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Sun., Sep. 03, 2006 / Sha`ban  10, 1427

CHICAGO – In the first such visit by a high-level Iranian figure in decades, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami called for a constructive dialogue between Islam and the other, denouncing extremists who hijacked the Muslim faith.

"The dialogue can help to bring these two communities together," Khatami told a group of Muslim minority leaders at a suburban Chicago mosque in his first pubic appearance in the US, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Khatami, who founded and heads the International Institute for Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures, said "extremists, terrorists or the people who exploit the name of religion" do not have any room in such a dialogue.

He recalled he was quick to denounce the terrorist 9/11 attacks "since I knew this inferno would only intensify extremism and one-sidedness and would have no outcome except to retire justice and intellect and sacrifice righteousness and humanity."

Khatami, a reformist who was president from 1997 to 2005, also denounced the current "war mongering against Islam and Islamophobia."

He urged American Muslims to challenge the misguided images of Islam portrayed by the media and politicians so that a more balanced foreign policy can be achieved.

"Public opinion can be rescued from the grips of ignorance and blunder and the domination of arrogant, warmongering and violence-triggering policies will end."

Khatami is the most senior Iranian to visit the US since Washington broke off diplomatic relations following the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran.

He was granted a US visa on Tuesday, August 28.

Fueling Terror

Addressing the Islamic Society of North America's 43rd convention on Saturday, Khatami castigated US foreign policy for fueling terrorism worldwide.

"As America claims to be fighting terrorism, it implements policies that cause the intensification of terrorism and institutionalized violence," he told the four-day ISNA gathering, which opened Friday, September 1.

"The power of powers enjoys access to international instruments for securing their supremacy and strengthening their dominance, only seeking total subservience of others," Khatami said through an interpreter, referring to the US.

He also censured the US for finding it "more convenient" to deal with despots than democratic regimes that do not serve its interests.

"The outcome of such behavior is the cyclical increase and buildup of hatred towards policies implemented by the US throughout the world, and particularly in the Middle East," Khatami added.

The former Iranian leader is expected to address a select audience at the Washington National Cathedral on Thursday, September 7.

He will to attend a UN conference in New York on the "Dialogue of Civilizations" on Friday, September 8.

Khatami might also meet with former US president Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was marred by the Tehran embassy crisis.


27 December 2006
Mahan Abedin

As was widely expected the Iraq Study Group advised the Bush Administration to engage with Iran on the issue of Iraq. But while this key recommendation is likely to dominate the media and academic discourse in Washington DC over the next few months, it is unlikely ever to amount to much.

It is not that the Iraq Study Group has it wrong. On the contrary, the US can not hope to stabilise Iraq without, at least, the tacit support of the Islamic Republic. But the obstacles to engagement are so numerous and complex, that they override America’s critical strategic need to gain some leverage over the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

Iran and the United States are at loggerheads over all the strategic issues in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, ranging from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to America’s half-hearted attempts at promoting ‘safe’ forms of democracy in the region. Indeed, given the depth and intensity of animosity, the best the two sides can hope for in the foreseeable future is to prevent their ‘Cold War’ from turning into actual military conflict.

Conflict without parallel

Iranian-American relations since 1979 are truly unprecedented in the history of modern international relations. There are simply no paradigms or comparative frameworks to analyse against. The complete freezing of relations for over a quarter of a century would not be so strange had there been more symmetry between the two countries. But this asymmetric Cold War pits a global hegemon with seemingly limitless resources against a regional power with modest means.

The confrontation works at historical, ideological and geopolitical levels. While all the levels are mutually reinforcing, usually one or two dominate the hostile dynamics at any given point in time. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was the starting point of the conflict. The new revolutionary regime’s misgivings towards the United States were essentially historical and revolved around America’s highly questionable role in modern Iranian politics, ranging from organising the 1953 coup against Dr. Mossadegh’s nationalist government to buttressing the Pahlavi dictatorship. However, America’s refusal to fully acknowledge the new regime (best highlighted by giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah) transformed the Iranian revolutionaries’ misgivings into downright animosity.

From the revolutionaries’ perspective, the United States simply did not respect Iranian sovereignty. But there was also an ideological element to the break in relations.

What kind of revolution?

On balance, the Iranian revolution was more about introducing new ideas into the religio-political lexicon of Muslims than it was about asserting Iranian independence and sovereignty. From the very beginning the revolution’s leaders made clear that theirs was an “Islamic” revolution and as such it constituted the greatest Islamic revivalist project of the modern era. Iranian revolutionaries saw the charismatic leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini as the culmination of the legacies of Islamic revivalists beginning with Seyed Jamaledin Afghani (Asadabadi), Mohammad Abduh, Mohammad Rashid Rida and continuing with Hassan al-Banna and Sayed Qutb.

