Dear blog recipients,

Attached is in connection to my thoughts on Iran, nuclear proliferation, the noise in the press and some thoughts on an appropriate perspective. This essay was very difficult to write since it touches on many sensitivities. If the reader disagrees with a sentence or two please look at the larger picture I am trying to paint.

Note that I wrote a more detailed essay called “Iran in Transition” following my visit to Iran 12 months ago. 

I remind that my blog posts are imbedded in my website and can be accessed directly through that window.

Why does Iran Matter so much – or Does It?

Headlines this winter suggested that the future of the world depends on the outcome of the Iranian nuclear program and negotiations.  We were occasionally diverted by the antics of Vladimir Putin, a suicidal pilot or the profligacy of Greece.  Is the level of concern warranted and equally important are we concerned about the right problem?

The focus has been on the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and secondarily the real or presumed role of Iran in the promotion of “terrorism” in the Arab world. Let’s take a long step back and examine these two questions.

Caveat: This is not a defense of Iran or a particular critique of anyone else but rather an effort to expand our understanding of a complex problem.

In the world of Twitter and 24 hour “news” (a euphemism for ego-centric entertainment loosely connected to real information) – what are the chances for real comprehension? Most nations and civilizations cannot be understood apart from History and that is especially true of Iran. It’s History is both long and complex. Iran or Persia was the center of the world when Rome was still a village and Washington a bend in the river.  This historical memory is every bit as real for Iranians as the Revolutionary War for Americans or the Revolution of 1789 for the French.

Iran not only has history but it has substantially remained a people apart from its neighbors in spite of the impact of civilization – shaking events like Alexander the Great, the forced adaptation to Islam, a visit from Ghengis Khan and more recent events like the colonial interventions and dominance of the West. This is important since Iran, in spite of minorities and other divisions, has a sense of identity that allows it to act with a unity relatively unique in the region and under-appreciated by the West. I visited Iran a year ago and an educated Iranian – and there are many – made the following observation. (Iran has Over 4,000,000 students at the Post-secondary level.  Iran is also the country with the largest proportion of US trained Ph. D’s in its cabinet – exceeding even the USA).  He felt the West should understand Iran as the natural partner to the U.S. and Europe in the ‘management’ of an under-developed Arab world. One Iranian suggested that the Arabs of the Gulf region were “camel-herders with too much money”. That somewhat self-serving self-perception helps to explain in part why Iran is confused by the U.S. infatuation with oil-rich sheikhs devoid of culture. Iranians, as heirs of Cyrus the Great and the first written human rights code consider themselves superior and we do well to understand their view of the world.

The same person suggested that the West should design it’s approach to the region by working with the “two and a half” civilizations in the region.  His list included Iran, Turkey and Oman. The inclusion of Oman has piqued my curiousity and I plan to visit. Arguably Egypt could be included. His point was to work with the more stable cultures and societies with deep roots in the region – and try to bring some coherence to the artificial countries established from the debris of the Ottoman Empire. The point of these comments is that we at least consider Iran in light of its self-perception and historic and potential role in the region.

Next let’s consider Iran and the nuclear question. Is the real issue Iranian nuclear proliferation or is it future proliferation if Iran assumes a dominant and unassailable position by going nuclear (relative to its rich but vulnerable neighbors who may then also go nuclear).  We then need to test the validity of the proclaimed fear of Israel that Iran has the potential to commit national suicide with a nuclear attack on Israel.

Let’s start with Israel. We need to remember that if there is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that Israel made the first move. There were no sanctions or consequences but it places all its neighbors in an inferior position. Arguably Israel could have relied on the strength of its bond and protection with America – as South Korea and Japan have been asked to do and have complied – and look at their neighborhood (North Korea, China, Russia). When I was in North Korea recently we were shown a map and were reminded that each neighbor had historically been a predator and considered South Korea a military colony of America. The point is that Iran can develop a rationale for going nuclear without reference to Israel. The Iranians pointed out the recently unpredictable menace to the the North, a virtually failed state gone nuclear to the southeast, nuclear armed American warships within swimming distance at times – and then there is Israel which has demonstrated its ability and willingness to attack. They added the lawless Afghanistan plus the former enemy Iraq to the list. Finally you have their real ideological competitor – the wealthy Saudi Arabia across the narrow Persian Gulf.  This person argued that Iran and Israel actually were the two countries with the greatest strategic commonality in the region – with the caveat that Israel must deal with its colonization of Palestine first!

