by Hugh Fitzgerald (January 2010)
In remarks published at this site recently, the Iranian-American exile, Amil Imani, a fearless apostate, and a patriot (who wishes both his former country, Iran, and his new country, America, well), argues that it would be misguided for either the United States or Israel to bomb the nuclear project of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is totally opposed to such an action:
“Bombing the [nuclear weapons] facilities is the worst thing America and Israel can possibly do. By so doing, they throw the Mullahs a lifeline and hugely hurt the Iranian people.” A military attack would also solidify the Islamic world against America, Israel and the West. The best thing to do is to impose the measured but effective sanctions that I have listed above and provide moral and financial support for the Iranian opposition in Iran.”
I think Amil Imani, and other Iranians in exile who may share his views on this, are dead wrong, and that the interests, in some cases, of Iranian nationalists, even the most un-Islamic of them, and of the Infidels – the Americans and the Israelis above all, but not only the Americans and the Israelis – require that the nuclear weapons project, that has gone on, without any significant or long-term halt (whatever some in the C.I.A. may have tendentiously insisted a year or two ago) and the final achievement of which has become an obsession with the people who rule Iran, the remaining loyalists among the “akhoonds” (a term for a Muslim cleric, used only dismissively by Iranians in exile) and the ferocious Revolutionary Guards, called the Basiji.
For what Amil Irani should ask himself is this: what will be the consequences of the attainment of nuclear weapons by the people who run the Islamic Republic of Iran? It is not true that the Islamic Republic of Iran is on its last legs. It has demonstrated a ferocity – see Mohammad al Jaffari, see Shirazi, see Ali Larijani (just a few months ago breathlessly described as a “moderate” in the Western press), see assorted clerics who have not echoed the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, see many others. And see, too, how silent are the rural poor, the Iranian villagers who, it should not be forgotten, far outnumber the educated, or the being-educated, that is, the students of Tehran and Ispahan and a few other cities, and whose minds and hearts will swell with pride when the Islamic Republic of Iran acquires nuclear weapons, and perhaps even explodes one in the desert over, say, Baluchistan, just to make things clear to any Sunnis in that area, or to the southwest, in Khuzistan.
But, some Iranian exiles may insist that we will win, we are practically toppling the regime now. I don’t agree. I don’t think the regime is about to go. It would be nice to think so. But again and again, those who have been of a secular bent have always miscalculated the power of Islam, and those impelled by Islam. When Kanan Makiyya confidently predicted, for his Washington friends, a brand-new Iraq, sane and stable and grateful to the Americans, what was he thinking? He himself now says he did not understand, he did not appreciate, the realities of his own country. Could it be that, as someone who inhabited a world consisting of the moral and intellectual elite among the Iraqis in exile, and what’s more someone who had been not only out of Iraq, but out of the Muslim Arab Middle East for many years, he had forgotten the hold of Islam, and what the attitudes and atmospherics of Islam do to the minds of men, save for the remarkable few (such as Mithal al-Alusi), who must live in a society, a state, suffused with Islam?
Iran is not an Arab country. It has another, pre-Islamic identity, and the narrative of Iranian history, with its Darius and its Cyrus and its obvious monuments – Persepolis and similar places are hard-to-ignore evidence of the pre-Islamic history, and the Persian poets are held, in the Iranian national narrative, to have helped Iran withstand the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the Arabs, who benefited so often from all the ways in which Islam is, and always will be, a vehicle for Arab supremacism. When it came to Arab cultural and linguistic imperialism, the Iranians managed to repel it. But now a regime that has nothing to do with the history of Iran, and that has everything to do with the curse of Islam, could stay in power forever, or at least for many more grim decades, if it manages to obtain nuclear weapons.
Like Kanan Makiya, like Rend al-Rahim Francke, like perhaps even Ahmed Chalabi, Iranians who have spent years abroad come to believe, I think, that the regime must be crumbling. Vladimir Nabokov somewhere describes how like millions of other Russian émigrés, living in Paris, Berlin, Harbin, Prague, in the 1920s, he was absolutely convinced that the Bolsheviks would fall. They didn’t fall, not for another sixty years, and tens of millions of victims later. For years there have been those who claim to have inside dope about Iran, and “contacts with Iranian exiles” (think of Michael Ledeeen), and for years these people have been claiming that Iran’s regime is just about to fall. It should; it deserves to; it is a monstrous regime. But all the excitement of the demonstrations, the two weeks of them that followed the “election” of Ahmadinejad, and the recent smaller demonstrations that have caused such hope and such excitement and such premature anticipation, should not cloud minds that have to think about the consequences, and the consequences not only as they are viewed by Iranian exiles thinking only of how best to shake the regime, but of the security calculations that must be made by those responsible for protecting the people of the United States, of Western Europe, of Israel. The view, and the analyses, may be different; the interests may even be different.