There are at least three core reasons why Iran’s Islamic revolution constituted the most strategic breakthrough for the modern Islamic movement that emerged in the late 19th century.

First and foremost, it marked the first time that modern ‘Islamists’ were propelled into power. Second, Iranian revolutionaries embarked on an ambitious long-term plan to Islamise Iranian society. Third, the new regime (despite its Shia appearance) was wholeheartedly wedded to exporting the “Islamic revolution” to sympathetic audiences the world over. While the Saudis (with much encouragement from the Americans) tried hard to limit the significance of the revolution to Shias in the first instance—and subsequently tried to reduce it further to Iranian Shias only—the Islamic Republic, from the very outset, projected itself as a non-sectarian entity wholeheartedly devoted to the politics of pan-Islam.

To consolidate and export the revolution, Iranian leaders developed an entire infrastructure of new Islamic rhetoric based on timeless Islamic terms and concepts. Terms like “Mustazafin” (dispossessed), “Estekbar” (arrogance) and “Taghout” (satanic rule) gained wide currency throughout the Arab world. Today these terms are widely used by the so-called Jihadi Salafis who—on the surface at least—profess profound contempt for the Islamic Republic. More broadly, these terms constitute the basic language of Islamists everywhere, irrespective of their position towards the Islamic Republic. While the Iranian revolution has failed to develop a significant political constituency in the Muslim world (with the obvious exception of Lebanon) its language and imagery have been adopted everywhere. On this account Iranian leaders can claim a measure of success.

Targeting the “Great Satan”

From the outset, Iranian revolutionary leaders focussed some of their strongest rhetorical invective against the United States. This found its strongest expression in Ayatollah Khomeini’s reference to the US as the “Great Satan”. The message of the Iranian revolution was simple: the United States—on account of its heritage, values, power and ambitions—posed the greatest threat to the security and prosperity of the global Muslim community.

In the 1980s this conception of the United Stated as a “Great Satan” and the pinnacle of “Global Arrogance” was limited to militant Shias only. The Sunnis did not initially respond to this message for three reasons. First and foremost, the conditions for anti-American Islamic militancy had not yet developed in Sunni Islamist circles. Second, Saudi propaganda was effective in countering the message of the Iranian revolution. And last but not least, the Afghan Jihad not only consumed much of the energies of Sunni Islamists but it also neutralised much of their anti-American feelings on account of the fact that their “Jihad” was partly bankrolled by the United States.

Two developments transformed the situation. The fading of the Afghan Jihad marked the end of détente between the United States and Sunni Islamic militants. But more importantly perhaps, Islamists began to dominate both the discourse and practice of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. The rise of Hamas in the late 1980s was a truly strategic development that has transformed not only the Palestinian resistance but also some of the basic features of Palestinian society.

While Hamas is firmly rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, it is nonetheless a complex organisation. At its extreme right wing fringe there are elements close to the so-called Jihadi Salafis. At the other end of spectrum lie elements which are indistinguishable from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which to date is the only Arab Sunni Islamist organisation that professes strong loyalty to Iran’s Islamic revolution. But Hamas as a whole is close to the Islamic Republic. It is unfortunate that while Western commentators usually exaggerate Iran’s influence over Lebanon’s Hezbollah, they tend to downplay the Islamic Republic’s significant leverage over Hamas.

Both the PIJ and Hamas were instrumental in spreading the idiom and long-term strategic vision of Iran’s Islamic revolution to Arab Sunni Islamist movements. This includes al-Qaeda and the broader Jihadi Salafi movement. While on the surface the Jihadi Salafis are dismissive of Hamas (on account of its participation in elections and the increasingly “nationalist” nature of its resistance to Israel) they have been influenced by its methodology and success. More broadly, while the Jihadi Salafis express deep contempt and hatred towards Iran’s Islamic revolution, they are parasitic on its rhetoric, heritage and long-term geopolitical vision.

Ironically as the Sunni Islamists adopted its language and vision (if not the model itself), the Islamic Republic moved away from ideological anti-Americanism in the 1990s. This not only reflected the cooling down of revolutionary fervour but was also indicative of Iran’s growing geopolitical weight. The conclusive defeat of Saddam Hussein’s armies in the Gulf War of 1991 was a turning point for post-revolutionary Iran and once again positioned the country as the foremost power in the region.

