For the Iranian regime, the nuclear program serves a number of purposes. Obviously self-defense is one, but Israel’s been pointing nukes at Iran for many years. A more urgent reason is political stability, since a showdown over nukes will help the government portray its opponents as weak on America and bolster its profile in the Islamic sphere.
Khamenei’s stepping into the foray by threatening the US is just another part of this game. Khamenei knows damn well that attacking US interests will result in increased global sympathy for the US, especially if the attack is big. The idea is not to provoke a war, which will endanger the regime, but to shift national attention from domestic issues to security.
But many in Iran say they fear attack. Iranian media and websites have almost daily commentaries on a possible U.S. attack — some of them blaming hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the deteriotion in the already bad U.S.-Iranian relations by his provocative rhetoric against America and Israel.
Possibly the most neglected part of realist international relations is the role of domestic politics. It was in the United States’ interest to declare war on Germany together with Britain and France in 1939, but because of isolationist sentiment, Roosevelt had to wait until Germany declared war on the US. It was in Israel’s best interest to wait out the Hezbollah standoff last summer, but due to political pressure Olmert had to bomb in order to look tough.
That holds true regardless of how democratic a country is. In Iran, making sure the thoroughly disaffected people don’t revolt is the regime’s top priority. Like Bush, Ahmadinejad has become so unpopular that even when he does engage in saber-rattling, the people no longer rally around him.
Edwards tried explaining the situation by totalizing economic progress. That’s partly true, but part of the progress people in Iran are looking for is democratic progress. The most dangerous moment for an authoritarian regime is when it starts a process of reform and then abandons it. That happened in the early years of this decade under Khatami; since then, the people have entered a state of strong disapproval of not only the current administration but also the basic regime.
Many Iranians have said they feel under siege and fear an attack despite U.S. denials of such a plan. U.S. President George W. Bush has ordered American troops to act against Iranians suspected of being involved in the Iraqi insurgency, in addition to sending the second carrier to the region.
The best thing that could happen to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a war. The US and Israel aren’t going to do anything serious to Iran unless Khamenei’s brain short-circuits and Iran nukes someone. The only thing that could happen is a low-brow war, which would set Iran’s level of development back a little but ensure that the people rally behind the regime as their sole protector.
Bush has been supremely lucky in that he’s gotten a second chance, not to rescue his irrevocably tarnished legacy but to do good in global politics. He could have been serious in the War on Terror and made sure Afghanistan developed into a liberal democracy. But even after squandering that and tearing Iraq apart, he has a second chance with Iran.
He alone can deescalate the situation in order to make sure the regime has no cover with which to crack down on dissent or to shore up support at home. Iran won’t have a nuke for at least five years, but the US or Israel may go crazy and authorize a military strike way earlier.
Unfortunately, Bush is still Bush. Instead of defusing the situation and helping democratize Iran, he’s escalating it and helping the authoritarian regime sustain itself. I’m not sure whether it’s out of a misguided belief that engaging in warfare is more important than defeating an anti-American theocracy or out of a sincere desire to prop up Ahmadinejad, but either way, it’s not helping.