The first day of large anti-regime protests in Iran, as a young woman burns her headscarf in central Tehran. Sept. 19, 2022

The first day of large anti-regime protests in Iran, as a young woman burns her headscarf in central Tehran. Sept. 19, 2022

Iran’s ‘Century Of Politics’ Makes It Different

Friday, 12/16/2022

Popular anti-regime protests in Iran have reawakened expectations in the United States of a pro-American, ‘postmodern’ future in the Middle East.

In an article published by Bloomberg December 15, headlined ‘A Democratic Iran is Coming and it will lead the Middle East,’ Robert Kaplan suggests that “nothing has the potential to change the region as much as a more liberal regime” in Iran.

Named by Foreign Policy magazine in 2011 and 2012 as ‘one of the top 100 global thinkers,’ Kaplan supported the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion on the basis that it would unleash what he told NPR in October 2002 was a “secular, urbanized developed tradition”. However, he was not alone in that optimistic assessment. Most of the US Congress and media were also believers in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Unlike many Arab countries, Kaplan argues, Iran’s borders are not “artificial…drawn by Europeans.” This, he claims, Iran shares with the Persian Gulf emirates and kingdoms – although Saudi Arabia dates only to 1932.

Whatever his views about ‘democracy’ or ‘liberalism,’ Kaplan is firmly a realist. He notes “Saudi Arabia may understandably offend Western humanitarians” and expects the US to broker a future Iranian ‘normalization’ with Israel.

Noting Iran’s rich energy reserves, currently hemmed in by US ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions, Kaplan admires the doyen of the realist school, the US Secretary of State who saw Iran’s Pahlavi shah as a US ally against adversaries Iraq and the Soviet Union.

“Henry Kissinger told me that had the Pahlavi dynasty remained in power, Iran, given its strong state and civilizational richness,” Kaplan writes, “would have evolved into a constitutional monarchy with an economy comparable to South Korea’s.”

Kaplan’s commitment to real politic rather than ‘humanitarianism’ opens him to the possibility of a “post-clerical” Iran asserting itself regionally, perhaps “developing even stronger ties” with China than “Germany now has.” And Kaplan is also aware that a “somewhat chaotic, less centrally controlled” Iran might grapple with “large Kurdish, Azeri, Turkoman and Baluch minorities.”

A century of politics

The priority of Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, writing in the Wall Street Journal December 12, is disputing the assessment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that current unrest in Iran “poses no threat to the regime.”

Gerecht, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former ‘Iranian-targets’ CIA officer, championed, like Kaplan, the Iraqi and Afghan interventions. In March 2003, he signed a statement that US intervention in Iraq would help the “democratization of the wider Middle East.”

The problem was that most optimists on Iraq were simplifying the environment in the Middle East and not considering the Islamic Republic’s long-held policy of exporting its Shia ideology and playing the role of a spoiler.

WithTakeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Gerecht argues that the CIA has been misled by the “disappointing results of the Arab Spring and of Western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Iran differs from the Arab world in its history since the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution, Gerecht and Takeyh write, with a century of Iranians’ “involvement in politics” under both Shahs and since 1979 the Islamic Revolution.

Iranians’ “critiques of authoritarianism,” they continue, have increased with the “massive expansion” or Iran’s “educational infrastructure” since 1979 with now “nearly six million university students, almost 60% of whom are women.”

Hence Iranians “are unlikely to fall victim again to the allure of a secular strongman or militant mullah, having seen the damage such leaders cause. The Arabs who revolted against tyranny a decade ago didn’t have the advantage of decades of trial and error. Self-criticism isn’t a Middle Eastern forte, but Iranians have come far in placing the blame for their own predicament on themselves.”

Gerecht and Takeyh rule out dangers of ethnic fragmentation and look forward to a “post-Islamic Iran…[with] a far bigger Western fan club that did the elected Islamists of North Africa.” Presumably evoking the Egyptian military regime that receives the second biggest chunk of US foreign aid after Israel, the pair cite Samuel Huntington – he of the ‘clash of civilizations’ – to note that US support for “nascent democracies increases the chance of their survival.”

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