I don’t think they are, however. I think that the greatest damage to the interests of Iranians in Iran, and in exile, that is those who want to remove the Islamic regime, is to see that regime manage to obtain that weaponry. I repeat: the Primitives always outnumber the advanced, secular classes. In Turkey, the secular class, after 80 years of uninterrupted and systematic constraints, of all kinds, put on Islam, find themselves under siege, find that Islam is back, despite Kemalism, and with a vengeance, discover that they, the secular class made possible by Kemalism, do not constitute a majority of Turks but more like one-quarter of the population, and that is not enough to resist the onslaught, clever and relentless, by Erdogan and the others we call “Islamists” but who should merely be called “the Turkish Muslims who take Islam seriously.” Just as the secular Turks miscalculated their power, secular Iranians miscalculate their power, or rather, they dismiss too readily the majority of Iranians who, while they may not be enthusiastic about the Islamic Republic, nonetheless will be so thrilled by Iran becoming a nuclear power (Kissinger appeared to be in favor) – a goal sought by the vainglorious Shah, and he might have received that nuclear information from America, and other forms of technical assistance, had he, the Shah, not been deposed by Khomeini by means of those tapes made at Neauphle-le-chateau, and the ruthlessness of Khomeini’s primitive brigades, who did such things as burn down the Rex Cinema (killing nearly 500 people trapped inside), deemed “decadent” for its perfectly innocent (but Infidel) movies.
Now the Iranian exiles should ask themselves this question: if the Shah had made his request for nuclear knowhow a few years earlier, and if his request had been granted, and if Iran had become a nuclear power, and if Khomeini and his bezonians had then managed to depose the Shah, they would have come into possession of such weaponry. And then where would the world be today? But, we are told, the epigones of Khomeini, the akhoonds and the Basiji, are on the ropes. Are they, really? And will they still be on the ropes if a nuclear bomb, an Iranian bomb, the Iranian, the Shi’ite, the Persian bomb, is dropped in the desert, or will they be hailed and hailed and hailed by the kind of people whose families supply the sons who go and become members of the Basiji, and enjoy smashing the skulls of those who like to watch Kierostami, or go skiing, or simply enjoy the book-learning of universities?
Let’s suppose that in the best of outcomes, the regime falls in Iran, and is then replaced by, say, a regime as close to that of the Shah, minus the corruption and minus Savak, as possible. Imagine it to be headed by the Shah’s son, who would take guidance from his charming francophone mother, the former Shahbanou. And imagine, too, that many Iranians in exile move back to Iran, determined to curb the power of Islam in Iran. Imagine even that, say, Abbas Kierostami, and a dozen other figures of similar stature, mimic the act of Emir Kusturica (who, though born into a Muslim family, and considered to be a Muslim, decided a few years ago to have himself christened as Serbian Orthodox because, he said, of course that was what his ancestors had been before being forcibly converted to Islam by the conditions of Ottoman rule), and decide to become Zoroastrians, noting that this is the religion of Iran, and that the conditions under which their ancestors were converted can well be imagined, and they thought it time to publicly demonstrate that freedom of religion, including freedom to jettison Islam, would now be protected, and so on. Stirring. Wonderful. But what would be the reaction, not to my imaginary scenario, but to something far more modest, if there were an attempt to re-secularize Iran, at least to the extent it had been under the Shah? Would the primitive masses of Iran easily acquiesce? If the Shah of Iran, that seeming pillar of stability, with that great oil wealth with which he attempted to make life better for the rural poor, could be followed by Khomeini (and the 30 years of hell that followed), why and if Khomeini and his epigones could then be followed, come the new regime, by the Son of Shah, then why could not the Son of Shah be replaced, ultimately, by another Khomeini-like figure, some Muslim cleric, or some military man nostalgic for Islam? In other words, Infidel lands that are the potential victims of Muslim nuclear aggression or nuclear blackmail, cannot rely on a change in regime, both because that change may not be quite so inexorable or impending as one may be led to believe, and because even if the change does come about, no Muslim country – even Iran – can be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, beyond the single unfortunate case of hideous Pakistan, a country which, however, is being vigilantly monitored and not being allowed to acquire more potent and effective means to deliver such weaponry.
It may be painful for those who are Iranian patriots to hear from those who wish them well that nonetheless we do not wish them so well that we are willing to accept their assurances, and their hopes, about the use of nuclear weapons. And it may seem presumptious, too, that a non-Iranian who does not know Farsi, and cannot possibly have the kind of contacts that Iranians in exile have, nonetheless is unwilling to go along with the hopeful enthusiasm and belief in an impending change in regime or, to some still more outrageously, saying that it doesn’t matter what regime Iran comes to have, because it still is a country, like Turkey after 80 years of Kemalism, still possesses masses who are Muslim, and who are susceptible to the siren song of Islam, even to a “return to Islam” as has happened, alas, in Turkey.
