The Middle East Journal - Volume 59, Number 2, Spring 2005
Iran's current rulers are clinging to power for dear life, for they anticipate that their opponents, if victorious, will do to them as they have done to theirs. The threat of regime change for the clerical rulers is thus existential, compelling them to seek the nuclear option regardless of Iran's national interest. We should also give up the wishful notion of differentiating liberal clerical leaders from conservative ones for at best they represent only different shades of the same color. The hopeful signs are that their support is limited to about 15-25% of the voting population, that they and their rule are resented by the majority, and that the younger generations —— including their very own children, reject the clerical ideology categorically. The Pahlavi monarchs may have tried to remove the clerical influence from Iran without success. One may observe that what the last King did not achieve in his life he may have accomplished in his death, for the clerical influence, which granted theologians political power in 1979, has by and large evaporated. What remains is a bankrupt theocracy secured on pillars of intimidation and corruption. A Persian expression considered to be eternally valid "this too will pass," applies to the current regime, for it too will go away. The concern should be that which is to replace it.
It is accurate to observe that the internal opposition to the theocracy is disorganized and devoid of charismatic leadership. It is also true that leaders are rarely brought in from abroad. If a genuine challenge to the clerical rule is to be mounted, the emergence of leaders from within is nearly always indispensable. Iranian exiles may not be in a position to emerge as effective leaders of a successful domestic opposition. Similarly, the countries that find the regime objectionable may not be in a position to topple it. They can join hands however to assist in the formation of a coherent opposition through the emergence of a desirable platform. Such a platform provides aspiring leaders lofty objectives for which to make their stands, and worthy enough to take their chances. In short, political enlightenment, widespread knowledge of good governance, sensible economic policies leading to prosperity, the rule of law to encourage human ingenuity on the one hand and protect liberty and property on the other, are all desirable principles. Yet they must be taught, understood, and molded into actionable policies that could be readily implemented by a new government. The knowledge of desirable goals perceived to be within reach, will lead to political demand for achieving them. Iranians could thus receive a steady stream of credible education on good governance coupled with genuine respect for, and acknowledgement of, their aspirations. Leaders will emerge in time as we assist in formulating the right ideas that inspire leaders to seek a free, representative government that nurtures the nation it serves. It is important to address Iranians in the language they truly grasp. One should not underestimate the power of national myth and the symbolism that resonates deep within every Iranian's soul. The story of the tyrant Zahhak, overthrown by Kaveh the blacksmith in the epic Book of Kings, may be more effective than well-crafted US policy statements.
Iran's security concerns are real and legitimate. National experience has undoubtedly colored Iranians' perception of other nations' intentions. One cannot dismiss lessons learned through bitter experiences. Iran, cognizant of historical realities encountered, has a serious security problem which it seeks to solve the best way it can. Iranians have reason to be wary of the nations that have harmed them in the past. But they are also adaptable, and if historical survival is an indicator, not devoid of talent for international relations. Furthermore, Iranians are sophisticated enough in their views to distinguish between certain nations who have been exploitive, and others who have disappointed them due to compulsion or manipulation. The United States despite Iran's clerics' pronouncements is not a target of national hate, but indeed the opposite. The United States is favored, although the feeling is coupled with the perception that it is young, strong, politically inexperienced and too willing to give in to manipulation. Iranians are disappointed at the US for the selection of its influential friends. It appears to Iranians that the United States' friends fall into two categories, one of which includes nations that appear consistently to be "more equal" than the rest! Iranians want to believe that the United States is fair, even-handed, and a force for good. They expect the United States to show them its good intentions by giving them the respect they deserve, without confusing them with their undesirable rulers or unruly neighbors. Seen from the Iranian historical perspective, neither alliance nor neutrality, nor engagement has saved Iran from the designs of its foes. If Iranians are to unlearn the lessons of their history, those responsible for teaching the lessons ought to rethink their ways. What is apparent to most Iranians but illusive to others is that weakness has and will threaten the nation's sovereignty, the country's territorial integrity, and ultimately Iran's national survival. We may dismiss the threat as insignificant or delusional. For the Iranians aware of their history the threat is real, clear, and obvious.
The United States should refrain from repeating the mistake of the British in 1951. Flush with hubris the British turned an oil royalty payment issue into a matter of national pride. Insensitivity to Iranian nationalism, instead of forcing Iranians to abandon their nuclear policy, runs the risk of turning it into a fiercely nationalist crash program to acquire nuclear weapons at any cost. If the nuclear program is to be slowed down or abandoned, its national support must be diluted first. Capitalizing on Iranian national sentiment against war, and the potential for confrontation if the government pursues nuclear weapons may prove effective. Iranian families still suffer from the losses and scars of the Iran-Iraq War and are not eager to seek another. The most effective argument against nuclear weapons, however, is the possibility that such weapons will make the already bankrupt clerical rule more permanent. If recent reports from Iran are to be believed, 80% to 90% of the population despises the regime, waiting for it to crash under the weight of its own corruption and mismanagement. Alerting the population that a theocracy armed with nuclear weapons may be more lasting, could remove the rulers' nationalistic trump card off the table.
Finally, we ought not to underestimate the insidious power of intimidation. The theocratic rulers preside over a pervasive system of control that decapitates and intimidates any potential opposition. The general wish of the vast army of disaffected, largely unemployed youth in Iran is to get out of the country. A recent immigrant, a former revolutionary turned taxi driver in Washington, DC summed up the sentiment concisely: "Marg bar maa ke gofteem marg bar Shah" —— Death to us who said death to the Shah!