Gone through its extremist fervor and come out the other side by mattsteinglass
March 3, 2009, 10:12 am
Filed under: Islam

Roger Cohen’s excellent op-ed on Iran is getting a lot of deserved praise. He quotes an Iranian reader who responded to his earlier equally good column on the country’s Jewish community:

Far from the cradle of Middle Eastern Islamist zealotry, she suggested, “Iran — the supposed enemy — is the one society that has gone through its extremist fervor and is coming out the other end. It is relatively stable and socially dynamic. As my father, who continues to live there, says, ‘It is the least undemocratic country in the region outside Israel.’ ”

This is an incredibly important insight. Vietnam, like Iran, has gone through its extremist fervor and, in the late ’80s, began coming out the other end. Because the Soviet bloc collapsed between 1989-91 and the US felt it had won the cold war, Washington was able to recognize the no-longer extremist nature of Vietnamese politics, reestablish relations, and begin cultivating the country as an ally. But because of the ongoing confrontation with extremist Islamicism and the US’s fealty to Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian war, Washington has been unable to shift its Iran policies to reflect the changed nature of Iranian politics.

Totalitarianism is inherently unstable. It’s horrible, but it only lasts a few decades at most. Every newly totalitarian nation goes through a phase of violent expansionism, when it tries to export its revolution. Then that period ends and the society, with its new elite, tries to settle into a normal and gradually  more pluralistic equilibrium. Iran did have a phase of violent expansionism in the early 1980s, when it tried to subvert Saudi Arabia etc., but its expansionary energy was exhausted in the Iran-Iraq war, and for over a decade it has been trying to normalize. The US ought to be trying to accommodate that transition, not undermine it.


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