Obama's dilemma: Whither the Iranian revolution?
One of President Obama's trickiest foreign policy challenges is Iran. Obama has taken tentative steps to defuse tensions with a country President Bush included in his axis of evil. But understanding Iran may come only by better understanding the nature of its long-running revolution. Saïd Amir Arjomand, founder and former president of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies, examines the evolution of the nation and its leaders since the overthrow of the Shah in "After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors," published by Oxford University Press last month. Arjomand is Distinguished Service Professor and director of the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies at State University of New York Stony Brook.
GUEST BLOGGER: Saïd Amir Arjomand
President Obama said last year that the United States was prepared to shake hands with Iran if the nation would open its fist. The offer came in March, at the time of Nawruz, the Persian New Year, and a deadline for acceptance was set for the end of December. The hope was that better relations would lead to negotiations on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Although some small steps toward nuclear talks were made, the deadline passed, and Iran's fist remains tightly clenched.
Is it possible for the Obama administration to develop a profitable relationship with Iran? Or does the United States have to wait for another revolution -- a prospect that some analysts have predicted in light of the vigorous opposition movement? Or is the problem that the administration simply does not understand post-revolutionary Iran?
The idea of another Iranian revolution surfaced after the massive protests against Ahmadinejad's electoral fraud in June. Protesters took to the streets again at the end of last year.
There are some similarities between Iran's political crisis now and the one 30 years ago under the Shah, but the differences far outweigh the similarities. Revolutions give birth to new political classes, and Iran's Islamic revolution is no exception. In the two decades since Khomeini's death, the clerical elite that ruled after the Shah's overthrow has been gradually losing power to the military-security stratum. President Ahmadinejad has emerged from that sector which has heavily recruited from the Revolutionary Guards and its mobilizational corps, the Basij.
Last year's electoral putsch on June 12 was the Revolutionary Guards's declaration of its readiness to take over the regime.
It is important to remember that to build his own power base, Ayatollah Khamenei greatly aided the rise of the Revolutionary Guards by replacing the backers of former presidents Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami with his own men. But Ayatollah Khamenei has now alienated an important segment of the ruling clerical elite by siding with the military-security apparatus headed by Ahmadinejad. He has also diminished his own ability as regime arbiter, a delicate balancing act he learned from Khomeini.
It is not at all clear whether the clerical elite and military-security apparatus can coexist for much longer. This introduces a strong element of unpredictability in the future of Iran.
Experts on the progress of revolutions still believe in an idea drawn from the French revolution. Typically, they say, revolutionary moderates are ousted by radicals who are then replaced by moderates, marking the end of the revolution. However, revolutions in Mexico, Russia and China suggest that another scenario is possible: the return of the hard-liners.
In the case of the Iranian revolution, this stage begins with the dominance of Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards. The dominance of the hard-liners in Russia 30 years after the 1917 revolution is the most striking parallel. The peak of Soviet expansionism and the export of the Marxist-Leninist revolution throughout the world came in 1947 - 1948, a full three decades after the Bolshevik revolution; and three decades separate the rise of Ahmadinejad and the hardliners from Khomeini's revolution.
The Soviet Union's victory during the Second World War was highly conducive to the pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy; similarly, Iran enjoys regional predominance as a result of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards have inserted themselves into Iran's aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. Their commanders have not missed many opportunities to make tough statements regarding Iran's nuclear option, either.
But making tough statements and making a bomb are two quite different things. Iran has considerable technological problems with enrichment, and it will take it much longer to develop nuclear weapon capabilities than the alarmist analysts are currently predicting. Efforts should be made to ensure that Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards do not gain access to enriched uranium.
President Obama should learn the lesson that President Carter failed to understand during the hostage crisis in 1979: Under certain circumstances, inaction may be the wisest policy.
By Steven E. Levingston |
January 25, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
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