Ahmadinejad admonishing Obama to stop "interfering" in Iran is like New Gingrich lecturing us on the sanctity of marriage. That ridiculous demand detached from reality lends weight to the hands-off approach that Obama has taken in this crisis.
Prominent Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham clamor for a jingoistic response while calling the President timid, naïve and out of his element. That conclusion by right wing opponents indicates a shocking and dangerous ignorance of politics in the Middle East. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would love nothing more than for Obama to intercede in the Iranian revolt. They would finally have the perfect foil to deflect attention away from a failed election and their tenuous hold on power. Nothing would undermine the opposition more quickly than rash statements from Obama. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafjsanjani, former president and currently head of the Council of Experts, would be discredited instantly with any overt U.S. interference.
Calling Obama naïve is proof enough that Republicans are not sophisticated enough to play on the world stage. McCain, Graham and others who blindly call for a response steeped in testosterone have forgotten the recent lessons of history dating back to President Dwight Eisenhower. A brief review of that will demonstrate how treacherous and truly naïve the Republican position is when they demand a more aggressive U.S. response.
In 1953, Ike misunderstood the forces behind the populist Nationalist Revolt in Iran seeking to overthrow the Shah, viewing the situation only through the narrow perspective of the Cold War. So with that Graham-like naivety, the U.S. engineered a coup to eject the revolt's leader, Mossadeq, and reinstall the Shah. Much of the hatred toward the U.S. can be traced to this interference of restoring the Shah to protect U.S. interests against the Soviet Union.
Ordinary Iranians supported Mossadeq because he gave Iran back a sense of sovereignty; then-British control of Iranian oil was seen as yet another example of national impotence inflicted by Mongols, Turks, Arabs and Russians. The U.S. took that away with Ike's intervention, making the U.S. the modern version of the Mongols. Worse, we installed the Shah as our puppet, who in turn fought against Shia clerics. So the U.S. became the enemy of the general population, joining a long line of foreign interlopers, and the religious leaders. Republicans today ignore this history at their peril, and might wish to engage their brains before flapping their lips.
Eisenhower started a trend that only accelerated with his successors. Kennedy, Nixon, Ford and Carter would all make the same mistake as Ike's original meddling. Throughout all these administrations the United States provided military and diplomatic support to the Shah and his brutal, hated SAVAK. Less than 10 days after Carter was in Tehran toasting the stability of Pahlavi Iran, all the pent up hostilities against the Shah ignited. The Islamic revolution of 1979 had begun. Bush's failed policies in the Middle East were a continuation of the sad saga of a U.S. government too arrogant to understand the forces undermining its own strategic interests and foreign policy. Now Republicans want Obama to repeat yet again the same mistake. McCain, Graham and friends have learned nothing from the region's history and for that they should be ashamed and embarrassed.
We need to view the events in Iran through a new lens.
The Iranian Islamic revolution is an anomaly in Iranian history. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini broke 2500 years of Persian tradition when he overthrew the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, arguing that Islam cannot divide state from society. He proclaimed that Islam is the State and the State is Islam and that "All of Islam is politics." By doing so he broke the long-standing duality of Iranian society between religion and country.
Just as World War II was an inevitable consequence of World War I, the revolution of 2009 is an inevitable consequence of Khomeini's misguided attempt to usurp power under the false pretense of divine rule.
The recent quiet and sporadic eruptions in the streets of Tehran are the eye in the center of a political hurricane. The relative calm presages strong winds. The current regime will be swept away, whether in 2 months or 2 years. While the timeframe is uncertain, that the current form of government is terminal is not.
What is happening in the street today in Iran is exactly what we would expect when a system of laws is based on God's word instead of human law and the institutions of man. Khamenei, who many previously saw as God's representative on earth, is now nothing but a tyrant with diminished popular support. You cannot be the voice of God if people cease following your word. Khamenei's holy blessing of Ahmadinejad no longer sufficient to confer legitimacy. The people of Iran now question the divine right of their government.
The political landscape in Iran has permanently changed with those riots now largely suppressed. With the Supreme Leader's divine authority in question, the appeal to God as a source of legitimacy is no longer viable. Authority can now only be maintained through oppression rather than with popular support. What can replace the word of God as the sole voice of authority? Nothing but revolution because faith cannot be arbitrated by logic or rational discussion.
What is often missed in recent coverage of these events in Tehran is how what is happening there is worth looking at as a lesson for those who wish to mix religion and politics here in the United States. As we witness the failure of a theocracy in Iran we should take heed as religion increasingly infiltrates public life in America.
Let us remember as we witness a new revolution in Iran what Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to Baptist ministers in which he first coined the idea of "a wall separating Church and State." The Islamic Revolution is the tragic result when that principle is not respected. But the idea's enduring power is demonstrated in the counterrevolution of 2009.
Let us hope that as Iran moves in the direction of greater secular freedoms, we do not slide toward theocracy ourselves. Like Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious right wing of the Republican Party claims the sanction of God. That is no basis on which to promote democracy. Just look at Iran.
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