Wednesday, January 21, 2004
This is starting to get interesting: Iranian election officials resign in protest.
A big - big - part of the neo-con justification for the Iraq war was that it would lead to a snowball effect where democracy started breaking out all over the region. There's no evidence of that yet. If something big happened in Iran, that would be the first evidence that the neo-cons had a point after all.
Now, I've never been a big buyer of democracy in Iraq, specifically, for the simple reason that Iraq isn't a nation. The leading ethnic group - the Arab Sunnis, from which the professional and technocratic elite is disproportionately drawn - is loathed by the numerically dominant Shiite Arabs and by the Kurds of the north (who want their own state). We're facing so much Sunni Arab resistance in large part because of the perception that we're going to hand the country over to the Shiites. If we *don't* hand the country over to the Shiites, we'd likely face *Shiite* resistance. Our legitimacy problem in Iraq does not stem primarily from the fact that we conquered the country; it stems from the fact that there is no widely-accepted legitimate authority in Iraq that America can support - certainly not Ahmad Chalabi, but not Hassan, formerly Crown Prince of Jordan, either, nor Ali Sistani, the (quite reasonable-seeming, actually) Shiite leader who, if he got his way and elections were held immediately for a unitary national state, would probably provoke a civil war even if that is not his intention (and I don't think it is). That's why, by the way, bringing in the U.N. would solve nothing; contrary to popular Democrat belief, the U.N. has *no* track record in solving these kinds of problems. All they can do is provide a filligree of legitimacy to simply keeping the lid on things . . . provided that no one seriously wants to cause trouble. And I think there are just a few folks who want to cause trouble.
So I remain a skeptic on Iraqi democracy. But I'm a huge believer in democracy in Iran. Iran is absolutely a nation, one with a national consciousness that goes back to the ancient world. (The only Arab state that can claim the same is Egypt.) The country has lived for 25 years under a repressive theocracy and they are sick of it. They have a well-educated population, a relatively high standard of living, a relatively low birth rate (which is interesting in itself), less dependence on oil than many Middle Eastern economies, and the population is basically pro-American. Iraq hasn't been stable for more than brief periods any time in the past 5000 years. Iran is a totally different story.
To date, the main dividends from the Iraqi campaign have been on the "realist" side of the ledger: Libya giving up its nuclear program, some peacemaking noises from Syria, an apparent increase in interest on the part of China in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. These are the dividends of a show of force; they have nothing to do with the spread of democracy. Moreover, the biggest geopolitical risk to the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns is that they knocked out regimes that were basically hostile to Iran and gave Iran an opening to dominate each country in the future, through ethnic or religious connections. This has been the biggest danger from the Iraq war, and the biggest danger from our current difficulties with Sistani (who, to date - unlike our supposed friend Ahmad Chalabi - has been pretty good about keeping his distance from Tehran, though who knows for how long).
A relatively peaceful change in the Iranian regime would be the first actual victory for the neo-con perspective on the war. It would radically lower the geopolitical costs of our Afghan and Iraqi occupations (since we could count on a more friendly Iran, and worry less about Iranian meddling). It would "flip" one of the most dangerous terror-sponsoring states in the region into at least a neutral. And it could plausibly be attributed - in part - to the Iraq war. Why? Because a regime change in Iran can only happen if the mullahs are unwilling to use force to remain in power. They saw what happened in China in 1989 when the regime was willing to use force on its own people; things were a little wobbly for a short time, and then the regime emerged intact and is now stronger than ever. You can make the argument that American troops on Iran's borders constitute a real deterrent to their pursuing a Tiananmen strategy.
That's the argument, anyhow. We'll see how it plays out.