February 15, 2003


Iran Expects: Will Iraq's liberation help free its neighbor too? (Fouad Ajami, February 13, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
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.

Whatever way it happens, it seems certain that Iran and America will be allies and friends again in the not too distant future, after a brief and unfortunate separation. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2003 11:21 AM
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