The second question regarding Israel is whether the risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran has any degree of credibility. Given the depth of its civilization and memory one does not get the slightest sense in Iran that it is suicidal – which would be the outcome of any attack. If we take the view that nothing can be ruled out then we can make a much longer list of worries beyond Iran. We must also note that nuclear weapons have been used only once and that was by the democratic America – and many historians view those bombs as a gratuitous action. Remember war crime trials are only organized by the victors – and victors also write the history! Let’s accept that Israel has legitimate security concerns but the best place to start would be a solution to the issues in its own back yard. Many apologists within and without Israel repeat the mantra that the occupation of Palestinian territory has nothing to do with the Middle East tensions.  It is far from the only problem but is a severe aggravation and its solution may be one of the pre-conditions to regional stability.

Arguably every nuclear bomb is an existential threat.  Every additional country with nuclear capability adds to the threat but we have singled out Iran as a particular evil that is not supported by the facts. If an Iranian bomb is a threat to Peace it is the contribution to the very genuine risk of regional proliferation. In other words, let’s identify the real problem and address it from that more useful perspective.

Next let’s look at the question of terrorism.  By now we should understand the irrelevance of that term. It has come to be used by most nations as the actions of those they tend to disagree with.  Russia, China and Cuba have in the past exported their brand, America through the Munroe and other doctrines self-declares the right to intervene at will including the right to change regimes – and well beyond the Americas. Terrorism is best understood as asymmetric warfare or competition. In fact, as the capability of weapons increases (we use the term WMD or weapons of mass destruction) intelligent people adjust their tactics. The level of brutality can change but there are no innocents in our world. So what is Iran actually doing that is considered so egregious?

As a very amateur historian I will focus on two issues. One is the after-shocks of the collapse of the colonial world, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the shocks of the two World Wars. The Middle East was uniquely destabilized and is far from achieving a new equilibrium. The second factor is the re-emergence of the Sunni-Shia split and the need to discover a formula for co-existence.

The politics of Iran are complicated by both of these issues. During the days when colonial powers including the Ottomans had substantial powers they could keep a lid on religious intolerance and events were driven more by political considerations and the economics of oil. We note that during the time of the Shah there was an external perception that Iran acted in a manner recognizable to the West – but we could not (or chose not) to see the impact of the corresponding religious and other internal repression. We should note that Iran is the only country that ever went democratic in the region, however imperfectly, some 70 years ago only to be returned to authoritarian rule with significant complicity of Britain and the CIA. Only Turkey, Iran, Egypt and possibly Oman and Lebanon exist in a historically recognizable form. Given this history plus the unresolved competition between various minorities, religious sects and simply centers of power we need to understand that the region needs to come to an internal consensus to which outsiders can only make a limited contribution. Arguably interventions like the Bush-initiated war of 2003 significantly aggravated an already difficult process.

Iran is a player in this process as is Turkey (especially related to the Kurds), America in terms of its oil protectorates, sometimes Russia and the other intervenors grow out of the religious issues.  The effects of the wars, interrnational interventions and artificial borders have left a legacy of largely dysfunctional political structures. This has ranged from efforts at Arab nationalism, secular authoritarianism, conservative monarchies and religious tyrannies. Each political manifestation in the context of the largely artificial entities has created opportunity for conflict. From the perspective of the West we easily conflate categories that are not helpful. There is an Islamic reality but you cannot speak of Indonesia or India in the same sentence as Islam in the Arab world. Although Shias represent only 15% of Islamic adherents their geographic distribution within different political entities has emerged as a significant problem.

Scholars are beginning to compare the Sunni-Shia conflict to the religious wars of Post-Reformation Europe which dragged on for decades or centuries depending on how you count. They were never resolved with an ultimate winner but the eventual resolution was the move to separate church and state and accommodate various religious flavors within a political entity. This outcome was preceded by the exhaustion of war and assisted by the Enlightenment and other intellectual leadership. Is it a foregone conclusion that the Islamic world has within it the capability of producing its own variant of an acceptable outcome?  Equally important, in our much more connected world will they have the space to resolve this internally or will outside actors interfere too readily. Recent history casts doubt on the proposition that the conflicting religious ideologies in the Middle East will have either the political space, religious insight or intellectual leadleadership to come to a resolution. If that is true then what is the future of the region? What is the role of external actors whose security and interests are affected in our super -connected world?

