I happened to be in Iran just after the first Iraqi elections of 2005, which took place at the end of January. One learns quite swiftly in Iran that it can be a mistake to ask people’s opinion about developments next door, since Iranians are acutely sensitive to the Western misconception that they are Arabs, let alone Iraqis. To most of them, Iraq is not even a proper state, let alone a real country or nation. The very idea that they might see it as a model for any sort of emulation is absurd, if not faintly indecent.
However, most Iranians were delighted and relieved to see the end of Saddam Hussein, just as they were to see the overthrow of their old Taliban enemies in neighboring Afghanistan, and the fact that both events also now mean American troops on their borders is, in Iranian “street” terms, one of those half-full/half-empty propositions. Moreover, Iran last January was preparing for its own “elections,” so the idea of any political process in an adjacent territory had its interest and even its allure.
Even though numerous American media outlets have fallen into the lazy trap of saying that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was overwhelmingly “elected” as president of Iran last June, the plain fact remains that his last-minute emergence was a manipulated fraud, concocted behind the scenes after the original list of candidates had been screened and purged, and was an even grosser fraud on the day itself, with no attempt made to hide the ballot-stuffing and vote-rigging. Whereas, with the exception of some bans on individual Baathists, rather than on Baathism itself, the successive votes in Iraq have been a more and more accurate reflection of actual political differences as well as of ethnic and confessional ones.
Nonetheless, everything I can glean from friends and contacts in Iraq makes it ever-clearer that the Iranian state and its clerical proxies made a huge intervention in the Iraqi voting earlier this month, most especially in the southern provinces and in the capital city of Baghdad. It was probable that the Shiite parties would have won anyway, but they made assurance doubly sure by extensive fraud and by using both militias and uniformed policemen to exclude, coerce, or intimidate voters. So, the regional dilemma is now as follows: Will the Iraqi model be one day followed in Iran, or will Iran succeed in imposing its own “model” on Iraq?
A good deal hangs on this question. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, for example (who is himself an Iranian by birth), is an opponent of the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini, who first promulgated his authoritarian concept of the veleyat-i-faqih, or “guardianship of the cleric,” while in enforced exile in Iraq. There are important Shiite scholars on opposite sides of the argument, in both nations, about whether the mullahs should seek to wield political power in the here and now. It seems a safe bet, on every measurement of opinion that we have, that a huge proportion of the Iranian population is fed up with the misery and backwardness and corruption—to say nothing of the international isolation—that has attended three decades of clerical rule. And there are certainly a vast number of Iraqis who do not intend to exchange one form of absolutism for another.
Americans have the right to be concerned about this, both morally and politically. After many years of being on the wrong side in both Iran and Iraq, the United States has finally managed to get itself into a position where it can decently speak of favoring constitutional democracy in both countries. Having also shed much blood and spent a fortune, as with the comparable effort in Afghanistan, it is entitled to a hearing from those who live in countries that have been run into the ground. The age of “internal affairs” is over: When nations misruled by religious dictatorship fail and become stagnant, they do not seek the blame for their failure in themselves. Instead, they project the anguish outward and begin yelling about Jewish and crusader conspiracies. This can, to put it mildly, lead to the export of violence.
Elements of Iran’s senior leadership are wanted on serious charges in many countries, from Germany to Argentina, for their complicity in death-squad activity. They are also known to be the patrons of Bashar Assad’s moribund Baathism in Syria (yet another case, by the way, when Baathist “secularism” seems happy to collaborate with Islamic extremism) and are partners in his attempt to intimidate the Lebanese. And, whatever may be said this time about intelligence-gathering on WMD, it would be a very rash person who did not believe that Iran has been flagrantly cheating on all its obligations to be truthful to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Repeated impunity on this, combined with an inflated oil price, appears to have given President Ahmadinejad the idea that he and his turbaned patrons are invulnerable—hence the recent railing and baiting resort to anti-Jewish demagoguery. And now they want to help wreck what has been gained in Iraq.
If you want to know what the Bush administration policy is toward Iran, you will have to keep asking (and if you manage to find anything out, please let me know). After almost five years in office, there is no “go-to” person or department, no strategy in common with allies or with the United Nations, no agreed-upon approach of any kind. One gathers that military options have been excluded, for either regime-change or disarmament, but then one could probably have “gathered” that for oneself. This appears to leave only two options: either a Nixon/China-style initiative that would try for state-level rapprochement and simultaneous economic and cultural openings, or an aggressive policy of helping internal opposition to the regime. The two might not be mutually exclusive. Millions of Iranians have satellite dishes and relatives in the West; there is a large and restive Kurdish minority that has been much encouraged by developments in Iraq; feminist and other dissident movements are extensive. It is sometimes argued that such groups do not want to be seen or painted as agents of the U.S. government. Very well, then, here is a great project for American human-rights and pro-disarmament and “civil society” groups to undertake. Whatever the case, it cannot be that such a despotic and arrogant regime feels that it can meddle everywhere without any cost to itself.