Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos is the title of a recent academic contribution from Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez took its existence as an excuse to check in with Rubin about what’s going on in Iran and what historical perspective we should keep in mind in the coming months.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s so eternal about Iran? Does “Eternal Iran” mean we can’t win?
Michael Rubin: Iran’s history goes back millennia. It is important to recognize the historical patterns that shape Iranian state and society. We wanted to correct the faulty notion that the Islamic Republic is the natural state of things. Too many books written by academics in the year or two after the Islamic Revolution assumed that the Islamic Revolution represented the natural evolution of Iranian politics. It is now clear that the Revolution was an aberration. This raises the policy question: Should we do anything that helps prolong the system, or will we side with the vast majority of Iranians who hope for change? We can only win if the Iranian people win. And that means not striking any deal which will help preserve the status quo and a theocracy anathema not only to many Iranians, but also to so many religious Shiites.
Lopez: What’s the continuity and what’s the chaos? Okay, maybe we’ve got the chaos part on our TV screens and headlines. What’s the continuity then?
Rubin: There is so much that transcends Iranian history. Many Americans think of religious extremism when they imagine Iran. Iranians are religious, but far more important is culture. Iranian still celebrate pre-Islamic holidays and their national epic, the Shahnameh, tells the story of ancient kings far into the pre-Islamic past. The Islamic Republic may like to paint Iran as Shiite first and Iranian second, but ordinary Iranians will have none of that. Pride and nationalism are also important themes that permeate Iranian culture. In more recent centuries, there has been a running battle between the central government and the periphery. Whenever the central government is weak, regional groups exert themselves. That is why the recent violence in Baluchistan and Khuzistan is so interesting. There is also constant tension between outreach and xenophobia. And, unfortunately, among the clerical elite, there are persistent negative trends like rabid anti-Semitism. Few people realize that the yellow star which Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany had precedent in medieval Iran. This does not mean that most Iranians are intolerant; quite the opposite. But whether among the Zoroastrian magi of ancient Iran, or the Shiites today, tolerance does not always permeate clerical circles.
Lopez: The president of Iran seems to really want to get rid of Israel. Will he try? Can he?
Rubin: The presidency in Iran doesn’t have much power; it’s a sideshow. It is the Supreme Leader that counts. Still, Ahmadinejad may reflect the thinking of the Supreme Leader. It is dangerous to assume that the Iranian leadership does not mean what it says. First of all, this regime is about ideology. We should not mirror image our own value system and thought patterns onto proponents of a theocratic system. To understand the regime, it’s important to understand the roots and development of its ideology. Second, the same analysts who dismiss Iranian threats now also discounted Iraqi threats to Kuwait back in early 1990. Our failure to understand that sometimes dictators mean what they say ultimately led to Operation Desert Storm.
Lopez: Are they a real threat to U.S.?
Rubin: Yes. There is a tendency among American policymakers and pundits to self-flagellate. If something bad happens anywhere in the world, it must somehow be our fault. But, a successful, free, liberal society poses a threat to a lot of less successful, less free ideologies. At the same time, it is useful to have a bogey. Traditionally, Iranians have woven conspiracies about Great Britain; now, it is the United States.
The real threat isn’t that Iran will drop a nuclear weapon on Washington, but rather that with a nuclear deterrent, its leadership will become so overconfident that it will lash out with conventional terrorism.
Lopez: You know Iran. Every time I say anything about supporting the Iranian people, the overwhelming response I get it “you’re kidding yourself if you think they will welcome us and our help.” Who is right? Do the Iranian people want our help? And if we help them, will they be our new Persian ally? What if we get something worse?
Rubin: Iranians are nationalistic. They don’t want us to dictate to them. But we shouldn’t be so condescending. Iranians are big boys and girls and can determine for themselves what is best. We should offer our help and let Iranian civil society determine whether or not they want it, and then judge them on their effectiveness. We certainly should stand up for dissidents. They have already put themselves on the line, but it helps that they know they are not just twisting in the regime. Here the New York Times does itself a disservice. It constantly conflates reformists with democrats or freedom-seekers. They are not. Reformists are part and parcel of the regime and do not speak for the democrats. More broadly, freedom is a very powerful force. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union did we learn how much we had underestimated the importance of moral clarity to Soviet dissidents. In the future after the regime falls, will Iran be an ally? Iran will go its own way, as they should. Like France, they may be a thorn in our side. But, better a diplomatic thorn than a nuclear theocracy. I doubt we will get anything worse. Iranians are quite cosmopolitan and they have a history of constitutional government. Indeed, they are in the centenary anniversary of their original constitutional revolution.
