Iran is the new Eastern Europe during the last phase of the Cold War. Like Poland during the heady days of Solidarity in the early 1980s, the protestors in the streets of Iranian cities are not crazed ethnics demonstrating on behalf of some illiberal blood-and-soil nationalism, but enlightened, technologically savvy multitudes crying out for universal values of democracy and human rights. As such, they have captured the imagination of liberal intellectuals in the West. Even as the United States is tied down with 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran promises to be the signal issue of our time.
Just as the enemy of the Polish workers was a calcified secular religion – Communism—the enemy of the Iranian democrats is a clerical autocracy in its gerontocratic, Brezhnevite phase of existence. Beyond all its religious pretensions, it is protected only by goons in the security services. Solidarity was the spark that contributed to the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, which changed the map of Europe. A new regime in Iran would do no less for the Middle East. It would have a positive, pivotal influence on both the political and the security situation in Iraq—pushing Syria towards authentic moderation, and helping undermine Hezbollah and ease the path toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. More broadly, it would unleash democratic tendencies throughout the Middle East, from North Africa to the Indus, forcing regimes and populations to focus more on their internal problems, thereby undermining radicalism.
An Iran that is both democratic and Shiite would tip the balance against the Sunni Wahabi extremism emanating from Saudi Arabia. And, in a globally networked world, where news of such regime change could not easily be suppressed, leaders in similarly autocratic countries like Venezuela and China would have cause for concern. Clearly Iran, bordering both the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the oil-rich Caspian Sea, is now more than just the geographical pivot of the Greater Middle East; it constitutes the central drama in Eurasia.
The Iranian regime is becoming less and less a religious theocracy, with the aura of a sort of papal infallibility, and more and more a traditional dictatorship, beset by a feisty and innovative opposition. It seems possible that, whatever the fate of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be destined be the last Supreme Leader of Iran. The rest is harder to predict. The proletarian uprising against the Russian czar in 1905 did not lead to regime change for twelve years. There was a decade-long hiatus between the rise of Solidarity and a non-communist government in Poland. Despite the inspirational effect of the Saffron Revolution in Burma in 2007, that country is still stuck with its benighted military junta. So while we in the West hope that 2010 turns out to be the year of the Iranian Counter-Revolution, the truth is that we don’t really know: these revolutionary inflection points are dependent on a host of intangibles that puts intelligence agencies far behind the curve.
A military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would only complicate the calculations. Theoretically, a successful strike on a number of installations, if it killed relatively few civilians, could further weaken the regime. But a messy attack could so let loose Iranian nationalism that it would offer the regime a lifeline of years to come: much as Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 allowed a new and faltering clerisy to consolidate political power. Odds are that such an attack, while it might set the nuclear program back, would prove a disaster for the bigger prize of regime change. But a nuclear Iran with a different regime might be no less benign than a nuclear India.
Given that the regime could last another month or another decade, what is President Barack Obama to do? Throughout his first year in office, he’s attempted the Nixonian détente approach: talk, work back channels, get the two governments to negotiate on the basis of naked national interests. That approach seems to have failed—less because it doesn’t make sense than because the Iranian regime is so internally divided that it can’t adequately respond. That leaves us with the Reaganite approach: be open to far-reaching talks, as President Ronald Reagan was with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but do nothing to legitimize the Iranian system. And, throughout any discussions, adopt the rhetoric of democracy. Make it clear that Washington is on the same side of history as the demonstrators, but also make it clear that the door is open to negotiations with those in power. And to avoid the risk of undermining the demonstrators by overt American support of them (thus catering to regime’s basest conspiracy theories), Obama should talk about democracy only in general, albeit pointed, terms, without directly referring to Iran. That is, he should get the language of universal values out over Iranian air waves as much as possible: encouraging the demonstrators without specifically backing them.
We are not in control. But something wonderful has begun: nothing less than the most positive development in the Middle East since President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem. And while that daring gesture led only to a cold bilateral peace between Egypt and Israel, the Green Revolution in Iran carries the potential to unleash a true Islamic Reformation.