If Iran is the Soviet Union of Islamism, then the protesters in Iran challenging Ayatollah Khameini are the Lech Walesas of liberal democracy with the “potential to unleash a true Islamic Reformation.” A starry-eyed Robert Kaplan compares, in his latest dispatch, the Green Revolution to Solidarity in Poland, arguing that the Middle East and the Islamic world would be transformed by a successful democratic revolution in Iran. He calls upon President Obama to Reaganly appeal to liberty and democracy to usher in this great Islamic glasnost. This unbridled optimism about the inevitability and the pro-Western consequences of the Green Revolution is, however, misplaced. The revolution, like any historical event, is not inevitable; inevitability is imposed in hindsight and we in the present can never know. But more crucially, his assertion that a “democratic and Shiite would tip the balance against the Sunni Wahabi extremism” ignores a very plausible but opposite result–a democratic Iran would only exacerbate sectarian tensions in the Middle East and would fan the flames of Sunni extremism.

The Cold War incontrovertibly animates our thinking of foreign policy. We reach for Cold War metaphors reflexively, comparing the war in Iraq to Vietnam, Nato in Afghanistan to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror (or, euphemistically, Overseas Contingency Operations) to the Cold War itself. While historical analogies provide the premises for foreign policy debates, and much needed rhetorical flourish to them, it’s wiser to use them sparingly. Kaplan’s juxtaposition of 21st century Islamic Iran to 20th century Communist Poland commits the folly of relying on analogy rather than a cool, dispassionate assessment of modern Iran.

Stephen Walt cautions against regime change in Iran as a panacea for the precarious relations between Iran (and the Islamic world) and the West, writing that “we should not assume that far-reaching political change in Iran would eliminate all sources of conflict between Iran and the United States (or the West).” He reminds us that a democratically-elected Iran would have more, not less, legitimacy to pursue a nuclear weapons program, a fact that would further destabilize the Middle East. A more confident Iran would only accelerate tensions between the Gulf Arab states, Israel, and Iran. A liberal democratic Iran would become an open target for Sunni extremists, who could legitimize their opposition by painting Iran as a Western tool (even if it wasn’t one). Another reason for caution is that a democratic Iran would not necessarily resemble a secular liberal Valhalla. Remember, the protesters were shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great). Shiite doctrine and Islam undoubtedly influence Iranian public opinion, and to many in Iran, politics and religion remain inextricable. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but this possibility should force us to reconsider the notion that a great wave of secularization would accompany democracy in the Islamic world should a reformation happen.

I do agree with Kaplan that President Obama should support liberal democracy in his rhetoric and policies–regardless of the Green Revolution. But Obama is no Reagan, and Mousavi is no Gorbachev.

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