But the erosion of ideological fervour did not lead to any cracks (let alone a breakthrough) in the deep freeze that characterised Iranian-American hostility. In fact as the hostility assumed greater geopolitical (as opposed to ideological) dimensions, the rift widened and deepened. This is best exemplified by the Clinton Administration’s persistent efforts in frustrating Iran’s legitimate geopolitical aspirations in Central Asia, the Caspian region and South-West Asia throughout the 1990s.

Badly bruised by the Iranian revolution (and the 444 day hostage crisis that soon followed) successive American administrations have nurtured an obsessive hatred towards the Islamic Republic. America’s irrational fear of Iran is best understood in the context of geopolitical loss (i.e. the downfall of the Shah) and the politics of humiliation that followed. After all the Islamic Republic sponsored the most successful anti-American organisations in the Middle East in the 1980s, not least the nascent Hezbollah which can claim most of the credit for driving American and other Western forces out of Lebanon in the 1980s.

A Wall of Mistrust

Iranian leaders often describe the obstacles to a breakthrough in their hostile relationship with the United States as a “wall of mistrust”. This captures the essence of the problem as the two sides are on a collision course over all the strategic issues in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

While the steadily developing crisis over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme is dominating analysis on Iranian-American relations, this issue is not the most important divide between the two sides. It is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that fundamentally divides Iran from the United States in the Middle East. While America’s primary long-term objective in the Middle East is the survival of Israel, the Islamic Republic is committed to the very opposite. Every other American goal in the region (with the exception of energy security) flows from its long-term and seemingly unconditional commitment to Israel. This includes the half-hearted project to spread democracy in the region. But to their dismay the Americans have discovered that far from producing “safe” forms of democracy, even modestly free and fair elections tend to empower organisations that challenge American hegemony in the region. The electoral victory of Hamas in the January 2005 Palestinian elections is the best case in point.

The Islamic Republic’s commitment to Hamas should not be underestimated. This is often overlooked in Western and Arab analysis, which tends to focus on Iran’s influence in Iraq and Lebanon. In many respects the Islamic Republic’s leverage over Hamas is greater than its influence over its Shia Islamist allies inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. This has been particularly the case after the imposition of crippling financial sanctions on the Hamas-controlled Palestinian authority. Hamas has not only gained a dominant position in the resistance against Israel, but it is also slowly Islamising the entire Palestinian narrative; something Iranian leaders had aspired to achieve at the outset of the Islamic revolution.

More broadly, the Islamic Republic is completely at odds over America’s “democratisation” drive in the region. There is an element of hurt pride in the equation, not least because the Americans do not acknowledge the democratic credentials of the Islamic Republic. For all its faults, the Islamic Republic has a far more sophisticated democracy than even America’s more enlightened allies in the region, not least the Mubarak regime in Egypt. But much more importantly the two sides are completely at odds over the geopolitical and cultural/civilisational consequences of democracy. The Iranians see Islamic movements as the key to national sovereignty and genuine long-term democratic reform in the region. Meanwhile the Americans see “safe” forms of democracy as the most effective device to guarantee Israel’s long-term security and in the very long-term change the very essence of Islamic societies. The so-called War on Terror (now conveniently called the “Long War”) is an important part of this generational American strategy.

The two sides are now even on a collision course in Iraq, where there was some convergence of interests at the beginning of the occupation.

The Islamic Republic has an abiding interest in the failure of the United States in Iraq. This abiding interest overrides its commitment to the security and long-term political positioning of its Shia Islamist allies in Baghdad. But this fundamental reality has not stopped Iraqi Shia Islamists from mediating between the two sides. The latest of these initiatives was Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s recent trip to Washington DC where he had a meeting with George W. Bush. As the leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Hakim is arguably the most powerful man in Baghdad. It is also well known in informed circles in Tehran that Hakim has been the unofficial international envoy of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence community at least since the late 1980s.

While the Iranian intelligence services send confusing signals to the US President, the Islamic Republic is now publicly asserting its opposition to the entire American project in Iraq. “Iran’s position is to oppose occupation and help the Iraqi people defy the occupiers”, stated Dr. Mohammad Jaafari of the Supreme National Security Council (the country’s highest national security body). [1] As the Americans steadily retreat from Iraq, Iranian leaders gradually clarify their true position and intentions. There is nothing in this position that can be harnessed by the Americans to prepare conditions for an “elegant” exit from Iraq. Iran’s fear of civil war in Iraq is nowhere near as great as its fear of American success anywhere in the region.

