Monday, June 22, 2009

Iran's Crisis and All Quiet on the Western Front

By Barry Rubin

The Iranian crisis is being fought out on three fronts.

The first, and the one properly receiving the most attention, is inside Iran itself. Commentators have now found the perfect phrase for describing the outcome there: As a result of the stolen election, demonstrations, and repression, Iran will be changed forever.

OK. But changed how? If the regime puts down the demonstrations, it will be ruling lots of deeply dissatisfied citizens. Yet overall, not much will change within the country. Presumably, there will periodically other such upheavals until the day the regime is overthrown altogether. But how long will that take? None can say.

More can be said about the other two fronts. The one changing the least is the regional aspect. Events in Iran will not change minds in the Middle East.

On one side are the radical Islamists. These include pro-Iranian forces--Hamas and Hizballah; the Syrian regime, and many in Iraq--won’t have their minds changed by the post-election upheaval. They will go on being radical Islamists and believe that these demonstrations are creations of American intelligence (whether President Obama praises them or not will have no effect) and that the marches represent only a tiny minority of malcontents.

The same conclusion, however, will be reached by the anti-Iran Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and the much smaller base of al-Qaida. They and their supporters will go on seeking Islamist regimes in their countries, notably Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. They won't be affected either.

But there is another factor regarding the Islamist side. In thirty years I have literally never heard an Islamist say—in contrast to how Communists used to speak about the USSR, or China, or Cuba—that they want an Islamist state modeled on Iran. Obviously,  Sunni Islamists (including Hamas) want to downplay any such desire to clone Iran because its Shia republic is alien to their traditions.

And while Hizballah may be the closest of all followers for the Tehran regime, it also does not say that it's dreaming of an (Islamist) green Lebanon, just like the Islamist regime they know in Tehran.
For many years—20, even—Islamists in the Arab world have known that Iran is not a utopian society and that its institutions or practices don't appeal to the Arab masses. They have long learned to dissociate themselves from the social, economic, and cultural policies of Iran—which are already alien by being both Persian and Shia.

So proving that Iran is repressive will not weaken support for Islamism among Arabs. No Islamist in the Middle East is going to say: “Wow, that Iran is a terrible place! I better become a liberal democrat right away!”

Why then do people in the Middle East either follow Iran or have a similar ideological approach to the problems of their societies and states?

Simple: Power. The Iranian regime is strong. It fears no one and projects power. It defies the West and apologizes to no one. It swears allegiance only to Islam—at least in its own interpretation.  It rewards its friends and kills its enemies (I'm tempted--but won't--joke that the West does the exact opposite.) And soon it will have nuclear weapons, too.

Now, how will such people interpret the regime’s no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, tough-guy approach to internal dissent?

Will they say, as Westerners do—or at least should do—This is terrible! They are beating and repressing people?

Or, will they say: Awesome! Are these guys tough, or what?

Successful repression, like a successful terrorist attack with maximum civilian casualties, brings admiration, not horror in these circles.

But what about all those in the Middle East who hate Islamism and fear Iran? Well, they already feel that way, don’t they? The Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi governments, for example, may not be thrilled with the idea of mass street protests against another government, but they aren’t going to dislike Iran more than they already do. They are hardly surprised by that regime’s behavior. And so is the small minority of Arab liberals. No minds or policies changed here either.

Oh, but there is one aspect of the crisis that might affect their thinking:

Wow, those Westerners sure are afraid of criticizing Iran.

And that brings us to the Western front. Here is the one where change might be most significant.

Will people in western Europe and North America conclude from this that the Iranian regime is mad, bad, and its dangerous if Iran's rulers know how to make nuclear weapons? Are they going to perceive in the adventurous, risk-taking, brutal, and ideologically dizzied regime a true danger to themselves and their countries’ interests? Is the fact that it is a, to coin a phrase, “Tehranical” regime going to translate into an understanding of its foreign policy.

Surely, some of this has got to be sinking in, right?

But quick: how many massive street demonstrations are there in these countries condemning the trampling of the Iranian people’s rights and violent repression in tha tcountry? One-half of the reaction among students, elites, and supposed human rights' supporters to false accusations against Israel? One-fourth? One-eighth? Keep going into even smaller fractions.

And yet, it is here that the biggest and most important effect of the events in Iran might be felt. It isn’t too late to oppose Iran’s ambitions and nuclear weapons’ drive. Are people in democratic states going to wake up about the Iranian regime's threat?

The great danger is that one will be able to say regarding the effect of Iran’s current crisis:

All quiet on the Western front.

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