“Conditions are perfect,” muse Flight of the Concords just before they begin business time. Obama’s recent letter to the Supreme Ayatollah of Iran was not quite about to call things “perfect,” but if Iran came across the United States swimming in a pool that up until now was too cold for Iran’s delicate skin, the U.S. would be reassuring it that things have changed, and conditions are ripe for them to finally hang out.
But what conditions are these? The Economist ran a lovely report on the internal conditions of Iran these days and declared its revolution “over.” Much has changed since 1979. We’re not yet to hand-holding, but we can start to brush against one another a bit to find out if we like what we feel.
Back we should go to the beginning, and the why of 1979
Iran’s revolution of 1979 had two goals: to regain Iran’s sovereignty and to reassert Iran’s traditional role as a powerhouse within the Middle East. But the revolution did not start out as an Islamic once; rather, it ended up that way during the madness that always follows a revolution.
To the West, Iran was a gigantic oil field and a brick in the wall surrounding the Soviet Union. Iran’s internal dynamics didn’t really factor into Western thinking, which came back to haunt just about everyone.
The thing about Iran is, well, it’s old. Like, super old. So old that all the conquerors who have tried to subdue Iran have either been expelled or become Iranians themselves. Throughout recorded time, Iran has always been a major player in the Middle Eastern region, though its traditionally weak navy has kept it from doing much more than be a land power. When the U.S. and British secured Iran’s allegiance in the 1953 coup, they merely bought time, not domination. Sooner or later, some force within Iran’s complicated social and political matrix was bound to rise up.
And the revolution of ’79 was, much like the Arab Spring, a political free-for-all, and for a few brief months liberals, communists, Islamists, and royalists all tussled for supremacy. The Islamists were, like in Egypt, the best organized, and therefore secured power first. But like the Islamists of Egypt, they faced a complicated society of many competing interests with a long and sophisticated history. This was no new nation coming into being, and so the Islamists had to establish system of checks and balances to keep the many factions at bay. To ensure the Islamic Republic stayed Islamic, a Supreme Leader was appointed to play referee between the factions.
Saddam’s 1980 invasion gave the Islamists the covering fire to wipe out their opposition in murders and purges and left the government firmly in control of the Islamists. But they remembered the Shah’s mistake. He had run the country as a good ol’ fashioned dictator, really only thinking about himself, his family, and his cronies. A revolution against such a system in a country as sophisticated and big as Iran was inevitable under those kind of wretched conditions.
So the Islamists built a system that could channel some of the natural political energy caused by Iran’s size and culture into forms that could be controlled. Hence an elected presidency and parliament. Overseeing the candidates was the Council of Guardians, who appoint both themselves and every other candidate who stands for government. This Council generally has done a good job of keeping Iran’s many interests balanced. Until now.
And conditions are not so perfect to allow a radical to run Iran
The first Ayatollah, Khomeini, was without a doubt an Islamist radical who sought to export his Islamic revolution worldwide. That he wasn’t overthrown in a counter-revolution was due mostly to Saddam’s invasion, which militarized, radicalized, and centralized Iran as the country desperately tried to throw out the better-armed Iraqis. It’s highly likely that had been Iran been left to its own devices in the 80s Khomeini would have suffered a fate similar to Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, who went too far, too fast, and had no war to shroud his power grabbing.
Khomeini could take any former royalist officer and tar them with the charge of treason, since questioning wartime authority always carries severe penalties no matter where you are. To the hangman and firing range they went, and, in the chaos of war, nobody could give much attention to those sort of things.
But the war is long over. The rage that helped fuel the ’79 revolution has given way to old age. The fires of youth are now temperate with middle-aged sentiment to preserve what’s been gained and maybe add another car to the garage.
Worse than that, young Iranians have no memory of the Shah nor much of the Iran-Iraq war, and so they live in an Iran which has always acted like its in an emergency but in reality is just a busy-body telling people what to wear. They seek modernity in their millions; their voice was heard in the aborted Green Revolution of 2009, which proved new conditions had come about inside Iran.
