of Afghanistan. Next will come attention to Iran's support of terrorism. It will need to start with a demand that Iran, the PLO and Hezbollah recognize Israel's right to exist or accept the consequences of refusal. Capture of a ship loaded with Iranian arms meant to kill Israelis lends clarity to the issue. There is little excuse for anyone to now say he doesn't understand what is afoot.

Mr. Melloan is deputy editor, international, of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears in the Journal on Tuesdays.