Another member of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” Iran is in the grip of a domestic struggle for power. On one side are those who believe that power comes from the people; on the other are those who believe that power comes from God. What is commonly portrayed as a struggle between reformers and conservatives is actually a confrontation between two sources of political legitimacy: a clash of sovereignties.
This clash of sovereignties is not unique to Iran. In 17th Century England, Sir Edward Coke, the leading jurist of his day, asserted that the king was under God and under the law. King James I denounced this view as “treason,” and Coke was dismissed as Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. But the issue had been joined, and the ensuing decades proved a bloody time for England until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 settled the matter once and for all.
The question is whether the situation in Iran will follow the precedent set by England, or whether the Iranian people will find a more peaceful method of resolving the confrontation.
Sadly, history is not reassuring. There is a tendency for clashes of sovereignties to be resolved by conflict. In the United States, for example, the disagreement over whether sovereignty came from the people (as expressed in the preamble of the Constitution) or the states (as expressed in the Articles of Confederation) was decided ultimately not by philosophical debate or elections, but by the bloodiest war in American history.
This tendency toward violence is even more pronounced when people are convinced their authority derives from God. In the first place, people who believe they possess absolute truth are not able to compromise. Indeed, for them compromise represents a repudiation of their beliefs, an acceptance of error, a veritable betrayal of God. Additionally, because they believe in God’s providence, they are disinclined to take account of the balance of forces arrayed against them.
“Success or failure depend upon the conduct of Almighty God,” the Ottoman historiographer Vasif wrote about the empire’s attempt to reform after it recognized its inferiority to the rest of Europe. “How is it permissible to attribute victory merely to the perfection of the means of warfare and defeat to the shortcoming of those means?”
Ultimately, such attitudes lead to decay and defeat, as the subsequent history of the Ottoman Empire demonstrated. Unfortunately, that process is also typically attended by bloodshed. And if that is the situation now confronting Iran, the question is how the United States should approach it.
The Bush administration has decided, as part of a policy of moral clarity, to proclaim its support of those opposed to the clerics: to openly side with those promoting the sovereignty of the people as opposed to the sovereignty of God. Although this is clearly the right side to choose, there are two problems with this policy.
First, the moral clarity is clouded because some of the officials in the Bush administration were also in the Reagan administration, which supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. Indeed, given the history of American interaction with Iran, it is unclear whether American support does more harm than good. American officials need to have some more realism — dare one say “humility” — before they assume that open support by the United States is an indisputable benefit.
The second and perhaps more serious consideration revolves around the possibility of bloodshed, an issue of moral clarity if ever there was one. If the situation in Iran is one that historically has tended toward bloodshed, the United States should be cautious in its approach. It is one thing to support people in their struggle for freedom. It is another thing if such encouragement results in bloodshed.
The landscape of the Cold War is littered with the corpses of people who believed American promises of support and protection. If morality is going to be the new guideline of American foreign policy, it should begin with the recognition that there is no morality in encouraging people to take risks when you have no intention or ability of coming to their aid.
In this situation, the best support the United States can give is to provide an example of democracy, a model for other countries to emulate. Although Washington is now proclaiming its hegemony, Americans should remember that their belief in their military superiority has led them to tragedy before, notably in Vietnam. Perhaps more to the point, the American system of government is founded on the conviction that power unchecked is power abused — in other words, that it is impossible to be imperial without being imperialist.
If the clash of sovereignties is ultimately to be resolved, it will be because the United States remains true to its principles and preserves itself as what Lincoln called “the last best, hope of earth.”