Clouds Over Iran

Christopher de Bellaigue
Christopher de Bellaigue; drawing by David Levine


Consumed by the conflict in Iraq, the Bush administration has been unable to find either the political or military resources to deal with Iran, which poses both greater dangers and greater opportunities. That is fortunate. During the surge of messianic zeal that drove the Bush administration in its early days, there was heady talk about the prospect of “liberating” Iran as soon as the United States Army was able to break away from the waves of gratitude that were expected to engulf it in Baghdad. That fantasy collapsed when the Iraqi insurgency broke out.

If the Iraq invasion had gone as its planners expected, with the occupied nation embracing its conqueror and quickly transforming itself into a Jeffersonian paradise, American troops might well have been sent across the border into Iran. There they would have had to fight a huge army filled with people who detest the theocracy that tyrannizes them, but who also have a profound sense of patriotism, an ancient tradition of resistance, and a religiously driven thirst for martyrdom. Iraqis who rose up against the American occupation may have done the world, and especially the United States, a good turn by making an invasion of Iran all but impossible.

Now, however, the idea of using force against Iran is reemerging. Senior officials in Washington are returning to the saber-rattling rhetoric of a few years ago. President Bush asserted in his inaugural address that Iran is “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror.” Vice President Dick Cheney said that when he reviews world trouble spots, Iran “is at the top of the list.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iran a “totalitarian state” and said its human rights record was “something to be loathed.” All say they hope diplomacy will find a solution to problems between the two countries, but in fact they seem to consider it a dead end. According to a recent report by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, they “believe that it will soon become clear that the Europeans’ negotiated approach cannot succeed, and that at that time the Administration will act.”

That echoes much of the rhetoric about Iran that has come out of Washington in recent years. Much of it borders on the apocalyptic. Administration officials and members of Congress have warned that Iran may soon become a nuclear-armed rogue state and one-stop supermarket for international terrorists. That is an unlikely prospect, more likely for Pakistan than for Iran.

Nonetheless, what is happening in Iran cannot fail to disturb those who hope for stability and peace in the Middle East. Iran is governed by a notoriously repressive regime, some of whose leaders seem to hate not only the West but the very principles of social and intellectual progress. It is also engaged in a nuclear program whose ultimate aim is almost certainly the production of atomic weapons.

What makes Iran so fascinating,…

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