CHICAGO – Iran appears to be drifting into the Soviet orbit. While the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has fulminated often and loudly against a satanic United States, he has rarely condemned the Soviet assault on Afghanistan. His support of the continued holding of the 53 American hostages has led Western countries to cut some economic ties with Iran, forcing that country to depend more on trade with the Soviet Union.
Why does Khomeini alienate the United States, the one country that can protect him from the Soviet Union? Westerners, unable to answer this question, throw up their hands in despair and declare Khomeini irrational. But this is glib. Khomeini is not crazy; rather, he represents the Islamic tradition in Iranian culture and his actions make sense in the context of that tradition.
In the Western view, the Soviet Union threatens Iran far more than does the United States: It looms across a long common border and espouse an atheistic doctrine incompatible with Islam and many other institutions of Iranian life, such as private property and the family unit as an ideal.
But for the Ayatollah, it is America that is more threatening. He believes that after 1953, the United States Government controlled the Shah and his regime and the Iranian people; further, he believes that Washington is trying to overthrow him and regain its old power. The failed rescue mission [in April 1980] confirmed this fear.
It is American, not Soviet culture, that pervades Iran and horrifies Ayatollah Khomeini by, in his view, endangering the Islamic way of life with its loose ways (alcohol, jeans, pop music, nightclubs, movies, dancing, mixed bathing, pornography), with its conspicuous consumption, and with foreign ideologies (such as nationalism and liberalism). He and his followers fervently want an Iran free of foreign domination. So long as they perceive America as the greatest threat to Iran, nothing prevents them from relying on the Soviet Union. Although we share with the Iranians a respect for religion, private property and the family unit, the Ayatollah's regime also shares much with the Marxists against the West.
For one thing, they both feel considerable antipathy toward the West. The Soviet Government, like Khomeini, worries about the allure of Western culture and tries desperately to contain it.
In an odd parallel, Islam claims to replace Christianity as the final revelation from God, and Communism claims to succeed capitalism as the final stage of economic evolution. The West infuriates both its would-be successors with its continued wealth and power. They respond by presenting the West with its most sustained opposition. Just as earlier in this century they led the attack on European imperialism, today the Soviet Union and Moslem members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are mounting the main challenge to Western political and economic power. Both have revolutionary temperaments; claiming a monopoly on truth, why should either allow imperfect or evil ways to exist for another day? Each propagates its message with rhetorical shrillness, indoctrination, biased law courts and firing squads. Both tend not to tolerate dissent and regard nonbelievers with suspicion, emphasizing the deep gulf between themselves and outsiders.
Activist Islam and Marxism emphasize international solidarity over nationalism, community needs over those of the individual, egalitarianism over freedom.
Both engage in social engineering – this is the most important consideration. Scorning the modest goals and realistic expectations of liberalism, activist Moslems and Marxists pursue noble-sounding yet unattainable standards for society. For example, Islam forbids interest on money, and Communism denounces profits, yet commercial life requires both.
Finally, because activist Islam and Marxism touch on every aspect of life, their governments incline toward totalitarianism.
While Khomeini shares ideological elements with both the United States and the Soviet Union, as a devout Moslem he believes in the superiority of his own creed and execrates both alternatives. In the end, however, ideologies cancel out and Khomeini aligns Iranian foreign relations in accordance with his hopes and fears, not on the basis of theoretical affinities.
At present, Khomeini fears the United States more than the Soviet Union: The Russians are near but for him America is already within Iran. Our culture, not the Russians', has been undermining the Moslem way of life in Iran for decades. So long as these fears remain paramount, Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers can be expected to veer Iran toward the Soviet Union, for its ideology appears no worse to him than does our own.