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The book is a bit out of date.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.


  1. Ernie Oporto

    How restrictive is Internet access in Iran? Blogs may be the only way to get information into Iran around any government restrictions, similar to the work that’s been done to get around the Great Firewall of China. Surely there is work being done there to boister opposition groups.

    The question is, how strong would a government crackdown be? Are we talking Tiananmen level opposition by the government or is Ahmaninejad’s control not quite so strong?

  2. goesh

    Lucrative energy contracts with China equals cash for the mullahs and cash for the security forces. Guess who are the only ones armed in Iran? Student leaders and Editors simply disappear. They hang homosexual teens in Public and young women for adultery and the leader of this nation openly declares Israel should be eradicated. In conjunction with the parameters of dictatorship and authoritarian rule, there are the dynamics of religious fundamentalism at play and in support of the dictatorship. I read just recently read in an Iranian blog that a Cleric has been put in charge of Academia and 13 ‘liberal’ professors were forced to retire. This move didn’t just gradually unfold, it happened fast, an on-the-spot tactic to thwart a perceived threat. Do you think there will be any questioning of the regime in classes now? One can only imagine what is being taught in grade schools and high schools these days. The real unanswered question is what would the Iranian people do if the nuclear facilities were destroyed by the West? If Iran were to engage in war, the focus of their security forces would have to be almost totally external. Perhaps then the Iranian people would revolt.

  3. Doubting Thomas

    Do you think Bush know that there are Persians and there are the Islamists in Iran?

    According to Armitage he didn’t know the difference between Shittes and Sunnis before he invaded Iraq.

  4. Nathan Tabor

    I agree–the two things that the mullahs cannot completely control are: the people, and economic development. The people refuse to bow to fear, continuing to demonstrated, and economic development, once it reaches a certain point, is out of the hands of any government officials. When we select our next president, it needs to be someone who is committed to empowering the Iranian people socially, economically, and politically. So far, I’ve only heard one 08 candidate refer to the economic side of the war on terror,John Cox, a businessman from Illinois. He says, and I agree, that a free market empowers individuals and also gives people a stake in a free and peaceful society, rather than a repressed, stagnant terrorist state.

  5. El Jefe Maximo

    I suppose the tragedy for Iran, as for other states in that position, is that no matter how “out of balance” as you put it, the Iranian state might be, it is virtually impossible to overthrow a modern state as long as the state apparatus is intact and not otherwise divided. As long as the troops and police will shoot, it doesn’t matter how out of balance, or how deeply unpopular the autocracy might be. China in 1989 comes to mind.

    My own opinion is that the present regime is unpopular with the students, the urban middle and upper classes (those not directly tied with the government, that is), but that the regime has real support among the rural poor.

  6. seb

    Interesting post. Iran is a country I’d love to learn more about, it has such a rich cultural history. I think the US had a chance in ’79 but I think we blew it. That’s when decisive action should’ve been taken.

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