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Iran's Hope By: Fouad Ajami
Wall Street Journal | Friday, February 14, 2003


If and when it comes, a military campaign in Iraq would be the third to be waged in the service of the Pax Americana at Iran's doorstep.

The first was Desert Storm, the second the Afghan war. In both Iran was, for all practical purposes, America's silent partner, a beneficiary of America's technological mastery. A hated Great Power had come and waged devastating war against reviled neighbors. For Iran, those spectacles were loaded with meaning, and ambivalence: Those reviled regimes in Kabul and Baghdad are culturally--and technologically--of Iran's own world, while the Great Power is of a different order. There, but for the grace of God, and the wiliness and caution of Iran's rulers, go the Iranians themselves. In those Iraqis and Afghans overwhelmed by precision bombing, Iran could gaze at its own condition. This Iranian duality is likely to persist in the current drive against Saddam Hussein. Iran's rulers will take the gift of American retribution, while staying on the sidelines in anxious dread of what an American victory holds out for a clerical regime unsure of its prospects within its own borders and beyond.

Iran's ambivalence about American power recalls something that T.E. Lawrence wrote about the Arabs in the Great War, as they witnessed the punishment their Turkish foes were receiving at the hands of the British. "The big guns" were pounding the Turks, and "the intervening hollows of the Dead Sea" drummed up the echoes of these guns. "The Arabs whispered 'They are nearer; the English are advancing; God deliver the men under the rain.' They were thinking compassionately of the passing Turks, so long their weak oppressors; whom, for their weakness though oppressors, they loved more than the strong foreigner with his blind indiscriminate justice." Saddam brought terrible ruin to Iran. He had had for his campaign the money of the Arab states, the tacit support of the Americans, and French weapons; he had depicted his war as a campaign to "quarantine" the Iranian revolution, to defend order and secularism against the revolutionary theocratic state. No lines had been drawn for him. Desert Storm did for Iran what Iran couldn't do for itself.

Likewise with the Taliban. There was no love lost for that cruel band of fanatics. It wasn't so much the doctrinal difference between the Sunni Afghans and the Shiism of Iran that was the cause of enmity, for Iran's rulers have been keen and able to construct alliances with Sunni Islamists. There were deep differences of temperament: Historically, Persia had always viewed Afghanistan as a land of banditry. In 1722, during a chaotic period in Persia's history, Afghan tribesmen captured the magnificent city of Isfahan. They were to stay there for nearly a decade. In the intervening history, that trauma was to endure as a reminder of the price the Persian realm paid for the deterioration of its public life. If the pain of Iran has been great in its modern history, so, too, has been its pride in its cultural accomplishments. It would be fair to say that for Iranians, Afghanistan is a country of poverty and brigandage, a land that has sent Iran waves of refugees, narcotics contraband and endless trouble. In 1998, it should be recalled, war seemed imminent between the Taliban and Iran. The Taliban had murdered nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran had massed troops on the border, but there was no taste in Iran for an adventure in the "badlands."

There was no need to celebrate the U.S. victory over the Taliban; it was enough that Iran averted its gaze, permitted the Americans overflight rights, and welcomed the victory of the Northern Alliance, which Iran had backed. Deep down, Iranians knew the wages of playing with political religion, and they were eager to rein in the furies of religious zeal right next door. True, American power was now directly on their eastern border in Afghanistan. The Iranians are realists. They knew that the Americans would be saddled with holding Afghanistan together, dealing with its destitution and misery. There was no panic that the U.S. could sponsor some orderly Afghan world of emancipated women and secular politics that would "show up" Iran's theocracy.

Saddam is, for Iranians, a different kind of enemy. He struck at their state when the new theocracy had begun to consolidate its rule. A whole Iranian generation was decimated in the trenches of that primitive, senseless war. Saddam had the temerity to claim Islam in that war as a racial, Arab, inheritance. He dismissed Iranians as "fire-worshipping Persians," feeding off the atavisms in the Arab-Persian divide. Desert Storm--the spectacle of the tyrant's armies surrendering to Americans, fleeing for their lives--had in it elements of divine retribution. There was the catharsis of a Persian passion play, the wicked getting his comeuppance. So what if the avenger was himself unjust?