The series of assumptions made by Amil Imani and other Iranian exiles, including those who have shed their Islam forever, when it comes to the nuclear bomb project of the Islamic Republic if Iran (IRI), need to be examined. First, the assumption that the regime is teeter-tottering, and any day now, before the acquisition of nuclear weapons, that regime will fall. This is not a given. Then there is the assumption that even if the regime is still in power when those nuclear weapons are finally produced, and perhaps even tested, that will have no effect on the ability of the regime to withstand those who wish to overthrow it. Really? When I claim that such a feat will win the Iranian regime all kinds of support, formerly lukewarm, among the primitive masses (50% of the Iranian people? 60%? 70%?), outside of the major cities, what is the reply? Is it that most Iranians will not be thrilled by such an achievement, Iran now a nuclear power, for all to see? Oh, they will be thrilled. They will say to themselves, well, yes, the elites of North Tehran and the exiles may think one way, but the Islamic Republic makes us proud, proud, proud. When one reads the observations on Iran and Iranians by acute foreign students, such as Sir Reader Bullard and A.K. S. and J. B. Kelly,-the one aspect of national character that is always mentioned is that of pride.
One source of Western woe has been the naïve belief that Islam can be permanently constrained. It keeps coming up from under the ice like Rasputin under the Neva. It keeps trying to return, in the Shah’s Iran, in Ataturk’s Turkey, in Egypt under both the ancient regime of fat Farouk and then under the stratokleptocrats of Nasser and Naguib, and then just Nasser, and Sadat, and Mubarak with his Friends-and-Family Plan. The mistakes have been shared both by Western specialists, and by the secularists themselves. Bernard Lewis has spent much of his life studying modern Turkey, and he did forefeel the return of Islam (the title of an early essay in “Encounter”), but he surely has been surprised at how thorough and rapid has been the assault on Kemalism in Turkey. And so have the Turksih secularists themselves, who never expected to be threatened as they now feel threatened. And the power of Islam can be seen in post-war Iraq, where not the secularists (how many votes did Mithal al-Alusi receive when he last ran?) but the parties connected to particular Islamic sects are in the ascendant, though to read some of the secular Iraqi bloggers, of course writing in English in order to influence American policy, you would think that the secularists would soon be shown to be in control. But it isn’t so. The wishful thinking, all over the lands of Islam, of the secular and the Westernized is remarkable. Having managed to jettison Islam themselves, they refuse to recognize its fantastic and continued hold on the minds of others, of so many others.
Not only should the Americans bomb the nuclear project of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for their own good and siffucieint reasons. But they should do so, pace Imani, pace many other Iranians in exile, because it is the one thing that will so humiliate the regime in the eyes of its own people, that it will not recover. Oh, I’m sure in the first weeks, even for several months following such an attack, there will be a Rally-Round-the-Flag effect. Some of the less sober Iranian dissidents will ostentatiously declare their outrage, and some may declare their outrage and add that “we were on the verge of winning and now this” which will be a convenient way to explain, and lay blame for, the regime’s sturdy ability to resist those who would overthrow it.
But what happens after those weeks or months are over? How likely is it that the aggressive regime of Ahmedinejad , Khameini, Jaffari, Shirazi, Larijani, will be able, once it has been proven impotent, and its most important program, the focus of the entire regime, upon which vast sums have been spent, and yet now, though it will not be entirely destroyed, will have been so damaged as to be set back, by many years, and what’s more, the regime, like Saddam Hussein after the destruction by Israel of his nuclear reactor in 1981, did not dare to again pursue nuclear weapons, but abandoned it, knowing that Israel meant business and would attack again. If the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear project is attacked, it need not be completely destroyed for the attack to be a great success. The attack need only buy time, and also make clear to the Iranians that the Western world, beginning but not ending with the United States and Israel (ideally, acting in concert), mean business.
The regime will have lost face, and will also have been seen to have squandered tens of billions of dollars on a project that has in the end came to nothing. It is surely not beyond the wit of the Iranians in exile, and of the Iranians in opposition, to make that point, again and again, and to explain that whatever other horrors the Islamic Republic has inflicted on those it rules, it has also wasted the country’s patrimony on its attempt at weapons acquisition of a kind that would inexorably call forth the kind of response that the smoldering soil of Natanz reflects. The regime will become no longer feared, but a figure of fun, of ridicule, of waste, and this will be understood not only in Teheran, but in the villages all over Iran. And the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has shown its ferocity, and shown it can withstand the students and their supporters, of every age and type, in the streets, will not be able to withstand the destruction of everything it has been working for, by the implacable military power, the planes, rockets, and missiles, deployed in a good cause by Infidel nation-states that are not kidding around, and are fully prepared to use them, in order to deny Iran or any other Muslim state, the possibility of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, prepared to use them, if necessary, again and yet again.
The most farseeing of the dissidents should not oppose, but ardently hope for, a military attack on the nuclear project that, if it succeeds, will only ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran for many more unendurable decades of cruelty and misrule.
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