As Iran’s Summer of Outrage gives way to a sustained Winter of Discontent, those who predicted the protest movement would wither in the face of massive state repression are scrambling to re-evaluate. Brave Iranians have not backed down, despite rape, murder, torture, and, most recently, indications of targeted killings. On the contrary, the bravado of the protest movement has only escalated as we have seen images of crowds taunting and surrounding regime thugs, pulling their helmets off and parading them in the streets. A more subtle development and considerably more telling- the revolutionary ideology that propelled the mullahs to power in 1979 has been taken from them as increasingly the Green protest movement has appropriated the language and symbolism of political Islam to wage its civil disobedience campaign. This has divided the ruling elite and turned the guardians of the state against one another. Hard-liners on both sides of the divide have predictably asserted themselves, reducing any room for compromise. Are we witnessing the end of the Islamic Republic?
It is certainly clear that things will never be the same between the state and the people in Iran. As Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi affirms in a recent interview with Foreign Policy Magazine, its nonsense to think of the protest movement as a tiny group of educated elites in Tehran angry about a stolen election. The discontent has spread from city to hinterland, from students in universities to those studying in religious seminaries. It is no longer about an electoral debacle- this was only the spark that released pent up dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with the fundamental nature of the regime itself.
It is no longer a fanciful dream for ordinary Iranians to begin to imagine a different Iran, one where simple freedoms and full acceptance by the global community of nations are a reality. But what will this new Iran look like? And how will it act? The answer is a bit more complicated than one might think.
Most Americans who know Iran rightly view ordinary Iranians as perhaps the most pro-American population in the Middle East. Young, hip, tired of political Islam’s restrictions and sermons, rabid consumers of Western culture- this population, if harnessed, could be a great force for positive change in the region and certainly a U.S. ally against extremism. It is a well-known truth that most Iranians do not care for the foreign policy adventurism of the mullahs- the support for Hamas and Hizbullah, the meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like our own president Obama, they prefer nation-building at home, not abroad.
But at the end of the day, nations have interests and defending those interests, unfortunately, has little to do with what their citizens think. President Obama talked a good game about nation building at home, but he was still compelled to escalate an Afghan war that will take precious resources away from the home front. Iran is no different. On the day the mullahs fall, Iran will still be a major regional power in the Middle East, competing for resources, influence, and protecting its own national interests above all.
Those who hope Iran will go from international pariah to global citizen over night after the mullahs are gone are in for a disappointment. Nation-states look to maximize their power and influence, regardless of ideology and temperament. Iran will still maintain its links with Hizbullah, and thus its influence in Lebanon. It will continue to interfere with events in Iraq and Afghanistan with whom it shares long borders and deep cultural and religious ties. (Did you think the U.S. would stop interfering in Venezuelan or Mexican affairs once George Bush yielded to Barack Obama? Think again.) And perhaps most critically for the nuclear obsessed West, it will not cancel its nuclear program.
Yes, that’s right. Iran’s Green Movement, the banner of liberalism in the Islamic Republic, has been one of the most vociferous groups against Ahmadinejad’s concessions to the West on Iran’s right to nuclear technology. Iranians are a proud people with a long and illustrious history as a regional if not global power. They look to their West they see Israel. To their North is Russia. To their East is India and Pakistan. To the South, the U.S. nuclear fleet patrols off the Straits of Hormuz from their base in Bahrain. Given this very real context, the self-serving lectures from the international community about nuclear proliferation don’t really have a tolerant audience within Iran. And any protest group would not have much of a future if it were to espouse this line.
Does this mean we shouldn’t support Iran’s Green Movement? Absolutely not. They remain the best indigenous hope for positive change in Iran and throughout the region. All nation-states have interests. We cannot stop them from pursuing and protecting them. What we can do is influence the way they do this- through cooperation and political compromise rather than terrorism and threats. America’s policy is poorly fixated on a nuclear program in Iran that is not going to stop even in the best of circumstances- if the mullah’s are completely overthrown. Instead, it should be focused on the nature of the Islamic regime and the way it does business, both at home and abroad.