Lopez: Why do folks like you and Mike Ledeen wind up reporting things no one else seems to report–for years now? Are you making it up or is this an Eason Jordan kinda situation–the big-media guys are not reporting the truth because they’re afraid to?
Rubin: It never hurts to read Iranian newspapers or speak Persian. I always spend a lot of time on what is going on in the provinces, not only Tehran. I had spent a good deal of time in the Islamic Republic–was there during the 1999 student protests–and met a whole host of people. It is impossible to get a feel for a place unless you’re willing to spend time there. And getting a sense for the place is important in analysis.
A bit of clarification, though. At the American Enterprise Institute, we all work independently. I don’t know what Michael Ledeen, Reuel Gerecht, or anyone else is doing, nor them me. We sort of operate as a university, without all the petty departmental squabbles. We sometimes agree, and often disagree. It can lead to some pretty interesting exchanges, but policy analysis is about debate.
But you do put you finger on a big problem: Self-censorship. There is a real problem not only among journalists, but also among academics. After Tom Friedman wrote critical columns about Iran a couple years ago, the regime banned visas to other New York Times reporters for about ten months. The New York Times is willing to make compromises they shouldn’t. They are willing to accept uncritically Iranian government statistics. Iranian-studies professor have to do original research to receive tenure. This means accessing archives. The Iranian government is notorious about denying visas on political grounds. It’s like the foreign-policy equivalent of the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. If Tehran doesn’t like your politics or papers, “no visa for you!” This is compounded by the fact that many Middle Eastern-studies professors feel they need to advocate for their country of study, when they should be neutral analysts. They transform themselves into amplifiers of Iranian rhetoric. It is dishonest and unscholarly, and a main reason why so much debate has shifted out of universities and into the think tanks which approach issues more openly and honestly, are more willing to confront taboo, and less willing to self-censor or sacrifice arguments upon the altar of political correctness.
Lopez: Are we going to bomb Iran before the November elections?
Rubin: Only the president knows. He will act if he feels it is the only way to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Part of the problem is Iran’s overconfidence. They don’t think we can act. Bill Clinton faced the same skepticism as he approached the 1998 elections with a challenge looming from Iraq. Presidents–especially second-term ones–make decisions based on national interest, not cynical political calculation.
Lopez: If we get involved in Iran, where does it stop? Is Syria next? You’re at AEI, neocon Zionist conspiracy central, so you must have the full war plan, right?
Rubin: I don’t have the full war plan; I’ve been too busy out clubbing baby harp seals. When I was in Iceland last month, some protesters brought suit against me as a war criminal for advocating for an illegal policy. Maybe they thought I did have a plan, but I suspect it was more the matter of self-described progressives trying to criminalize debate. And actually, I’m not just at AEI, neocon, Zionist conspiracy central, but I was also Quaker-educated for 14 years and spent one summer interning for a Democrat on Capitol Hill funded by a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation summer fellowship. Let Mother Jones go nuts with that wire diagram.
Seriously, Washington is a pretty inward-looking place which is unfortunate. There is no master plan or plot. We react to crises as they occur. Indeed, my criticism of the Bush administration is that they are too reactive, and not proactive enough.
Lopez: What’s a fact about Iranian history you’d like everyone considering current circumstances to know?
Rubin: People often bring up the U.S.-supported coup against Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq in 1953 as a watershed moment. It was. It was, unfortunately, a triumph of realism. But while Musaddiq was no saint–his populism and willingness to use mob violence parallel the strategy of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti–we are paying the price for swimming against the tide of much of the Iranian public. This is why it would be such a mistake to make the same mistake again by holding out an olive branch to the current regime, which is as unpopular now as was the shah in 1953 and 1979.
Lopez: What’s something about the Iranian people we should all know?
Rubin: It sounds basic, but Iranians aren’t Arabs. While Arabic is a Semitic language like Hebrew, Persian is Indo-European. There are so many Persian cognates: The Persian word for forest is jungle and the word for sugar cube is qand (like candy). Mother is madar, father is padar, and brother, baradar. It is important to know and understand Iranian culture. Iranian poetry is rich, and Iranian cuisine the best in the world. Still, while appreciating Iranian culture is important to derive a more nuanced policy, it is also important to not lose perspective: It is true that 80 percent of Iranians don’t support their government and are pro-Western. But it’s equally important to remember that how friendly and independent Iranians are doesn’t matter; it’s the guys with the guns who make the decision and who have for a quarter century isolated Iran.
Lopez: Is there anything Ahmadinejad could ever say that would surprise you?
Rubin: Yes. “We will listen to our people. We will be accountable for our actions. We want to live in peace within our own borders. We will not sponsor terrorism.” But, unfortunately in this case, I don’t anticipate any surprises.