There are various opinions being slung about this week, a year after the rigged Iranian elections. This, by Fouad Adjami, is probably the best of them–though it is marred, in the end, by the notion that Barack Obama could have done more, could have done something to support the rebellion that took place, briefly, in the streets and was quickly crushed by Iran’s disgraceful regime. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, what Adjami gets right is this:
We are dealing with a new Iranian government now, a military dictatorship camouflaged by a patina of religiosity. The Revolutionary Guard is in charge. The religious community is divided, with many of the most respected figures–the “quietist” followers of deceased Grand Ayatullah Montazeri and Ayatullah Sistani (who lives in Iraq, but is high on the ayatullah-totem-pole in Qom)–opposing the Supreme Leader’s imprimatur on the Revolutionary Guards’ dictatorship. A year ago, I saw mullahs getting beaten up in the streets of Tehran. Ever since, I’ve refrained from the journalistic shorthand of calling the government “the mullahs.” It turns out that some mullahs are willing to shed blood for democracy.
The complexity of the religious situation should warn western commentators and politicians against the foolishness of making broad-brush statements about what President Obama could have done last summer and what the U.S. can do now. The most foolish is that the President should have “spoken out” more forcefully against the regime, as Ajami asserts in his last paragraph:
There is no guarantee that categorical American support would have altered the outcome of the struggle between autocracy and liberty in Iran. But it shall now be part of the narrative of liberty that when Persia rose in the summer of 2009 the steward of American power ducked for cover, and that a president who prided himself on his eloquence couldn’t even find the words to tell the forces of liberty that he understood the wellsprings of their revolt.
The President’s diffidence was awkward, but not unwise. The notion that passionate bleatings from an American President would do anything but backfire stems from a profound misunderstanding of who and what the Green revolution was. The vast majority of protesters in the streets–even the minority that sought to overturn the 1979 Islamic revolution–were fans of freedom, but not of the United States. The vast majority believed that the US helped Saddam Hussein wreak 1 million casualties on Iran in the 1980s–100,000 of them via poison gas–casualties that are as close as the crippled veteran begging on the streetcorner, the widows who are everywhere (I’ve interviewed more than a few of them).
Furthermore, the idea that the Green reformers would have been more friendly to the U.S. has its limitations, too. Certainly, they would have opened up Iranian society. Certainly, they would have provided an international face more plausible than the loony-tunes Ahmadinejad. But they would not have abandoned their nuclear program–and they would not have leaped to embrace Barack Obama. That was made clear in a series of interviews with leaders of the reform movement I had the week during before the election. None wanted to abandon the nuclear program, or even talk about it–although Mir Hussein Moussavi allowed that Iran should provide evidence that the program was not being weaponized; each of the reform leaders believed that Iran was the aggrieved party in the bilateral relationship with the United States. Each, except Moussavi, said American concessions were necessary before talks could begin. Even Mehdi Kharroubi, considered more liberal than Moussavi, demanded that the U.S. unfreeze Iranian assets and deliver spare parts for Iran’s commercial Boeing fleet before he would even consider negotiating.
Given all this, given the brutality of the regime’s campaign against the Green movement, given the regime’s clear efforts to progress on the nuclear front and continuing support for Hizballah and Hamas, what would a reasonable American policy be? The neoconservative position–taken by politicians like John McCain and Joe Lieberman–is that we should attack Iran, take out its nuclear program and push for regime change (although McCain modified this in a recent speech, happily, to include the desires of the Iranian people–desires usually overlooked by the neo-colonialists of the right). The U.S. military has, in the past, been quite opposed to that course of action. Iran is a real country, with a powerful fighting force and terrorist connections that could wreak havoc against U.S. assets in many venues. It will retaliate.
The real question is whether Iran should be treated as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union (although this question is, in itself, an overstatement–Iran has the power of neither). The neoconservatives, especially the American Likudniks operating with Israel’s alleged interests in the hearts, regularly compare Iran to the Nazis–virulent, anti-semitic, expansionist, irrational. They point to Iran’s support for Hamas and, especially, Hizballah, and fear that the Iranians will pass a nuclear truck-bomb to the terrorists. All of this is entirely unlikely. The Iranian government has a relatively powerless front man, Ahmadinejad, who makes crazy statements, but the government itself behaves well within the boundaries of reason and its own self-interest (which is quite inimical to our national interests, but entirely rational in Iranian terms).
No, Iran is more like a baby Soviet Union. A regional power, with ties to a dangerous terrorist network–Hizballah–but one that will respond to international diplomatic pressure. It is also a real country, with real assets, and unlikely to take actions that will result in a devastating attack by the U.S. or Israel. It is not Al Qaeda. If it continues to be recalcitrant–and there is no reason to believe it won’t–the strategic answer is containment, just as we contained the Russians. This would involve a regional defensive alliance against Iran–an informal one, perhaps–involving Iraq, the Gulf States and the Sunni powers (plus Israel), a project that David Petraeus has been quietly pursuing as head of Centcom. It would include the provision of anti-missile capabilities and the guarantee of American support if Iran moves on any of these nations. It also assumes that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon, which–as things stand–seems a probability. Most experts believe that Iran’s aims here are defensive, as Hashemi Rafsanjani–the only Iranian leader ever to publicly mention the possibility of a bomb–said in 2001: as a deterrent to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Any nuclear proliferation is potentially destabilizing–although it is also potentially stabilizing, preventing adversaries from going to total war, as war the case in the Cold War and now seems to be holding firm (in a nervous-making way) between India and Pakistan.
A year ago, I was looking forward to interviews with two former leaders of the Revolutionary Guard: Mohammed-Bagder Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, and Mohsen Rezaie, who had run for President given Ahmadinejad a much tougher time in debate than Moussavi or Kharroubi. Both interviews were cancelled when the street fighting began. Together with Ali Larijani, those two represent a less extreme form of conservatism than the Ahmadinejad variety, and they are likely to be significant players–candidates, perhaps–in the next Iranian presidential campaign. If Iranian intransigence is to be modified, they are the sort of people who could do it. I’m not saying that will happen. Iran remains a brutal military dictatorship. But it is also the home of a proud, cultured, well-educated people–arguably, better educated than any other in the region except the Israelis–who are embarrassed by their government’s foolish statements and isolationism, and are eager to rejoin the world. My guess is that if change does come to Iran, it will come gradually, almost unnoticeable at first, but that it will not be waylaid once it begins.