After last week's pronouncements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be "wiped off the map," there's been a lot of saber rattling about Iran. (I've written on the subject of Iran a number of times over the past few years; see here, here, and here, for example).
There is nothing shocking or unexpected about Ahmadinejad's rhetoric. The Iranian theocrats have been talking like that for years. Their overthrow of the US-backed Shah was a clarion call for fundamentalists across the Islamic world to mobilize against both Israel and the United States. Many others in the Islamic world have uttered the same view, including those who reside in countries that are, ostensibly, current US allies.
The fact is, of course, that US actions in Iraq have emboldened the Iranian regime significantly; some are even suggesting that the US was the "useful idiot" for Iranian foreign policy goals to undermine a hostile Baathist regime in Iraq, substituting a friendlier Shiite majoritarian theocracy in its place. With the antagonistic Taliban held at bay in Afghanistan on its eastern flank, and Hussein gone on the western side, Iran has emerged as a central geopolitical power in the Middle East—and was made so in significant part as the direct result of actions taken by the United States, purportedly in our own defense.
But it is a state that is in a deepening cultural crisis, a crisis that will have profound political ramifications over time.
Today, I've read an interesting NY Times essay about "Our Allies in Iran." It's the kind of title that is meant to surprise. The writer, Afshin Molavi, makes some very important points. Molavi states:
The new president's confrontational tone threatens to deepen the isolation of Iran's democrats, pushing them further behind his long shadow. Western powers have a dual challenge: to find a way to engage this population even as they struggle to address the new president's inflammatory rhetoric. By the time Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected in June, a sustained assault by hard-liners had left Iranian democrats disoriented and leaderless, their dissidents jailed, newspapers closed and reformist political figures popularly discredited. But democratic aspirations should not be written off as a passing fad that died with the failure of the reform movement and the replacement of a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, with a hard-liner, Mr. Ahmadinejad. The historic roots of reform run deep in Iran, and support for democratic change remains widespread.
Iran's modern middle class, which is increasingly urbanized, wired and globally connected, provides particularly fertile soil for these aspirations. The Stanford University scholar Abbas Milani has described Iran's middle class as a "Trojan horse within the Islamic republic, supporting liberal values, democratic tolerance and civic responsibility." And so long as that class grows, so too will the pressure for democratic change.
Molavi warns, however, that war against Iran could have an adverse effect on that country's "democracy-minded middle class," providing "additional pretexts for the regime to frighten its people and crack down on dissent." Anything that undermines Iranian contact "with the foreign investors, educators, tourists and businessmen who link them to the outside world," says Molavi, undermines the movement toward political and cultural reform. That movement requires a strong private sector and a growing civil society in Iran, which can be encouraged by an extension of the global market. Such an extension would nourish "a strong and stable middle class" and the "inevitable winds of change" so crucial to peace and prosperity in the region.
It is ironic that those who speak glowingly about the need for "democratization" in Iraq as a key to Mideast peace are the same people who now speak about the need for military action in Iran, which would most assuredly sabotage the trends toward democratization in that country.
The saber-rattlers tell us that they are worried about the long-run problem of a "nuclear" Iran. Fair enough. But they don't seem to worry about the long-run consequences of military intervention in Iran, given the current context in Iraq, a context that the saber-rattlers themselves did much to create. As Arthur Silber writes here:
We now have a voluminous record, in news accounts, in government documents and in other forms, to prove beyond any doubt that the Bush administration gave almost no attention to the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. No one had any serious question about our taking down the Saddam Hussein regime, except about how long it might take and the details. Despite that certainty, we know that the Bush administration did not listen to many of its own experts and planners about what should be done once Saddam was gone. To put the point simply, the Bush administration never seriously addressed the multitude of inordinately complex issues encompassed in the question: What then?
This much is true, and this much we can agree with, as Arthur puts it: "Iran is run by viciously destructive and dangerous leaders." But as people clamor for military action against Iran, they are not asking and answering the crucial question: "What then?"
I often wonder, for example, how the Shiites in Iraq, with whom the US has cast its political lot, would deal with a US military strike against Iran. How long would it take for a strike against Iran to destabilize the situation with the US's Shiite-Iraqi allies? The Sunni insurgency against the Shiites in Iraq has been awful; I can't even begin to think of the conditions that might arise should a Shiite insurgency unfold against the US—a Shiite insurgency aided and abetted by its own ideological brethren in Tehran.
And what then? In addition to the internal combustion of Iraq, might there not be counterattacks from other Arab governments? Might not the Mideast be thrown into further chaos? And what if additional US troops are needed to "finish the job" started by planes and missiles? Where are these troops coming from? How long before military conscription is reinstituted?
As Richard Cohen tells us today in the New York Daily News, in the Middle East, "bad could get worse."
The central problem in the Middle East is not strategic. The central problem is not the spread of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The central problem is the spread of ideological and cultural weapons of mass destruction. And these weapons have been manufactured at a maddening pace for generations by countries like Saudi Arabia, a US "ally." As Jason Pappas reminds us (see here and here), the Saudis have been funding the worldwide proliferation of the very jihadist ideology that targets Western values and institutions.
But the odds are very slim that there will be any fundamental change in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. That's because the House of Sa'ud remains a key player in US global political economy (see here). The dismantling of that neocorporatist politico-economic system is not likely to happen anytime soon.
And yet, despite its role in the proliferation of jihadist fanaticism, the collapse of the House of Sa'ud at this point could be catastrophic: it would most likely lead to the transference of power into the hands of the very worst jihadists, those who have been a by-product of Saudi education.
Yes, it's one gigantic mess of internal contradictions at work. But, currently, I have no reason to believe that a military attack upon Iran would resolve these contradictions, without engendering a host of newer and far more lethal ones.
Update: I see my pal Matthew Humphreys has drawn parallels between our views. Check out his post here, which preceded mine.