Iran’s Nuclear Program and Democratization

Mohamed El-Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates Iran is five to ten years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

Military strikes to knock out any suspected Iranian nuclear program would be “absolutely catastrophic” and would “accelerate a program, if it exists,” he said. Graham Allison, an international-affairs professor at Harvard University and a former Defense Department official, told the forum that there’s a 20 percent chance the U.S. or Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear research sites within the next two years.

When it comes to Iran, a timetable of five to ten years is the diametric opposite of urgency. Iran’s regime is unpopular, and is resorting to strong-arm tactics to prevent the opposition from winning elections. In other countries in the region, Islamism looks like a fresh change from the failed status quo; in Iran, Islamism is the failed status quo.

In 2002, Iran was five years away from a democratic revolution, until Bush promptly gave the fundamentalists all the political ammunition they needed. Absent any additional American or Israeli pressure, Iran is still five years away from a revolution. Ahmadinejad’s programs have reminded people what is at stake, and whenever they get the chance to elect reformers or moderates, they do.

When enough people realize that the only way to truly reform is to remove the Supreme Leader, they will. As the series of popular democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s shows, authoritarian governments crumble when they can’t meet expectations of reform. If Khamenei doesn’t intervene, the Supreme Leader will eventually become like the Queen of England. In the more likely case where he does, he’ll find that even Ceausescu couldn’t stay in power.

Here, a pro-American reader might suggest an outside intervention by the US as a way of speeding things up. After all, he might reason, continued American pressure on the Soviet Union inspired many anti-communists in Eastern Europe. Lech Walesa’s support for Reagan is real.

However, Americanism means very different things to Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners. In Poland, there was a clear war between the Soviet Union, which was oppressing the Poles, and the United States, which wasn’t. The US seemed to promise freedom to all of Europe.

The War on Terror is nothing like that. It’s officially not a war on the entire Middle East. Iran is not occupied by a foreign government. This war has cultural undertones that the Cold War never did; communism was a failed economic system, whereas Islam is a culture. The US overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Mossadegh in 1953 and replaced it with a reviled fascist regime by the Shah.

Not coincidentally, in Iran, people never think of the US when they talk about democracy. To them, the US represents a fascist form of government that’s as stifling as what they have no. When words are forbidden, they protest not with the picture of the Shah or Bush or Bill Clinton or Reagan, but with the picture of Mossadegh.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government is getting ready to deploy anti-air missiles near its nuclear sites. I could write about how it’s a positive development since it delays the Israeli strike, but really every security-related news piece helps the militant right, just like in traditional American domestic politics. Iran’s alliance with Russia is probably a bad thing; Putin has no more interest in democracy springing up in Iran than he did in democracy springing up in Georgia and Ukraine.

In an ideal world, the liberals of Iran could coordinate with those of Palestine, the US, and Israel on a plan that would ensure Israel wouldn’t strike militarily before a democratic revolution, after which global public opinion could permanently prevent an Israeli attack. However, in the real world, any such coordination will be castigated as treasonous. There’s a reason the Liberal International does nothing but weakly promote the economic parts of neo-liberalism.

Still, to steal the quote Michelle Goldberg uses, “We are global, and they are global.” Liberal democratic thinking always requires thinking about civil liberties both at home and abroad. American liberals need to engage in the politics that helps Iran democratize. Palestinian liberals need to promote non-violent resistance to the Occupation. Spreading democracy and stopping wars of aggression should be high priorities.

3 Responses to Iran’s Nuclear Program and Democratization

  1. SLC says:

    Again last night on Scarborough Country, talking heads say that an attack on Iran could happen isooner rather then later. They spoke in terms of hysteria over Iran. The aattached link indicates that the adminsitration will increase its provacations to Iran by killing anyone considered to be an Iranian operative caught in Iraq.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    But that’s different from an attack on Iran proper. Unlike the US, Iran doesn’t have an internalized view that Iranians should be free from harm everywhere regardless of what they do. Attacks on Iranian agents in Iraq are likely to provoke Ahmadinejad, but aren’t enough on their own to make the Iranian people stop hating the regime.

  3. SLC says:

    Provoking Amadinejad is the whole idea of the policy. A retaliation by him gives Bush the raison d’etre to go after Irans’ nuclear facilities.

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