The New Islamists

While much of the conflict between Iran and the United States can be reduced to geopolitical rivalry, there is a growing ideological dimension to the deep divide. This revolves around the Islamic Republic’s outspoken President and his supporters. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not only striving to revive the ideological spirit of the 1980s but he is also transforming the Islamic Republic in the process.

While President Ahmadinejad has a diverse political constituency, his most committed supporters are what can perhaps be best described as the neo-Islamists. On the domestic front the neo-Islamists want to generate conditions more conducive to social justice and economic equality. This has inevitably put them on a collision course with the conservatives led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Islamic Republic’s most influential power-broker. While the neo-Islamists share some common objectives with the reformists (not least the desire to diminish clerical dominance in the Islamic Republic), they strongly object to the reformists’ long-term plan to transform the Islamic Republic beyond recognition; in effect fundamentally and irrevocably changing the balance of power between the system’s democratic and Islamic components in favour of the former.

While Ahmadinejad and his supporters are deeply loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei (the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader) they look beyond his reign and are planning accordingly. They want to prevent a leadership deficit in the event of Khamenei’s death. This may require seriously altering the institution of Velayat-e- Faqih (Rule of the Jurisconsult), the cornerstone of Iran’s unique system of Islamic government. While Ahmadinjead and his supporters have suffered a setback in the recent elections for the Assembly of Experts (a body tasked with electing and—in the event of poor performance – dismissing the supreme leader) this is unlikely to affect their long-term planning on this issue.

On the external front, Ahmadinejad and his neo-Islamist allies want to align Iran with the growing Islamic movement in the region and beyond. From their perspective, Iran has an abiding stake in the future of peaceful Islamic movements as opposed to the perpetuation of autocratic Arab regimes. Moreover, they believe the Islamic Republic has the heritage, ideological infrastructure and the resources to play a leadership role in this Islamisation process. This puts them at odds with conservative leaders like Hashemi Rafsanjani and the liberal reformists who wish to maintain Iran’s détente with the autocratic and failing regimes of the region. Ahmadinejad’s outspoken anti-Israeli rhetoric is designed to simultaneously embarrass and isolate conventional wisdom in the Islamic Republic and motivate Islamist forces the world over.

This neo-Islamist discourse in Iran is perhaps the last nail on the coffin of Iranian-American rapprochement. Indeed, the two sides have never been so divided in the past 27 years. This is more so because even the most astute American observers consistently fail to understand what is really happening in Iran. Henry Kissinger got it all wrong in the summer when he wrote: “A modern, strong, peaceful Iran could become a pillar of stability and progress in the region. This cannot happen unless Iran's leaders decide whether they are representing a cause or a nation.” [2] Leaving aside the intricate question of what kind of political system can best marshal Iran’s resources in the international arena, the Islamic Republic has never seen a fundamental dilemma between nation and ideology. Iranian Islamists have universally accepted the nation-state framework and, unlike Arab Islamists, they have rarely (if ever) talked of idealistic and impossibly elusive concepts such as a “Caliphate”.

Instead Iranian leaders see Islamic movements that are modelled, or at the very least influenced, by the Islamic revolution as the key to the “modern, strong and peaceful” region that Henry Kissinger talks about. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to align the Islamic Republic ever closer to the Islamic opposition in the Middle East and beyond, even if that sparks confrontation with Arab regimes. This will inevitably deepen the divide with the US.

A hopeless situation

Given this state of affairs, it is very difficult to see under what circumstances the current US Administration would even consider implementing the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group that relate to dialogue with Iran. The animosity between Iran and the US is without parallel in the modern world and is also arguably the most dangerous friction point in international relations. While there is enough wisdom and self-restraint on both sides to prevent this Cold War from escalating into a military conflict (at least for the foreseeable future), there is nothing which gives hope to resolving the impasse. It is an intractable historical, ideological and geopolitical conflict that is deeply woven into the psyches of the protagonists. It may take another generation before the deep freeze begins to thaw.


[1] “Jaryaneh ertejayee mantaghe nemeetavand ghodrateh Iran ra bepazirad” (The reactionary tendency in the region can not accept Iran’s power), Baztab,

[2] Henry A. Kissinger, 'The Next Steps with Iran', The Washington Post, 31 July 2006,


"He may want to build bridges between the world religions but the fact is he has already burnt them," said Baker.

