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Iran: Analysis From Washington -- More Than Islam

Washington, 3 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visit to Japan this week demonstrates that Tehran's foreign policies reflect its economic, political and geopolitical interests and not just its oft-cited commitment to promoting its own particular brand of Islam.

Khatami and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Wednesday signed a joint declaration calling for the development of closer cooperation in a variety of fields and setting the stage for eventual Japanese investment in the exploitation of the Azadegan oil field. Khatami, the first Iranian leader to visit Tokyo since 1958, also spoke with members of the Japanese parliament as well as to that country's business leaders.

For Iran, Japan is an extraordinarily important country, even though it is neither Islamic nor Middle Eastern. It currently is Iran's largest trading partner. Iran provides 10 percent of Japan's oil imports, sending approximately 450,000 barrels of oil every day to that Pacific island nation.

Despite these links, Khatami nonetheless faced an uphill challenge in promoting ties between the two countries. Tehran has been slow in repaying debts to Japanese banks, a pattern that has limited their interest in investing there. And even though Japanese industrialists are interested in participating in the Iranian market, they remain concerned about possible U.S. sanctions against firms investing in that country. As a result, no Japanese company has invested in Iran since 1993.

That may soon change. The American legislation which imposes sanctions on companies in any country that do business with Iran and which has restrained Tokyo to date is due to expire in August 2001, and many Japanese are taking a new look at Iran. Khatami's visit is certainly intended to encourage them to do so.

And at least some commentators are pointing to the geopolitical consequences of such a shift. As Vladimir Solntsev put it in his report for the Russian news service ITAR-TASS, the agreements between Khatami and Mori "prove" that Japan is no longer prepared to simply follow Washington in its approach to Iran under Khatami.

On the one hand, such conclusions are somewhat overstated. Japanese business executives remained cautious in their response to Khatami's call for investment. And Japanese officials pointedly raised questions about Tehran's weapons programs and its military assistance to other countries.

But on the other hand, the appearance of such comments reinforce the notion that Tehran has a broader agenda than simply the promotion of Islam and that other countries, including Japan, are responding to that agenda, even if they represent fundamentally different economic, political, and moral positions.

Such assertions about almost any other country would be a commonplace. But most Western analysis of Iranian behavior and even much domestic commentary about how Iran should act at home and abroad have focused almost exclusively on the religious dimension of Iranian culture.

Khatami's visits to other countries, to Europe in the past, to Japan now, and to Russia and other countries next year, and his hosting of officials from a variety of states show that he and his government are very much aware of Iran's broader economic and political interests and are acting on them in ways that Islam alone does not require and could not predict. That does not mean that Iran's Shiia Islam faith does not continue to play a major role in the political choices of Iranian leaders. It certainly does -- both by dictating that Tehran should support certain movements and goals and by helping to define the ways in which they are likely to view geopolitical arrangements around the world.

But 20 years after the fall of the shah and the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeni, Iran now has a government that is pursuing these other interests as well and seeking to find partners who are prepared to cooperate. As with Japan, most of these potential partners are certain to move cautiously given both American attitudes and Iran's past and present behavior.

And as these countries move beyond defining Iran strictly in terms of Islam, so too Iran is likely to continue its development in the direction of a more typical state, one in which religion and culture matter but in which other, more immediate and widely shared interests are likely to define its approach.