I’ve been reading, with what little time I have available, Sandra Mackey’s excellent study of Iran, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation. It’s an excellent and very accessible piece of work.
The book is a bit out of date. A lot has changed since 1998. And the afterword ends on an optimistic note that illustrates just how far Iran has slipped in the past few years:
“If Muhammad Khatami and his 20-million person army for change do succeed in moving Iran another step toward a healthy balance between the Iranian’s interlocked identities of Persia and Islam, and the influence of the West, they will deliver the equilibrium for which the Iranians have so long searched.”
There’s very little room for optimism these days. The sad part of this story is that I believe that balance exists in many Iranians. It’s the state that’s out of balance.
Iran, on paper, is ripe for revolution. High unemployment, repressive government policies, huge numbers of young people, and other factors would lead you to expect even more unrest than we’ve seen. But there is one element that the state has in it’s favor. Iranian nationalism undercuts all other factors, including Islam. Imagine Americans with an additional 2,200 years of history under our belts.
I’ve been thinking about ways that we could engage the Iranian people – bypass the government altogether and encourage direct action by moderate Iranians. Support the faction that believes in social justice, democracy, and tolerance. A lot of Iranians fit that description.
I’m not talking about some utopian belief that we can guide Ahmaninejad and the clerics to embrace personal freedom and tolerance. They’re hopeless and imposing change on Iran, if that is even possible, would require the West to pay an extremely high price. It looks like Iranians are the only hope for Iran. Sanctions, bombings, and invasion won’t bring relief for moderate Iranians or the West. The best possible outcome, for everyone, is a democratic revolution in Iran – led by Iranians.
This isn’t really news to anyone. What’s surprising is the apparent complete failure of the West to embrace this track especially when faced with so many frightening alternatives. Ahmaninejad is the only player who acts forcefully and with absolute clarity. The fact that he’s so successful in staking out the high ground despite his country’s abysmal human rights record and his readiness to promote genocide says a lot about the quality of his competition and the moral confusion gripping the West.
I’ve reached the end of The Iranians and I can’t decide if I’m more pessimistic or optimistic. On one hand, I believe (as I did before reading the book) that Iranians are capable of building a just, tolerant, democratic society. But on the other hand we have Ahmaninejad skillfully playing on Iranian nationalism and facing off against a tough-talking West that’s hobbled by an irrational self-imposed weakness. I think the scales are tipping in favor of pessimism.
Cross posted at Chronicles of War.