By Ramin Mazaheri, France
They're in the news often enough, but Iran's relationship with the world hasn't actually changed for nearly a decade. The sticking point is the nuclear bomb and no progression or regression is possible in Iran's relations with the world until a genuine conclusion is reached. It's hard to read the scorecard, but if the Iranian government's desire was to win time they have won admirably.
A conclusion will arrive in one of three options: Iran will get the bomb, Iran will be bombed for trying to get the bomb or Iran will renounce the bomb. The best result for everyone, perhaps surprisingly, is for Iran to hurry up and get the bomb. The sooner they do, the sooner Iran can begin to believe what much of the world already knows: Iran has become a major power.
The last several decades have taken an Iran defined by rural inefficiency to an urban nation on the brink of joining the first-world elite. Scholastic achievement, a moderately diversified industry, increased job opportunities, widespread suitable housing, firm infrastructure, female empowerment, more than partial democracy, socialist safety nets: Iran has completed much of the heavy lifting required to raise a country of 70 million high enough to no longer be considered just another Middle Eastern state stuck in the past. Whatever one's views of the Islamic government, anyone who knows Iran firsthand is impressed but perhaps surprised at the country's rapid development in the last 30 years.
Iran recently became only the ninth country to launch an information satellite. This didn't elicit much chest-thumping here in Tehran - people seemed more surprised that only eight other countries have done it, not that this nation of engineers and doctors figured it out. But when you're not permitted to travel freely it's easy to think the grass is greener absolutely everywhere. Above all, Iranians unjustifiably low self-esteem may be the result of a national character defined in large part by a love of loud pessimism seemingly self-defeatingly mixed with an unbridled idealism.
Iran does not appear like a country in need of a revolution, as western media outlets insist. If they would (or could) visit, they would see Iran looks exactly like it should: like a country who had a successful popular revolution some time ago. In fact, Iranians are going to be wary of any destructive revolution which could jeopardize the considerable and well-distributed gains made since Iran became a republic.
Iran's influence over southwest Asia - over Iraq, Syria, Palestine (and thus Israel) - shows that its regional strength cannot be doubted. For all that is made of modern "city-states" like Bahrain or Qatar it's unlikely these thinly-populated countries will ever have the gravitas to lead a region of more than one billion Muslims.
And so, when Iran gets the bomb they will be fully-equipped to definitively move from the Cubas, the Nigerias, and the Thailands of the world - the regional influences in the shadow of powerful armies and economies - to the level occupied by Europe and the United Kingdom: not super powers, but super players.
Good Fences, Good Neighbors
The world's premier defensive weapon cannot lift a destitute nation, like the "born nuclear" countries of the former Soviet Union, to such a realm but it could for Iran. And the way nuclear proliferation can go from evil to good here is all controlled by the amount we understand the adjective "defensive."
If threats of nuclear warfare were effective Russia wouldn't resort to lording their gas supplies over Europe's head every other winter. Atomic warfare could only possibly be justified to end a World War III; to use it to start one would ensure the launching country's complete annihilation. Anyone who thinks Iran will use nuclear warfare on Israel (and thus Palestinians) shows their ignorance by believing Iran is more like North Korea when it is in fact a small step from Austria or Australia. There are no mad despots here and the populace is not fending off starvation.
Despite the hope inspired by the ascent of Barack Obama, recent history is clearly a story of American hegemony falling and Iranian influence rising. The new reality, for those who wish to take off their Shah-colored glasses (and perhaps they should stop taking disco lessons as well) makes it impossible for Iran to be bombed, or more accurately, for their nuclear facilities to be bombed by the U.S. or Israel: Neither country has the political or moral strength to justify such an attack and, as the quagmire in Iraq reveals, they may not even have what they always took for granted - the military strength.
Because Iran is the exact opposite of Iraq - a thriving, democratic, well-built nation - no bombs will fall there for some time. A strategic bombing would inflame Iran into taking to the streets, to the embassies and to the airwaves and the moral high ground the west has enjoyed would be pulled from under them, leaving them without hard or soft power. Furthermore, such an attack would be futile as Iran certainly has the money and the will to rebuild.
Equally unlikely is for Iran to willingly abandon their nuclear program. In the last 30 years they have been attacked by neighbors and encircled by enemies. Most Iranians support the nuclear program because they know that with the bomb they are eminently safer. For them to give up this security, while Obama plans to "withdraw" from Iraq (to the tune of 40,000 troops left behind ) and increase the efforts in Afghanistan seems to invite invasion as, in the short term, both seem likely to become U.S. client states with commensurate military bases.
The world is indeed a better place without nuclear weapons, but that genie is out of the bottle and unfortunately in the hands of even such ramshackle and unstable countries as Pakistan, Uzbekistan and India (despite their "world's largest democracy" moniker, any country that scores lower than Sudan and Rwanda on the 2008 Global Hunger Index is inherently unstable in my book). Asking Iran to give up the bomb is really all the world has the power to do - ask - and Iran does not seem willing to relinquish their right to equal technology and perhaps the ultimate security blanket.
Endless Progress, Not War
The best solution, and the most definitive, forward-moving one, is for Iran to get the bomb. It's the best for Iranians, it's the best for the Middle East and it's even the best for America. As the bomb further reduces the likelihood of war, thus increasing the odds for successful diplomacy, it should even be the best for Israel.
