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Imagining an Iranian Spring

The recent brush with war between the US and Iran underscores the persistent question of US-Iranian relations: will the two countries ever reach a point of mutual toleration ever again? In my past two posts I suggested ways in which the US would have to change in order to facilitate such a development. But one perspective would suggest that no amount of adjustment in US attitudes or foreign policy would make a difference. The Iranian theocracy is so incompatible with American values, so goes this view, its ruling ideology so antithetical to American interests, that detente will remain forever out of reach unless and until regime change transpires in Iran

Thus here I would like to take a moment to explore whether or not there is any plausible future in which a changed Iran might find common ground with the US. My aim here is not to ponder the ways that Iran must change, but to think through the possibilities of how it might change. Is there any reason to believe that Iran and the US could grow toward one-another, given world enough and time?

The first reality one must confront in answering such a question is that the system of theocracy and the institutional leadership of an ayatollah as "Supreme Leader" is not likely to disappear from Iranian politics, even in the long term. The durability of these structures in the face of extraordinary diplomatic, economic, and military pressure shows that they have deep-rooted support in Iranian society that cuts across lines of class, education, region, ethnicity, and gender. This fact engenders the most vehement pessimism among outside observers of Iran. "A theocracy," so goes this line of reasoning, "is hopelessly behind the times. So long as the Iranian people accept the leadership of the mullahs, they can never truly be part of the modern world."

The latter perspective, however, overlooks several important realities. The first of these is the reason for the resilience of theocracy in Iran. Outside observers might be inclined to believe that Iranians follow the mullahs because, as a society, they are more devout or awestruck by religious authority. This might be true for parts of Iranian society (as it is true for some evangelical Christians in American society that would like to see our government become more theocratic), but it does not statistically explain the persistence of the current system in Iran.

On the whole, the mullahs enjoy the broad support they do because of Iranian nationalism, not religious devotion. Pious Muslim farmers and cynically atheistic university students can be counted among the mullahs' supporters (to varying degrees), because all respect the clerical authorities as successful stewards of Iranian independence. The Shah was widely perceived to be an American puppet, and elected politicians like Mohammed Mossadegh had proven vulnerable to the combined machinations of the US and Soviet Union. Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in establishing Iran as a neutral party in the Cold War, an achievement that few nations as small as Iran had been able to accomplish.

His legates have profited from the lingering credit for that achievement. Moreover, the theocracy is a source of pride among Iranians because it is a system uniquely their own. Because it is built upon the peculiar foundations of the Shi'ite clerical establishment, it distinguishes majority Farsi-speaking Iranians not only from "the West," but from their Arab-speaking neighbors, who (with the exceptions of Bahrain and Iraq) generally adhere to Sunni Islam.

The institutions of the Islamic Republic thus do not mark Iran as any more captive to "superstitious religiosity" than any other nation in the region. A belief in the irredeemable stasis of the Iranian system is more a product of European and American bias, grounded in the prejudices of the Enlightenment, than of empirical fact or observation. The role that the mullahs play in the construction of Iranian national identity is comparable to that of the Queen in Britain or the Emperor in Japan. If the latter countries could evolve to claim a place in the modern world, so can Iran.

Read entire article at Madman of Chu