It seems likely that, in the next week, the Islamic Republic of Iran will meet whatever challenge is posed to it by those who wish to march and express their dissent and discontent. The Revolutionary Guards seem ready to repress the dissenters, whatever it takes, no matter how peaceful and justified those dissenters may be.
They will no doubt be suppressed with a cruelty and violence that the most sinister members of Savak, under the late Shah, could only envy but not dare to emulate. It is likely that all these hopes and dreams for the fall of the regime are seen to be merely projections of those used to the idea that Hollywood Endings are real, that not only does Good Always Triumph, but does so in time for you to leave the theatre and beat the implacable meter maid before she tickets you, or to be safely at home at a reasonable hour, or after the movie go out to dinner, or something else (it's your night out, you decide). That's not the way it happens. The Bolsheviks held a large part of the earth's land mass in thrall for more than seventy years, and that was without many True Believers left after the first few decades. But for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the True Believers are those who believe truly in Islam, and Iran has tens of millions of such people; the hold of Islam is far stronger, reinforced by practically everything in societies suffused with Islam, than Communism ever could have been.
And meanwhile, inexorably, implacably, as fast as it can, the same monstrous regime somehow manages to keep the loyalty of a sufficient number of its scientists to keep the nuclear project full steam ahead. The estimates range from a few months to a year, but no longer....any longer. It may be - who knows? - that the surprise planned for this Thursday might even be the testing of a nuclear weapon somewhere in the Iranian desert. In any case, no sanctions seem likely, no matter how draconian, to be sufficiently damaging. All it takes is for one spoiler, if that spoiler is named China, crossing the international picket line, to undo whatever sanctions the confused, pusillanimous, procrastinating, irresponsible Western world finally, at long last, places -- sanctions that, had they been in place two years ago, might have done the job in time. But now that seems so very unlikely.
But what if these are not merely ordinary sanctions but very special sanctions, the kind the newspapers and political figures like to describe as "crippling" sanctions? Doesn't that epithet give you a good feeling, a feeling that at long last something significant is being done? And you get that good feeling from mere invocation of a word, all because you want so much to believe deeply in the efficacy of those "crippling" sanctions. But when? When? Iran can keep receiving tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues, and furthermore, can smuggle in goods from all over the place, including the former Soviet republics, through Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan, and Iraq. Iran can also have goods flown in by the unstoppable Chinese, who don't care at all about "sanctions" as long as they can have access to oil, and who, furthermore, believe - rightly, I'm afraid - that the West is unwilling to do anything to punish China. (The best way to punish China is for everyone in the West to start boycotting Chinese goods, which deserve boycotting for all kinds of reasons anyway.)
This leaves two possibilities. One is that the West will simply accept the attainment and possession of nuclear weapons by the Islamic Republic of Iran. When one looks at the worry over Pakistan's nuclear armory (and the Pakistani generals are far less chiliastic, less crazily willing to sacrifice themselves and their country than the Twelver-Shi'as who run the Islamic Republic of Iran), and how that worry has forced the Americans to keep involved, and to keep plowing men and money, into Pakistan and Afghanistan, because of fears of what might happen "if those weapons fall into the wrong hands," one wonders how - having presumably learned the lesson of its own negligence in the case of A. Q. Khan and Pakistan - the American government would be moving heaven and earth, and earth-moving through bombs away if necessary, if nothing else works, to prevent another Muslim state from acquiring nuclear weapons. For we know that Iran is even more dangerous than Pakistan, and has sponsored terrorist acts as far away as Buenos Aires, and is closely allied with the most dangerous of current terrorist groups - not the Sunni Al Qaeda but the Shi'a Hizballah.
Perhaps, in the end, the Americans hope that Israel will attack, thus sparing the Administration the need to assume its responsibilities as a great power. When Israel attacked Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor, it set back by twenty years his nuclear plans, a service to the whole West. When Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear installation - an installation in which both North Korea and Iran were likely involved - this was also a service to the Lebanese, who are opposed to the power of Syria and its Hizballah ally, and Iran, and to the countries of NATO that surely would have been alarmed by Iran and North Korea establishing a nuclear-tipped succursale in Syria.