Iran has two ways it can go when they get the bomb: they can enjoy their new security and look inward or they can look outward and increase insecurity. When they no longer have to spend attention and resources in ensuring their own safety, Iran could more completely address the relatively minor issues required for the final step into powerful modernity: The issue of corruption from the very top down to the taxi driver who ignores yet another right of way (though that is pleasantly improving as well in modern Iran); a national referendum on the wearing of the chador, if only to legitimize to the west (and perhaps to themselves) that Iranian women do in fact want to be compelled to wear it; undertaking the international monetary steps required to reassess the inflated value of the rial; ending the expensive "bread and circuses" subsidy of gasoline; increasing the amounts of academic and job opportunities their rising youth require, especially with the construction of more universities; extending the reach of public transportation; continuing to fund public beautification projects (more icing on the cake that modern countries enjoy) and more. I say "minor changes" because Iran has truly solved many fundamental issues other countries struggle with such as high-school education, health care, welfare, safety, affordable housing, etc.
But Iran would have to make one drastic change: it would have to look inward for solutions instead of looking outward for blame, at old scapegoats like the U.S., England and Israel. This psychological acceptance of personal responsibility will be more difficult for Iran than decreasing unemployment as for 30 years, justified or not, it has been xenophobic and paranoid towards the outside world.
Are Iranians ready to accept the fact that no one outside of Iran is really preventing them from attaining domestic happiness? I could even define progress by at least getting Iranians to concede that a statute of limitations has been reached regarding complaints about the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan! For those who have never been: Such is Iran (at its worst).
The easily predictable reality is that once they get the bomb the current Iranian government will feel emboldened and empowered. The can easily proclaim success and try to persuade Iranians that this proves their bonafides as good governors, justifying maintenance of the status quo.
But the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism require their adherents to continually evangelize in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and everywhere else. Instead of making the truly few improvements to become a modern, enjoyable and reputable country, some will continue to be hard-liners and extend the revolution, adding nuclear tips to their umbrella of influence.
Unpopular, But Invaluable?
If the revolution of 1979 was supposed to truly uplift Iran then getting the bomb could, surprisingly, be its capstone. But if it was supposed to spread Islamic fundamentalism then there is no end to that war.
Hysterical evangelism may have had its merits domestically but it's likely just not compatible with modern diplomacy. For example, Iran has lobbied for more than a decade to join the other 95% of the world in the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 2005 they were made an observer member, putting them on track to become a full member perhaps as soon as 2011. But If Iran is accepted in the WTO the hard-liners may very quickly get them kicked out of it: As a result of the Danish cartoon incident, in 2006 Iran summarily ended all economic relations with Denmark, which is explicitly against the rules of the WTO. This act of economic jihad earned them reprimands and put their membership in jeopardy. Such a move may not have been an Islamic blunder but it definitely was a political one, poorly serving Iran's citizens.
The best conclusion to a book on the Iranian Revolution would read as follows: "After 30 years of austerity, war, reconstruction - a period of true soul-searching and physical remaking of Iran - the country achieved a prosperous modernity without losing its ancient character and unique culture. And upon developing the nuclear bomb Iran felt so secure the people of Iran realized Islamic fundamentalist government had served its protective purpose and was democratically replaced by a more secular government that re-opened Iran to the world, which was shocked at how much the place had changed for the better."
The Iranian fundamentalists could win an almost Biblical victory: they could end by restoring Iran to power and then parading back as the nation's saviors to the seminaries of Qom, leaving behind only as many clerics and religious leaders as Iranian democracy taps. They could be willing to relinquish hysterical evangelism for prosperity and a more gradual liberal diplomacy.
It's vital to remember that the sine qua non of any democracy is a peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. America proved its mettle when the Federalist Party of George Washington was replaced without violence by Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party. If the voters of Iran seek to democratically install a party less aligned with religion it is imperative Iranian society demand the opportunity to do so.
And if Iranian society is strong enough to find within itself a will to seize a power greater than atomic energy - acceptance of the fact that they alone control their own destiny - they will see that the hard-liners have served their function. They have fended off the excesses of modern individualism, they have instituted an effective socialist state, they have fought off attacks from outside and they have retained Iran's essential (and maybe even some unessential) characteristics. The progress Iran has made under their leadership is undeniable, but we could be reaching an era of nothing but perpetual war and diminishing returns in our investment in Islamic governance.
Demand More, Get More
The bomb can belong to the fundamentalists or to the entire nation. If the Iranian voter cares enough to call for it, they could install a new government that is similar to all successful countries: they trade slow success in foreign policy in return for immediate success domestically. This new government, secure in achievement and safety, would have the ability to do what it takes, in accordance with the new realities of power, to resume positive relations with the world and reap the many benefits.
There's no reason Iran can't continue to enjoy thumbing their nose at the world, as we perhaps must, but it can be as a powerful equal instead of as an eccentric outcast. And eccentric outcasts might exacerbate the Palestinian crisis but they will never broker the solution.
Iran for Iranians first: it's a distinctly un-evangelical idea. With the bomb there will finally be no more barbarians at Iran's gate. When the gates are opened Iran has to decide: Are they going to rush out in counter-attack or allow the fresh breeze of peace and prosperity to roll in?
About the author: Ramin Mazaheri is a professional journalist based in Paris, raised in Chicago. He has just returned from a visit to Iran.
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