Meanwhile, the U.S-Iran conflict has grown increasingly pointless
Iran of the 1980s sought to upend the world order through Islamic Revolution, which of course pissed off the U.S. something fierce. But Iran’s revolution has failed to spread; it’s Shi’a character pretty much excludes Islam’s majority Sunnis. Iran’s leaders have quietly recognized that, preferring to be the guardians of Shi’a Islam rather than the stewards of Islam itself.
There are still massive gaps between the U.S. and Iran – specifically on Syria and Israel, where they’re on opposing sides. But the huge breach that once was has been filled in. Iran will not seek to do much more than preserve Shi’a privilege. The U.S. can live with that, as it’s proven in Iraq.
Enter the pragmatists of Iran, who realize they cannot stand alone
Iran has no major allies left willing to protect it from the harsh sanctions regimes. Both Russia and China have stood aside and let America use the UN to suit its purposes. Iran’s budget is bleeding; its economy, shrinking; its currency, crumbling. And those, combined with the youth restlessness shown in 2009, scares the hell out of the old men in running the country. Their fanatical followers are outnumbered, and they know it. So they allowed a comparatively reformist president to come to power to alleviate that internal pressure, end the sanctions, and walk the fine line between a loyal Islamic revolutionary and a member of the international community.
Iran’s foreign adventures have all failed. Hamas, sponsored by Iran, can’t do much but annoy Israel, and, worse, has taken the opposite side in the Syrian civil war. Assad is a warlord at best and is deeply unlikely to regain control of his country. Hezbollah is now bogged down in Syria and is facing the might of the new Islamic State in the hills of Lebanon. Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are both lost causes; best case scenario is that Iran might help those Shi’a gain some basic human rights, but the Saudi army can, for now, keep the cauldron on simmer in both places.
So with everything tried and failed besides keeping power, Iran’s mullahs must either adapt or die
Within Iran simmers discontent. Iranians may want to keep their nuclear program, but they also don’t want nuclear weapons, nor to pay the heavy price for keeping the program. Increasingly, Iranians realize that the problem is less the program itself than the distrust their government creates between itself and the West. Whereas once the rallying cry of “Death to America!” would turn out quite the crowd, these days its a source of embarrassment for many young Iranians, who are so busy getting high and having sex that they’ve quite forgotten how Islamic their republic is supposed to be.
Of course, many Americans don’t realize this and just remember the embassy siege of 1979
That Obama is getting flack is due entirely to Americans continuing to misunderstand Iran. Americans assume, wrongly, that the radical Islamists of 1979 are still in power; they’ve given way to pragmatists, and while the radicals are still very much alive and still run some portions of the country, they don’t have the influence of once-upon-a-time.
Rather, detente makes more and more sense for both sides. America wants to put the Middle East to order; it can’t do that without Iran. Iran wants to keep its Islamic Republic alive; it can’t do that without trade and a guarantee of peace from the U.S. They must bridge their differences over more than just the nuclear program; Iran will have to let Assad go, and America will have to put uncomfortable pressure on allies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to help regularize the Shi’a there. Iran will have to learn to ignore Israel, and America will have to ignore how Iraq will slide into Iran’s orbit.
It’ll take time, probably the rest of the decade, but the new Middle East will have to have an Iran-U.S. friendship to keep from burning itself up
It is entirely possible radicals from both sides derail the process and there’s a stupid war. But such radicals are getting the oxygen sucked out of them by the geopolitical conditions swirling in the region. Neither Iran nor the U.S. would benefit from a war; rather that would just pour fuel on the already burning Middle East. To stop the Islamic State as well as bring peace in the wider sense of the word, the two must get along.
Most of all, they don’t have to have the same values. They just have to tolerate one another. In a Middle East that’s produced nightmares like the Islamic State, that’s a pretty big step forward.