TCS Daily


Trust in Marx: To Undermine Tehran, Leave It Alone

By Uriah Kriegel - August 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Karl Marx wasn't right about much. But one thing he did get right is the social dynamic leading to political revolution. Genuine revolutions, Marx noted, do not take place in a friendly environment amenable to gradual and piecemeal reform. They are the result of widespread dissatisfaction so strongly suppressed that it eventually erupts, like an overblown balloon, in acts of revolutionary violence and fervor.

In a wonderful historical twist, this piece of Marxist-Leninist wisdom may be the key to the undoing of the Iranian theocracy. But to make it so, the US must play it clever and ignore the Iranian government's repeated provocations.

Because provocations they are. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts know full well that the only way to maintain and tighten their grip on the Iranian populace is to provoke the US and its Western allies into confrontation. Once that happens, wide support for the new national cause drowns domestic concerns about the totalitarian regime.

The Iranian people are by and large friendly to -- to some extent even admiring of -- the United States. Iran has a large and well educated middle class with an unabashed entrepreneurial spirit and economic vested interest in a stable middle east. This is why Iran does not produce terrorism so much as sponsor it abroad: although Hezbollah and its likes get much of their financial and organizational support from Tehran, Iranian citizens are rarely involved in terrorist acts.


The Iranian people are thus not the kind of human material that could be easily turned against the West on the basis of a well informed and rational public discourse. What is needed is a machinery of propaganda that taps into the politics of victimization and nurses real and imagined grievances of any order so as to channel negative energy outward.

With an eye to this, the ayatollahs created three years ago a political party consisting mostly of political unknowns, headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who previously held only the Tehran mayoralty (a title which, I am told, goes with virtually no power or name recognition in Iran), and spreading a populist message with not much more than empty slogans and evocative phrases.

With the aid of election rigging the scale of which nobody knows for sure, the populist party took over the elected government, thus shoring up support and legitimacy for the ayatollahs' dictatorship. The catch phrase of Ahmadinejad's campaign was "the corrupt Western way of life." His most notable act as mayor of Tehran had been to ban advertisements featuring British soccer superstar David Beckham. His inauguration was appareled with cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

With this new government in place, the iron fist of misery-propagation can be brandished afresh. During the Khatami years, some of the nastier, most restrictive aspects of the Sharia rule, while not rolled back, remained unenforced. Thus a boy and girl could discretely hold hands in a corner street without being harassed. University students could gather, discuss politics, and stage minor demonstrations without being guaranteed overnight arrest. I am assured by expatriate Iranian intellectuals that these minimal displays of freedom are on their way out, and strict Islamic law will soon be the order of the day.

One problem: people don't normally like to be miserable. They don't like their spirit crushed, their actions surveyed, judged, and curbed at all times. Therein lies the simple equation that behooves the Ayatollah's regime to deflect any possible displeasure and channel national frustration outward.

The formula is simple and well known by now: generate a confrontation with the world's most powerful nation. A decision by the latter to lead an international campaign of sanctions, which would hurt the Iranian populace rather than governance, would be particularly helpful!

Breaking the UN seals on Isfahan nuclear facility and resuming uranium conversion -- effectively Ahmadinejad's first act in office -- is designed to generate just that. The egregious and unapologetic audacity of the act is supposed to be especially provocative, a clever attempt to stir passions. Apparently, the tactic is already working: the Iranian on the street has been riling behind his government, protesting the injustice of the harsher treatment the Iranian nuclear program receives than the Israeli one ever did.

Our best bet is to ignore the Iranian provocations altogether: not even issue a formal condemnation. We should put our faith in the Marxian mechanism of boiling, seething internal unrest and its revolutionary outburst. Once the Iranians are left alone, left to turn inward and focus on the scope and depth of their own illness, nothing good can happen to the ayatollahs.

We should keep in mind that an Iranian security threat is far off in both time and probability. A recent US intelligence report warns that the Iranians may be a decade away from acquiring the bomb. Given that such reports are often borne in hysteria, and (more understandably) are prone to erring on the side of caution, a functional Iranian nuclear capability is not yet in the realm of practical possibility. Furthermore, whatever their vices and shortcomings, the ayatollahs are neither stupid nor self-destructive: they would not initiate a sequence of events that might leave the land of Persia a nuclear wasteland.

Ina any event, if an Iranian nuclear capability does become a practical and imposing possibility in the future, a targeted air strike (American or Israeli) is always an option. But it being an option need not be a talking point of the Bush diplomatic team. Talk of all options being "on the table" may be counter-productive in the present context. All options are in fact on the table, but this fact need not be part of the diplomatic strategy for handling Tehran. The strategy should rather be consistent and manifest disregard of its provocations.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.

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