CAIRO — Tony Blair's reported plans to cast himself as a multi-faith ambassador after leaving Downing Street were met by scorn and incredulity from lawmakers and experts, who believe his "bloody legacy" has widened rather than bridged the Islam-West divide, The Independent reported Sunday, May 6.
"He may want to build bridges between the world religions but the fact is he has already burnt them," said Norman Baker, a Liberal Democrat MP.

Blair's friends told The Independent that he was planning to set up a Blair Foundation in London soon after stepping down to mainly enhance dialogue between Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

"One of the things he wants to focus on is the inter-faith stuff," said one friend.

"It has always been something he has been interested in."

But several MPs, who were not identified by the daily, balked at Blair's new role, arguing that he has done more to create divisions between Islam and the West than any prime minister in living memory.

"He has been seen to be partisan in the Middle East, slavishly following (US President George) Bush, and will have no credibility with the Islamic world. It shows how deluded he is. His bridge will at best be a pier," insisted Baker.

Political experts and journalists have also questioned Blair's "faith healing" mission, saying the man leaves behind a "bloody legacy" that turned him into an emperor with no clothes.

Blair, whose popularity has slumped over the Iraq war and a series of political scandals, is set to announce on Tuesday, May 8, he will leave office.


"Nobody could credibly argue that Iraq caused terrorism, but to pretend that it does not exacerbate it was really foolish," said Wilkinson.
Political experts and journalists agreed Blair was leaving a less secure Britain with the terror ghost hovering around primarily because of following Bush's blindly in his Iraq's disastrous adventure.

"Blair's period of office may have coincided with the disarming of republican and some loyalist paramilitaries, but it has also seen hundreds of Britons rallying to Al-Qaeda," The Independent's veteran journalist Francis Elliott wrote in an editorial on Sunday.

"In reaching for a military solution to Iraq — which in any case was not a part of the Al-Qaeda equation in 2003 — he handed terrorists a new cause and a training ground."

Elliot wrote that terrorism on UK streets was transformed from 10 years ago.

"It is much more deadly, more unpredictable and far harder to prevent," he said, adding that Blair's "crusades" overseas have made Britain a prime target for terrorists.

Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, agreed Iraq gifted Al-Qaeda what he called a lifeline.

"Nobody could credibly argue that Iraq caused terrorism, but to pretend that it does not exacerbate it was really foolish," he told The Independent.

The British parliament's influential Foreign Affairs Committee concluded last July that international conflicts, such as the situation in Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories, breed feelings of injustice in the Muslim world, boosting support for terrorism.

A 2006 BBC World Service's survey found that people in 33 out of 35 countries worldwide believed the Anglo-American invasion had increased the threat of terrorism.

Crispin Black, a former intelligence officer, said intelligence services and the Foreign Office repeatedly warned Blair about the consequences for domestic terrorism of the Iraq adventure.

"Regardless of what you think about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, the question is, when warned, what did Blair do to secure the home front?" he told The Independent.

Police State

Analysts believe Blair, the Labour Party's longest-serving prime minister, would definitely be remembered for his draconian anti-terror measures, which encroached upon civil liberties and turned Britain into a police state.

"One enduring legacy of the Blair era will be the massive increase in surveillance and diminution of civil liberties," said Elliot.

A report by the government's privacy watchdog said last year that Britain was becoming a "Big Brother" society where the lives of millions were monitored and tracked from cradle to grave.

A 2006 document by the British Education Ministry has recommended lecturers and university staff spy on Muslim students on suspicious involvement in "extremist" activities.

"The price is internal surveillance to an unprecedented degree... there has not been this degree of penetration of our society by forces hostile to the state since Sir Francis Walsingham was pursuing Catholic plotters in the 16th century," Dame Pauline, former chair of the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), told The Independent.

"We are about at the acceptable limit of restraints on freedom of speech and association, such as the restrictions on demos near Parliament, and the curtailment of habeas corpus."

Weak Labour

Blair is also leaving a weak Labour, bequeathing his successor a tough task in reviving support for the party after it suffered losses in regional elections across Britain.

The biggest embarrassment came in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants a referendum on independence, is holding talks to try to build a coalition government with smaller parties.

Their one-seat victory over Labour pushed Blair's party into a second place in its traditional heartland for the first time since 1955.

Experts said the results have been seen as a protest against both Blair and his likely successor, prickly finance minister Gordon Brown, who has been waiting impatiently in the wings for years.

Experts say Blair's hopes of a glorious farewell after 10 years in office een dashed.

"Tuesday will be a celebration that that threat has cleared. The darkness that followed hard behind will hang heavily over Britain long after Blair has gone," said The Independent.


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