January 18, 2006

Weimar Iran

The West faces a choice in Iran: should we focus on the weapons or on the internal politics of Iran? Since Hiroshima we have lived in a wonderful world where nuclear weapons have been in the hands of a relatively small number of powers. Much of our foreign policy has to do with maintaining that status quo.

But, speaking as a technologist, it seems inevitable that eventually there will come a time when nuclear weapons technology becomes widespread. When that day comes, the policy of nonproliferation will become futile. And we will have to rethink our relationship with the rest of the world...

With a nuclear North Korea and a nearly-nuclear Iran, are we already at that point?

Today, most of the West, from G.W. Bush to Hillary Clinton to Jaques Chirac, is still focused on the need to prevent nuclear proliferation. We are pressing down the road towards sanctions and force against Iran. Israel says that it is even prepared to bomb Iran, as it did in Iraq in 1981. But it has been 25 years since the Osirak bombing, and the Iranian military has had all these years to study and anticipate Israel's airstrikes. What are the chances that bombing Iran in 2006 will actually put a stop to nuclear development? I have not seen anybody assert that we actually have any way, short of all-out war, of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Is it true that Iran has distributed their nuclear facilities to 300 secret sites? Where has Iran been using its thousands of secretly-imported P-2 centrifuge magnets?

Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan believes "You can't stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons...." He suggests that the real problem is the political rise of extremists such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, and that the West should "help Iran become democratic" by encouraging "everyone to participate in the coming elections. The way you did and still do in Iraq."

His suggestions sound very soft and idealistic, but he presents a serious question. Should our focus be on the weapons, or on the politics?

Will a confrontation with Iran make the world more or less safe? If we confront, it seems unlikely that anything short of full-scale invasion will actually stop the nuclear program. If we merely impose sanctions or bomb a few sites, will it strengthen or weaken extremists in Iraq?

Sanctions or an incomplete "precision bombing" seem like two of the worst moves that we could make. Extremists in Iran do not (yet) hold overwhelming power, but confrontation with America will strengthen them dramatically. Iran has a partially functioning democracy, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was electable only because of a broadly anti-Western sentiment in Iran. Shouldn't this anti-Western feeling be our primary concern? What role does Iranian politics play in our policy?

I happen to be a fan of the U.S. effort to establish, against all odds, a functioning democracy in Iraq. Call it imperialism, occupation, or whatever. My view is that the more time we spend in Iraq, the more Americans work, talk, and die alongside Iraqis, the more engaged we are, the better. The Iraq effort puts us squarely on the side of the people of Iraq; it equates the U.S. with the establishment of transparent, accountable government. It pits us against violence and authoritarianism. And most importantly, it forces Americans to be there, to be directly involved with the Iraqi people. There is a growing disenchantment with Iraq in the U.S., but I think it is misplaced. We should not give up on Iraqi politics; we should engage further, and do better than we have.

Iran has a stronger civic culture than Iraq. The bloggers are still blogging; the people are still voting. What can we do to defend and strengthen the political forces of moderation and responsible government in Iran? Bomb them? Starve them? Isolate them? Hm.

The situation in Iran has obvious parallels to the German Weimar Republic, the collapse of that nacent democracy, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and World War II. Germany was lured into Nazism after massive economic failure and oppressive reparations payments after World War I. It was a society backed into a corner, and it lashed out by embracing xenophobia. The question is, are we already beyond the point of no return in Iran, in which case it is time to listen to John Bolton, the security council, sanctions, missiles, and war?

Or is Hossein right? Can Iranian democracy be rescued?

I thought this topic was worth a few moments of thought. If we begin sanctions, we will be recreating the conditions of Weimar Germany, and we should be prepared for violence. When it comes, World War 3 will be bloodier than World War II.

Some Wikipedia reading:

In the New York Times, Iranian blogger Omid Memarian had a good piece:

Timothy Garton Ash writes "A recent trip to Iran convinced me of two things: first, that there is a large reservoir of anti-regime and mildly pro-western feeling in Iran; and, second, that this reservoir could be drained overnight if we bombed."

Update 2/5: Iran has rejected the Russian compromise, and the west has made its choice. Yesterday Angela Merkel made the Weimar comparison, comparing modern Iran with Germany in 1930, and she warned against Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement: "Looking back to German history in the early 1930s when National Socialism was on the rise, there were many outside Germany who said, ‘It’s only rhetoric — don’t get excited’" - but now "Iran has blatantly crossed the red line," she says... "a president who denies the Holocaust cannot expect to receive any tolerance from Germany."

There is some foreboding - the politicians seem to be aware that the sanctions that are being threatened are going to be ineffective. And so Senator John McCain, also in Germany, started preparing the nation for war: "There's only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."

Posted by David at January 18, 2006 06:22 AM

I'm teaching about the Weimar period here outside Munich and was intrigued to find parallels with Iran. I fail to see however how "the collapse of that nacent democracy, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and World War II" et cet. in any way parallels with the situation in Iran.

Posted by: Keir at May 15, 2013 01:37 PM

My question is, why? What makes Iran different this time around?

Posted by: David at June 16, 2013 07:38 AM
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