Though I make an effort to keep an open mind about how the U.S. ought to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions, I recognize that I am biased by my belief that the ideology of revolutionary Iran is informed by racial nationalism. Consider the following report from Minority Rights Group International, published in 2009:
Ethnic and religious minorities make up nearly half of the Iranian population. Discontent among various minority groups has risen sharply over the past three years. Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in August 2005, the government has more forcefully promoted the country’s majority Persian and Shia Muslim identity. In contravention of formal guarantees in the Iranian constitution and international commitments, in 2007 the government continued a crackdown on ethnic and religious minorities through methods including police repression, discrimination in education, and state media campaigns. There was significant overlap between minority rights abuses on ethnic and religious grounds in Iran, as nearly all ethnic Baluchis and Turkomans, most Kurds, and some Arabs practise Sunni Islam disfavoured by the regime.
The status of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities hasn’t improved much in the years since. Peaceful protesters fighting for the recognition of minority language rights continue to meet with fierce repression. And so when we consider Iran’s official anti-Semitism, it is important to recognize that it is part of an ethnic chauvinism that pervades the regime’s worldview. Jeffrey Goldberg describes a speech President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave in August:
The speech goes on to note that “people around the world have the right to enjoy justice, respect and freedom with no discrimination and exception, urging all freedom-seeking and justice-seeking nations to adopt a measure to rout the epitome of the Zionist hegemony, with the final purpose of establishing justice and freedom across the globe.”
Yes, the defeat of “Zionists” would bring about the reign of freedom and justice, not just in the Middle East but also in every corner of the earth. Only an eliminationist anti-Semite would speak this way. And only an eliminationist anti-Semite would blame “Zionists” for 400 years of global misery. Zionism is a political movement that is roughly 130 years old. Before Zionism, there was simply Judaism and Jews, and these are what Ahmadinejad and the regime actually loathe. It is the official position of the president of Iran that Jews are a plague, and should thus be removed from the world. Other Iranian officials argue that Jews should at least be suppressed and returned to their traditional second-class status, if the world is to be made whole.
My fear about a nuclear Iran isn’t so much that it will become some kind of regional hegemon. My working assumption is that a nuclear Iran would set off a wave of horizontal nuclear proliferation, which would be destabilizing but that wouldn’t necessarily strengthen Iran’s relative position. Rather, my concern is that an Iranian nuclear capability would serve as a powerful shield against external efforts to protect the interests of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, who have been brutalized for decades yet you have seen an intensification of official repression in recent years. One assumes that members of Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority don’t generally see themselves as allies of Israel or friends of the Zionist project, but all share an interest in a more tolerant, inclusive, and representative Iranian government.