Iran and Her Similes

July 15, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the August 2009 issue of Chronicles.

In the aftermath of the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the “liberation” of Iraq by U.S. forces, Bush‐​administration officials who had earlier compared Saddam to Hitler extended that analogy and suggested that postwar Iraq was like post‐​World War II Germany and Japan and Italy, where the U.S. military occupation helped replace totalitarian regimes with thriving democratic systems. Hence, after freeing Iraq from the yoke of Ba’athism, there was no reason why the Americans would not be successful in producing a rerun of the Western‐​oriented political and economic reconstruction of Germany, Japan, and Italy in Iraq — and then in Iran, Syria, Palestine, and parts beyond.

As the neoconservative ideologues were drawing the parallels between “Islamofascism” and Nazism, envisaging the rise of a liberal democracy on the banks of the Euphrates, and debating whether Ahmed Chalabi should be marketed as the Adenauer or the De Gaulle of the New Iraq, a friend forwarded me a brief survey he had just completed: “One‐​Hundred Reasons Why Iraq Is Not Germany and Japan.” In it he explained why the neoconservative historical analogy was so silly, mostly because it was, well, ahistorical and failed to take into account the many differences among, say, Iraq, Germany, and Japan — or for that matter, between Germany and Japan, or Iraq and Iran — with regard to geographic location, demographic makeup, and cultural and religious traditions.

Serious social scientists who try to apply such all‐​encompassing models as “modernization” to explain political and economic change around the world recognize that they need to take into consideration the unique historical context of the region or country that they are studying. But when it comes to pop sociologists and American journalists parachuting to this or that international “hot spot,” not to mention the global crusaders managing U.S. foreign policy, everything seems to fall into very neat Manichean categories.

Indeed, according to this interpretation, the Good Guys are usually referred to as “Westernized,” “modernized,” “reformist,” “secular,” and “democratic,” which also means that they are “pro‐​American” — not unlike the demonstrators in the streets of Tehran protesting the designation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as winner of Iran’s recent presidential elections.

They are usually under attack by Evil, represented by those who can be identified by the antonyms of the aforementioned adjectives, like the “anti‐​American” and “anti‐​Western” ayatollahs ruling Iran.

Manicheanism was one of the major Gnostic religions of Iran, originating in Sassanid Persia. But the philosophical dualism that seems to dominate the current debate on the U.S. response to the political upheaval in Iran is very secular and American in nature. Its grand narrative of an America standing up to ideological monsters abroad by supporting people “like us” evolved during the 20th century under the influence of Wilsonian fantasies and against the backdrop of World War II and the Cold War.

In fact, when it came to the actual foreign‐ policy decisions that were made by U.S. presidents and their advisors, Machiavelli, not Mani, was the main influence on American policymakers. It was the cunning Realpolitik of Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau — and not Wilson’s idealism — that determined the political outcome of the Great War. In World War II, the United States and Great Britain had no choice but to ally with Stalin, a ruthless dictator, in order to achieve a military victory against the Axis Powers, while during the Cold War, President Richard Nixon launched the opening to China in the midst of the bloody Cultural Revolution as part of a strategy to checkmate the Soviet Union.

Whenever U.S. policymakers and pundits were guided strictly by their Manichean vision, their decisions only spelled disaster for U.S. national interests. Treating North Vietnam as an integral part of the Soviet Bloc and failing to identify the powerful nationalist component in Ho Chi Minh’s strategy made the extraction of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia more difficult. Much of the intellectual basis for the “War on Terror” and the ensuing Iraq war reflected the fallacy of an existing monolithic Islamofascist bloc — disregarding the secular, if not anti‐​Islamic fundamentalist orientation of the Iraqi and Syrian Ba’ath regimes or dismissing the historical conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites in the Middle East. Moreover, the U.S.-led campaign to promote democracy in the former Soviet Bloc after the collapse of communism, and our encouragement of the “color” or “velvet” revolutions in such places as Ukraine, Georgia, or Lebanon, were based on the assumption that the drive by individuals and groups in these nations and societies to oust their ruling elites was motivated primarily by universal ideals of democracy and liberalism and by the appeal of joining the West. But the American narrative seemed to disregard a critical element in these developments. These revolutions were impelled by powerful nationalist, ethnic, and religious forces, like the anti‐ Russian sentiments found in Poland, Hungary, and Georgia or among the Ukrainian majority in Ukraine; not surprisingly, members of the Russian minority in Ukraine opposed the Orange Revolution. Similarly, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon pitted Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims against Shiites backed by Iran, while the political changes in Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam’s ouster empowered the Arab Shiites and the Kurds while weakening the former Sunni controlled elites. To make the story line even more complex, what many Americans see as a linear process of democratization and liberalization could be seen as the playing out of intra‐​elite rivalries — which is part of what happened in Russia and Rumania after the fall of the Communist Party.

The political crisis in Iran seems to combine all of these elements and more. There is no doubt that some of the demonstrators in the streets are members of a more urban and Westernized elite. But these Iranians are not necessarily “pro‐​American” — any more than the Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square were. In fact, many of the former Chinese student activists have become part of a rising Chinese nationalist movement that recognizes the deep tensions between U.S. and Chinese interests. Hence, one shouldn’t be surprised if the secular democrats protesting against the ayatollahs today transform into fervent Iranian nationalists — and press for nuclear weapons — if and when they come to power.

The fact that the protests in Tehran have the potential to challenge the ruling religious elite has less to do with the enthusiasm of the young and cool demonstrators and more with the power exerted by two of the former leaders of the Iranian revolution and members of the ruling elite: former prime minister and presidential contender Mir‐​Hossein Mousavi and former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In the past, both were involved in directing anti‐​American terrorist activities and in managing Iran’s nuclear manufacturing, and it is doubtful that they will reorient Iranian domestic and foreign policies if they succeed in their campaign to deny the presidency to Ahmadinejad. In fact, they could prove to be more assertive and more effective in managing Tehran’s relationship with Washington.

Iran is not like China in 1989 or Russia in 1991, but like … Iran in 2009. She may or may not be undergoing major political changes. Even under the best‐​case scenario — a gradual erosion in the power of the ayatollahs — Iran, with her strong sense of national identity, religious vitality, talented people, huge oil resources, and links to Shiite communities in the Middle East, will remain a self confident and forceful regional power whose interests are more likely to collide than to coincide with those of the United States, the only global power with a massive military and a diplomatic presence in the Middle East. Taking into consideration the long history of conflict between the United States and Iran, any attempt on the part of Washington to intervene in Iran’s changing politics would only make it more difficult for the United States to engage Tehran on a range of policy issues that affect U.S. strategic (nuclear weapons) and economic (oil) interests. History teaches us that Iranians are not necessarily like us — and that they do not necessarily like or hate us. The most effective way to create the conditions necessary for improving U.S. relations with Iran is to recognize that historical reality.

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