But circumstances now are different. Iran's nuclear project does not consist of one reactor or one plant. The many different plants that constitute that project are spread out, widely. And some of them have been built underground, protected by very thick walls themselves deep-delved. While Israel has asked for, it has apparently not received, those bombs called bunker busters that are in the American, but not the Israeli, armory.
There can be little doubt that pound for pound, the Israeli military may be the best in the world. But it is a military that is fielded by a country that is so tiny it is scarcely discernible on a world map. It has only a very few airfields. It has a handful of submarines. It has nothing like the long-range missiles or the thousands of aircraft, dispersed all over the world, that can come from every direction - and can certainly fly over Iraqi air space without asking for a by-your-leave. The Americans have airbases everywhere, and aircraft on ships right in the Gulf. They have bases too far away for the Iranians to retaliate against. In fact, whether Israel or the United States bombed the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear plants, retaliation would be directed almost certainly at Israel. And therefore the Israelis have to worry, and have to hold back, cannot attack as they might otherwise, because they do not know what Hizballah, with its tens of thousands of rockets now hidden all over Lebanon, even far from the border with Israel, will do. And the Israelis cannot know exactly what Hamas or for that matter Fatah will do, in case of Israeli preoccupation with Iran. Israel will be attacking Iran under worrisome conditions that surely must affect the thinking of the Israeli military.
Furthermore, while Israel is rightly alarmed, it is also clear that the Iranian nuclear project threatens the Arab states of the Gulf or, more exactly, threatens their ability to pump oil. That is why, right now, the Americans are sending missile batteries and other defensive equipment to those sheiklets, as well as to Saudi Arabia - not because these are our "allies" but because right now, for the moment, we do not wish to see the oil wells of the Gulf damaged. No doubt these oil states would love to have Iran and Israel damage each other. But the Western world has a stake, the American government has a stake, in there not being permanent damage done to how Iranians -- not those who support the Islamic Republic of Iran, but those who are Iranian nationalists, those who have always hated, or who have come to hate, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and furthermore, are more and more receptive to the idea that Islam itself - the "gift of the Arabs" - explains the political despotism, and the moral and intellectual collapse, that Iranians have had to endure. This doesn't mean that Iran will cease to be Muslim, but the more Iranians can come to view Islam - and many things in Iranian cultural history will support this idea - as a vehicle for Arab supremacism, and lose their taste for Islam, the better for Iranians, and for the entire non-Muslim world.
Under the Shah, there was some cooperation with Israel. Attention has been given to military cooperation, because they shared the same enemies. But there is another sort of cooperation, a civilisational cooperation. The most advanced Iranians, even those of Muslim background, often demonstrate their independence from Islam through their stance toward Israel, or rather, toward the Jews. They are keenly aware that in the pre-Islamic past of Iran, Jews were part of the national narrative, and the memories of certain connections between Persian kings and "the Jews" are not irrelevant today, in a part of the world that is history-haunted and where national narratives are important.
I don't think it accidental that Aziz Nafisi, when she was in Iran, chose to write her thesis on a topic that most Americans would find unusual: the American Michael Gold, who in the 1930s wrote "Without Money." Nor does it any longer surprise me to find Iranians abroad, who left when the Shah fell, or who have managed to get out subsequently, who seem interested in Israel, even exhibit a sympathetic understanding of it, in a way that no Arab Muslims - I'm not including apostates such as Nonie Darwish and Wafa Sultan or undeclared apostates such as Fouad Ajami - have. In a way, Israel is a token, a token of their break with the mind-forged manacles of Islam. Israel, then, is not only itself, but also a symbol - a symbol, among other things, that the Middle East does not belong to Islam, that there are peoples other than Muslims who were, and are, still here. I have sometimes wondered aloud at this site that, since the peoples of the Middle East appear to need, more than we in the West do, some identity, some name, to affix to themselves, then if they wish in Iran to jettison Islam, they are likely to do so not for the unclassifiable non-belief that is the choice of many of those who leave whatever religion they were born into in the non-Muslim West, but for another identity. And the obvious choice, in Iran, is Zoroastrianism. This doesn't mean people really have to believe it, but only that they have to decide to call themselves, out of an impulse not to be distinguished from Iranian nationalism, "Zoroastrians." Whenever I allude to this, I get emails of two distinctly different kinds from Iranians in Europe and America. Some say that I am off, that this could never happen, though they indicate that they wish it could. And others say that I am, in fact, on to something, and that they have heard of a renewed interest in Iran, among those disaffected, and unlikely to re-embrace Islam, with Zoroastrianism.