A tragic side effect to this process is the collateral damage to other groups and issues. When elephants fight someone gets trampled. The emergence of Israel precipitated a radical change in the degree to which Jewish communities could live reasonably comfortably within an Islamic ocean.  More recent events have had a similar disruptive effect on the historic relationships between Christian communities and their Islamic neighbors. A century ago it is stated that 20% of the Middle East population was Christian. A more recent estimate is 5% and given the current chaos many communities may disappear entirely. This is not only a demographic statistic. Both the Jewish and Christia communities represented different strengths in terms of their contributions to a more complex and more complete economic and social polity. Other groups such as Bahais and other less known Islamic variants are suffering a similar fate. Their loss is a permanent diminution of social and intellectual capital. In areas with either a Sunni or Shia minority it has the effect of isolating a single protagonist – but both groups can find external sponsors or protectors.

We need to consider Iran and its policies and influence in the light of this history and these relatively recent processes and events. The Islamic Revolution was one manifestation of this chaos. Others have been the radical secularism of Ataturk now under threat.  Another outcome was the development of oil-rich monarchies designed to protect Western oil interests but with the unintended consequences of creating space for the expansion of the destructive and dangerous Whahabi doctrines. Then we have secular ideologies in Syria and the earlier Iraq which degenerated into authoritarian regimes and so on.

In this context Iran sees itself in its historic role as the inheritor of the Persian legacy, understands itself as a more sophisticated culture with a natural regional role and now finds itself as the only defender of the minority Shia populations. The competition with the West may actually be an accident of history and the side-effects of the reality of Israel and its unique relationship to America and the parallel partnership of the U.S. with the Saudis – it’s natural regional religious and political competitor.

All of this does not make Iran an easy nation to deal with today but let me close with two thoughts.

We asked many students in Iran about their personal views on religion and specifically Islam. They very freely suggested that alternative religious options were not currently available to them and that Islam as represented by the Islamic Revolution was of no interest. Their preferred option was to ignore the mosque entirely and focus on a secular life and values. They stated that this represented the views of a very large majority of the emerging educated class. They insisted that the ayatollahs had lost the youth and that Iran would eventually emerge as a much more secular society.

A second comment relates to how we categorize or demonize a person or a nation. If you search Google re “anti-Israel comments made by Iranian leaders” the results are virtually entirely statements made by former President Ahmedinijad. Many Iranians stated emphatically that they disagreed with these provocative statements, were embarrassed by them and to the credit of the Iranian people voted him out of office when given an opportunity. (We then asked why he was ever elected and they pointed out that he actually ran an effective local Government).

Let’s compare Iran to Israel. We all read the well-publicized comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu that there would never be a Palestinian State on his watch. From the perspective of a Palestinian person that sounds about the same as “Israel should not exist.”

My purpose is not to defend either person or statement. Arguably both are contributing to a more dangerous Middle East – but at least the Iranians recognized the folly of their leader and acted within their limited options. Israel rewarded Netanyahu with an electoral victory!

So does Iran matter to the degree reflected in the news? Iran does matter but only if we place that concern into a much larger context.

  1. The development of nuclear capability by Iran will increase the risk of nuclear proliferation but poses very limited direct risk to Israel.
  2. The Sunni-Shia conflict is very real and the West needs to calibrate its interventions toward actions that minimize these tensions. Arguably Iran uses its support of some groups as leverage against Western interests. A more constructive relationship with Iran may reduce some of these proxy conflicts.
  3. Iran will always be an important player in the Middle East. If Iran is a problem today, a war that destabilizes or breaks up Iran would vastly increase Middle East instability. The West needs to allow space for Iran the way space has been allowed for China and other entities.
  4. Finally we need to remember that diplomacy is about speaking with the enemy rather than with your friend. The U.S. chose to engage with China at a time when there was little sign of common ground. The Cold War also remained cold because enemies kept talking. Failure to engage with Iran or Cuba has served no useful purpose – so let’s try the alternative!

Yes Iran does matter but let’s start with a more appropriate grasp of the issues and options.