U.S. News & World Report
'It's too soon to tell", The late Chinese leader Zhou Enlai is reported to have answered when asked for an evaluation of the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. This was nearly two centuries after the great upheaval of France. Revolutions are full of cunning, and the Iranian Revolution, now almost three decades old, has been no exception-cunning and ferocity side by side, the talk of a revolutionary millennium often concealing the skills of a leadership steeped in the ways of the bazaar.
Sly and opportunistic, Iran's rulers have been able to pick and choose at a time, and in a place, of great volatility.
Shrewd players, these clerical leaders have found the cracks in the order of states around them. Brutal men, they rule a society of great historical sophistication. Given room to maneuver by a substantial windfall of oil income, they have made their nation a player of consequence in its neighborhood. Sly and opportunistic, Iran's rulers have been able to pick and choose at a time, and in a place, of great volatility.
American power swept away two regimes that the Iranians dreaded-the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. True, America was now a land power on Iran's flanks; the Iranians ducked at first, then gathered themselves as the American burden grew.
Mixing bravado and bluff, and granting proxies in Palestine and Lebanon, the leaders of the Iranian theocracy appear to have succeeded in spreading the image of a mighty power able to have its way in the world. For some, that great arc stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean is now a battleground between Pax Americana and the Persians. This belief is in part due to the abdication of the Arab states, their virtual absence from the contest of nations.
There is bigotry in Arab lands, an animus on the part of the Sunni majority toward the political emancipation of the Arab Shiites. Arab diplomats and leaders shy away from Iraq-the pitiless jihadists are the only Arabs who come to Iraq-but the Iranians are present in force as pilgrims and traders and troublemakers and intelligence operatives.
"A cemetery of dreams". Iran is a radical player in the world of states, to be sure, but we should not overstate its power. We should not fall for the Persian bluff. It is important that we do all we can to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and to checkmate it in arenas that count, but we should always remember that this is a society swimming against the tide of history and confronting the limits of its capabilities.
There is an Iranian role in Iraq, but it should not be exaggerated. It is not true that the Iraqi political class marches to the Iranian drummer. It is well known that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent his years of exile in Syria and kept his distance from the Iranians. "Iraq is a cemetery of dreams", a thoughtful Iraqi observed to me of his country. "Iranian dreams, no less than American dreams perhaps". Iraqis are a tough breed, and the notion that they are eager to take their country into a Persian dominion is unconvincing. The Iranians dwell virtually alone in the House of Islam, separated by language and culture, marked by their Shi’ism.
Then there are the troubles that count-the disabilities at home. Iran's deranged president, Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad, came into power promising to put Iran's oil wealth "on the dinner table". But the Iranian economy is on the ropes. Hyperinflation, the drying up of international credit lines and the astounding growth in energy consumption in Iran are bringing the country to the edge of crisis. The price of bread and meat and basic commodities has risen by as much as 25 percent. To tranquilize the realm, gasoline is subsidized well below its cost, and domestic consumption now accounts for a stunning 40 percent of Iran's oil production. Dire predictions now hold that the country will be unable to export much oil a decade from now.
The true believers will proclaim that revolutionary purity trumps all, but worldly needs and affairs ultimately prevail. A society that spends Maintaining Perspective / billion a year to subsidize the price of energy, electricity, and gasoline will in the end have to contend with the wrath and disappointment of its people. There is swagger in Iran, and there is menace, for its rulers are without scruples. Terrorism, for them, is always an option. But theirs is a vulnerable and brittle society.
There is no need to "engage" them and bail them out as they stumble. The regime should be harassed, contained, and held to account. We may not have to wait two centuries to pronounce on the fate of this revolution. The swagger abroad and the rot at home: It is a trajectory we are all too familiar with by now. ENDS AJAMI 6307
Edito’s note: Mr. Fouad ajami is is a Lebanese born American university professor and the Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johan Hopkins University.
It is not true that the Iraqi political class marches to the Iranian drummer.
This story appeared in the 5 March 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.
Highlights are by IPS