Where does Israel, or "the Jews" (seen as a Middle Eastern people, who once lived, in great numbers, in Persia, before those interlopers the Arabs arrived, and are part of the Persian pre-Islamic national narrative) fit in? Israel could be, for a resurrected Iran, an ally, not only in military matters, but more importantly, in cultural matters, in the matter of re-defining the Iranian national identity so that it no longer is overwhelmed by, or at least made coterminous with, Islam, as Khomeini and his epigones desired when they re-fashioned the country to their own dismal and soul-killing commandments. Just as in Egypt where Taha Hussein (Husain) in the 1920s envisioned what he called "Pharaonism" - that is, an emphasis on Egypt's pre-Islamic past and on Egypt as a country apart, one that did not consider Egyptians to be Arabs or part of the Arab world, but should emphasize its separate, Egyptian, and by implication not completely Islamic, identity. Whether Taha Hussein, the most impressive Egyptian thinker of the last century, will ultimately prevail, is unclear, though he deserves to be republished and his line of thought revived and made fashionable. But in Iran, the elements are there, and Israel is part of that pre-Islamic narrative.
It would be a pity if the Americans, by signaling that they will not themselves act against the nuclear facilities of the Islamic Republic, force Israel to conclude, reluctantly, that it must do so. Great powers should assume their responsibilities. The United States, for all of its follies and the incompetence of so many in public life, remains the leader of what, in the Cold War days, used to be called the Free World. In the age of permanent Jihad, the Free World should be called merely the Non-Muslim world, the world of all polities and peoples threatened by Islam and its adherents, conducting Jihad in many different ways. And as that leader, it should think about the future of Iran. That future, possibly involving a move away from Islam among at least its elite (and it is the elite who have to move first, and then to enact measures that will bring more of the primitive masses along with them), should usefully include a sympathetic understanding of Israel (and even nurture the belief in pre-Islamic Iran's help to ancient Israel).
There is a chance, in puncturing the nuclear balloon of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of so weakening it that it will fall -- to be replaced, one hopes, by those immunized against the siren-song of Islam. And there is a further chance (much greater if Israel is not the one who will have to do the imperfect puncturing) that, after all the dust settles and the Islamic Republic is gone for good, that the most farseeing Iranians (in exile and in Iran) can encourage friendship with Israel, as part of a long-term effort to move Iran away from the Camp of Islam and back to something like what those Iranians who composed the 1906 Constitution had in mind.
In deciding whether or not to act itself, the American government should think carefully about where, ideally, it would like Iran to be -- not next year, but ten years or twenty years from now (as we work furiously to diminish the value of Middle Eastern oil, and thus to deprive the worldwide Jihad of the Money Weapon. The American government should consider how, ideally, it wishes to pursue what it now must pursue: the weakening, everywhere, of the Camp of Islam. Israel could perform the immediate service to the entire West of attacking the Iranian nuclear project. But if it does so, it may not be as effective as an American effort would certainly be. And what is still more important, Israel might lose the chance, and the most advanced Iranians too might lose the chance, to re-establish some sort of connection between Israel and Iran that, in the end, would be of enormous benefit not only to both countries immediately involved, but also to the United States and to the entire non-Islamic world.
Something to think about.