Iran and Iraq are different, and the Bush administration knows the difference. Iran has the elements of change within it; Iraq will have to be changed by force. U.S. policy has been more subtle on Iran than its critics would have us believe. No credible American scenario envisages a war against Iran once the dust of battle settles in Iraq. The Iranians must know this, even as their clerical rulers protest their inclusion in the "axis of evil." Patience, deadly and dangerous in dealing with Iraq (in my view), could work in Iran's case. In this regard, the policy of the Bush administration has been on the mark. There has been no urge to court Iran. The zeal with which the Clinton administration pursued an accommodation with Iran's rulers has been cast aside. This has been one of the lessons of Sept. 11: Why court hated rulers if this only gets you the enmity of their resentful populations? It was in this vein that President Bush pitched his policy on Iran in his State of the Union address. A distinction was made between the Iranian theocracy and Iraq: "Different threats require different strategies." The regime in Iran was put on notice for its support of terror and its pursuit of weapons of destruction. But the people of Iran and their "aspirations to live in freedom" were embraced.

A silent revolution is under way in Iran; it lacks the fury of what played out in 1978-79. It is the imploding of the theocratic edifice, the aging of a revolution that has lost the consent of its children. A young Iranian-American author, Afshin Molavi, in a compelling new book, "Persian Pilgrimages," has just brought us fragments of that burdened land. It is of green cards and visas to foreign lands that the young of Iran now dream; in the year 2000, some 200,000 Iranian professionals quit their native land for Western shores. In a recent public-opinion survey, three out of four Iranians said they favored restoring relations with Washington. Iran is at the crossroads. In one vision of things, Tehran would barter the influence it has in Lebanon, through its sponsorship of Hezbollah, for a deal with Israel and a return to that covert understanding that once bound the Jewish state to Iran. In this vision, there would be a gradual accommodation with the U.S., an acceptance of America's primacy in the Persian Gulf. In the rival vision, Iran would continue to muddle through, alternating terror and diplomacy, hinting at moderation and then pulling back, offering its betrayed people more sterility, and a diet of anti-Americanism at odds with the fixation of young Iranians.

As Iran battles its own demons, we needn't let our obsession with the power of the Iranian revolution that paralyzed American power after Desert Storm do so again in Iraq. Our fear of Iran was a factor of no small consequence in our walking away from the Shia and Kurdish rebellions that erupted against Saddam. America didn't know that world, and it was easy to see the Shiites of Iraq as followers of the Iranian clerical regime, a potential "sister republic" in Iran's image. But the Shiites of Iraq are Iraqis and Arabs through and through. The Arabic literary tradition is their pride, the Arab tribal norms their defining culture. They are their country's majority, and thus eager to maintain its independence. The sacred geography of Shiism is in Iraq--in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and Samarra. Before Saddam shattered the autonomy of Iraq's clerical Shiite establishment, a healthy measure of competition was the norm between the Shiite clerical seminarians of Iraq and those of Iran. In the 1980s, the Shiites of Iraq faced the choice between religious faith and patriotism; they chose the later, fought Saddam's war against Iran, and paid dearly for it. Few Iraqis, I would hazard to guess, would want their country to slip into Iran's orbit.

It is in the nature of things today, in an Iranian society deeply divided between those who would bury the revolution and join the world, and others hell-bent on keeping the theocracy, and their own dominion, intact, that the American drive against Iraq would be defined by that chasm. For those who want to normalize Iran, the thunder of war against Iraq is the coming of a blessed rain. The Americans would be nearby, but what of it? Liberty is rarely a foreigner's gift, and no American war in Iran's neighborhood will settle the fight between theocratic zealots and those in Iran who have twice, in presidential elections, cast their votes for a reform that never came. But the "contagion effect" of a liberated Iraq will no doubt have a role to play in the fight for Iran's future. In Persia, there will be multitudes hoping that the foreigner's storm will be mighty enough to clear their foul sky.




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