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Bombs and Democracy

Confused by Iranian nukes? Isn’t everyone? Here’s a handy cheat sheet.



President Bush has called Iran’s nuclear bid a “grave national security concern,” a surprisingly lukewarm description from his 2002 pronouncement of Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” Fresh from his hunting trip, Vice President Dick Cheney announced we were “keeping all our options on the table” to deal with this “irresponsible regime.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spits back that “no power” will prevent Iran from developing nuclear-fuel technology, for whatever purpose Iran wills it.

And, look here comes the media. New Yorker magazine recently published a full-spread on Iranian expats already finding their place in line once those nasty mullahs fall to the will of Iran’s restless and increasingly demanding younger population.

Tests of nerve are fun from the sidelines. But before we contemplate Gulf War III with a nation of 71 million people far more unified than factious Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s always useful to know your enemy. Fact is, Iran is probably more interesting than any other country in the Middle East. It’s certainly more dynamic than most people give it credit for and not just because the vast majority of us can’t tell the different between an Arab and a Persian. Lovingly presented, here are a few offertory questions, with answers:

Is President Ahmadinejad crazy, or what? By our standards, sure. But we’re talking about the son of a blacksmith, a hardened veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, and a man who holds a doctorate, of all things, in “traffic and transport.” The United States supported Iraq during the war. Maybe that’s why he’s a little sore with us now. The man is so conservative that Iran’s most famous reformer President Mohammad Khatami banned him from cabinet meetings. It’s not as if the United States did all it could do for Khatami while he was in office, though. But it seems that Iranians who cared more about their country’s obscene unemployment rate than increased social freedoms elected Ahmadinejad to office. His, or anyone else’s, insistence that the Holocaust is “a myth” is patently offensive, of course. Still, it’s no secret that many in the Middle East attack the Holocaust as a Western tool justifying the state of Israel. After all, Germany never gave land in the form of reparations for its crimes against the Jewish people. In the eyes of many in the Middle East, the Palestinians did that for them. You might be surprised to learn that the Islamic Republic officially recognizes its Jewish population of 30,000, and boasts a Jewish member of parliament. Iranian Jewish leader Haroun Yashayaei recently sent Ahmadinejad a stern letter asking him to justify his offensive comments, reminding him that talk like that was against the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, the very founder of the Islamic revolution.

As for the man’s threat that Israel be “wiped off the map,” it’s unwise to take threats lightly. Keep in mind, however, that hyperbole is something of a Middle East specialty that scores big points with some crowds. Remember Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who said Allah would “roast” the stomachs of U.S. troops “in hell”?

Why is Iran our perennial problem child? Wrong question. Right or wrong, a lot of Iranians see the United States as the problem. Along with the British, we helped depose their democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. Then we backed the Shah, a shameless brown-noser to the West who was also hostile to his nation’s religious traditions. Along with punk rock, the most famous event of the late ’70s was the seizure of the U.S. embassy and 52 American hostages after the Shah’s fall and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini for the Islamic Revolution. All hostages were returned 444 days later, then in 1988, our USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people. Big mistake, we admitted. So was backing the Phalange militia during our ill-fated venture into Lebanon after Israel’s 1981 invasion. Israel’s detention of Lebanese Shia prompted Iran to come to their fellow Shias’ defense in the form of Hizbollah, the basis of U.S. State Department contentions that Iran funds terrorism. Even today, Hizbollah still gives Israel headaches. When the Phalange kidnapped four Iranian diplomats in Lebanon, this set off a nasty round of kidnapping retaliations, the most famous victim being Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. Round and round it went until we were introduced to Oliver North. See how sticky this gets?

Is Iran a democracy? Yes and no. A bevy of unelected institutions and a powerful religious Supreme Leader vet all candidates before a public vote. But you could say the same for our political candidates, who are vetted by a powerful two-party system and a bevy of unelected business interests before they make it on the poll. Still, Iran has a high degree of religious freedom, women have considerable freedom in civic and vocational matters, and as any serious movie buff can tell you, Iranian directors make fantastic films. You can’t say that for a lot of our best allies in Arab countries, most notably Saudi Arabia. Still, after hearing about the rape of female political prisoners in Iran because its clerics forbid the killing of virgins, it’s easy to believe Bush’s rhetoric.

What will we do if Iran gets the bomb? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. But experts agree that could still be years away. It’s clear President Bush can’t get this nonproliferation game straight after granting his blessings to India’s nuclear program, a blessing sure to aggravate Pakistan and weaken our own protests against Iran. Double standards, real or perceived, don’t help. Just pray that Iran’s massive population of those under 30 get hold of power soon.