Iran’s nuclear program has been vexing the foreign policy of Western nations, especially Israel and the U.S., for several years now. It seems rather difficult to defer the decision on which strategy to adopt in tackling the issue of a nuclear Iran.
Currently the two main options consist of: an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities or – an absolutely unprecedented scenario – a sort of “historic compromise” between Washington and Tehran. The former option is firmly supported by Benjamin Netanyahu of the Israeli government and supported by the American Republican party, the latter favored by President Barack Obama. The election of President Hassan Rohani and his new opening towards the West is making more possible the achievement of compromise between both Teheran and the western countries.
What do these different strategies imply, and what consequences might they have?
The military option has always received full support from Tel Aviv and the Republicans in Washington. However, a military strike would have devastating consequences. It would trigger an escalation of conflicts in the region without limits. Amir Hajizadeh, the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Pasdaran, envisioned the possibility of a Third World War resulting from an Israeli strike against Tehran. Still, an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would seem to some to be the easiest way to resolve the thorny case of Iran, thus giving Netanyahu’s government a stronger internal solidity.
Regarding Iran’s position, it might seem rather paradoxical, but the consequences of a military strike could actually turn out to be useful for the leaders of the Islamic Republic. The death of innocent civilians could encourage a revival of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist propaganda, revitalizing the nationalist spirit of a population that has long been alienated from the political system of the Ayatollahs and Pasdarans. Military action would also generate consensus around the Islamic Republic, and against a common, external enemy. The Iranian lower-middle class, disappointed by the regime (primarily for economic reasons), might return to supporting it if the Shiite Islamic regime is able to manipulate religious faith, by presenting military strike victims as martyrs of Islam. The martyrdom cult (shahadat) in Shiism is very much alive and able to elicit emotional and political reactions, especially in Iran’s lower classes. The Iran-Iraq war is a daunting example of how the Islamic Republic is capable to use the Shiite ideology to move the masses, rallying hundreds of thousands of people to war, even the very young, to sacrifice their lives for religious ideals. In the case of an attack by a foreign power, patriotism could be ignited in the higher and middle classes as well, including intellectuals otherwise opposed to the regime. However strong their criticism of the Islamic Republic, an attack could help to crystallize a new consensus.
A diplomatic agreement between the White House and the Islamic republic’s leaders would instead be a historic compromise. Iran would guarantee to curb its nuclear enrichment program and would allow outside monitors to verify it, assuring Tel Aviv that Iran will not be capable of producing a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. In this scenario, Washington would grant Iran an immunity from the regime changes currently taking place in the Middle East, thus guaranteeing the Ayatollahs and Pasdarans’ political survival even after the fall of Damascus in Syria.
In this scenario, the American government might receive short-term benefits – such as the curtailing of Israeli pressure for a war against Iran – as well as secure time and space for the creation of a new and more powerful Middle East, a potential future ally of the West in the global competition with China. The Islamic Republic would also gain in this compromise. The Iranian regime is a political-ideological system losing support from the Iranian population. Younger generations, now constituting a majority of the population, do not share the strictly Islamic values that gave birth to the Republic of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Therefore, considering the changes occurring in North Africa and Middle East, this Republic, devoid of popular support, might see this compromise as a convenient life support.
Both these strategies, the compromise and the military action, would play out in favor of the Islamic republic and to the ultimate disadvantage of Persian society. However, there is a third option to consider, that of the so-called “Persian Renaissance.” In the last thirty years a new generation has grown up: comprising at least 50 million people under the age of 40 years (over half the total population of Iran), it is the least religious in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic has been undergoing a sea change, generating new political institutions based on modern ideas developed by this new generation. There was a recent noteworthy case in which a campaign against the compulsory veil was launched on Facebook, attracting over 25,000 supporters nearly immediately. The campaign, calling for the freedom of choice for women in wearing the veil, was supported by Islamic women with the chador as well as lay women without. Several men were in support as well. The support of this campaign illustrates the new generation’s demand for separation of Islam from the state, regardless of religious belief.
These 50 million young people fall into three age groups: ages 17-22, 23-28 and 29-35. These three groups could potentially form a new elite with the power to completely rehabilitate Iran. The eldest of these groups may assume leadership and find millions of young people ready to support and participate in the political and cultural renovation of the republic. It seems plausible to suggest that Iran is on the eve of a “Persian Renaissance” espousing the values of pre-Islamic Persia, values of human rights and dignity. An illustration of these values can be found in the Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact dating from the 6th century BC. Its inscriptions address the injustices of slavery and the right of each individual to religious freedom. These values are being recuperated today by the younger generations in support of the grievances towards the Iranian government. The rekindled passion of the Iranian youth for Ancient Persian ideals is so strong that they have begun to communicate using acronyms and names that refer to the heroes of ancient Persian mythology.
Considering the above, we must ask if it might be prudent for the U.S. to launch a long-term strategy supporting the political advancement of Iranian youth, rather than reaching political compromise with the current regime or planning a military strike. At present, prominent Iranian counselors and analysts close to the White House are urging Obama towards compromise. While this may seem an advantageous solution, it is only such in the short term, as it neglects the fact of ongoing Iranian alliances with China.
As an alternative solution, an Iran led by the younger generation would be closer to Washington than to Beijing. It would produce a democratic and independent political system that would serve as a model of secular democracy in the Middle East, and also might become a thorn in the sides of Moscow and Beijing, two of Washington’s main antagonists. Energized slogans – such as “Death to China” and “Death to Russia” – shouted by the young opponents of the Green Wave in 2009, as well as “Independence and Freedom and Iranian Republic” are evident signs of the secular-democratic trend of this new generation. However, during the Green Wave Movement, this new generation has been left alone, without having any kind of support both from the International Community, in general, and from Washington in particular.
Following the great change occurring in North Africa and the Middle East, paralleling the new “democratic-Islamic” systems embodied by Tayyp Erdogan’s Turkey and the Muslim Brothers’ Egypt and Tunisia, the new Iran could soon be working on an alternative model of secular democracy. However, if either the compromise or the military strike orientations are adopted, the Islamic Republic will be revitalized, thus risking serious damage to the process of change under way and the choking at birth an insipient Renaissance.