Over at RealClearWorld, Robert Kaplan makes a compelling case that the United States should not fear a strong Iran:
It is not in the long-term interest of the United States to side with the Sunni Arab states against Iran or vice versa… Remember that the United States had a bad, decades-long experience with Sunni domination of the Middle East. It was Sunni dominance, in which the Shias were not sufficiently feared, that helped lead to a phalanx of Arab dictators — in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere — who had little incentive to quell anti-Americanism in their midst. Such Leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Fahd in Saudi Arabia fostered a rotten and calcified political climate that was relatively empty of reform, while quietly tolerant of extremism, which resulted in the leader of the 9/11 terrorist cell being Egyptian and 15 of his 18 cohorts being Saudis.
It’s true the era of positive US-Iran relations is far longer than the current period of estrangement. Americans first began their interaction with Iranians in the late nineteenth century, as Presbyterian missionaries began to establish schools in the far-away land. In the early twentieth century, Iranians turned to America as a neutral party who might aid Iran’s development without the imperial designs of the Russians and British. (Indeed, several good memoirs from the time still circulate). Had it not been for the US defense of Iran during World War II and after, the Soviet Union might have succeeded in fulfilling its territorial ambitions at Iran’s expense, and might have successfully used the naïve and manic depressive Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq to fulfill its desire to transform oil-rich Iran into a Soviet puppet.
Nor did the Islamic Revolution have to be the spoiler it was: Indeed, had the United States wished to sever relations with Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, it would not have maintained an embassy in Tehran for Iranian radicals to seize, let alone kept the Iranian embassy in Washington, DC, open for almost another year.
It is also true — as Kaplan hints — that the Shi’ites are by-and-large more moderate than the Sunni body politic. Shi‘ism revolves around continuous theological debate whereas, for many Sunnis, the gates of theological (re)interpretation slammed shut a millennium ago. Shi‘ism embraces tolerance of differing interpretation, but for many Sunni radicals, diversity is synonymous with apostasy.
So where does Kaplan go wrong?
Just as President Obama erred by conflating Iran and the Islamic Republic, Kaplan suggests that the Islamic Republic might be the partner that could bring Iran into partnership. It is wrong to assume the Islamic Republic is a permanent manifestation of Iran’s political evolution, however; rather, it is an anomaly.
Should the Islamic Republic collapse — and make no mistake, while they may be more apathetic than revolutionary, the Iranian people have not given up on their fundamental desire for freedom and liberty — then the United States would have a true partner. The emergent Iran might be nationalist and more of a pain-in-the-neck than France on a bad day, but its people would be immunized against the idea that Islam provides a panacea. Iran and the United States could then partner and together contain the radicalism which confronts the region. This is why it is important that the United States does not sacrifice its long-term interests for short-term gain.
The worst thing the United States could do right now is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by helping Iran reconsolidate its control in Syria or bless Iranian domination of Iraq. Rather than cut a deal with the Islamic Republic, Washington should keep its eyes on the prize: The collapse of a hateful and repressive system that for too long has denied Iranians their place in the world and fulfillment of their true talents. Under no circumstances should the United States repulse Iranians or allow the regime to rally them around the flag by either pursuing a strategy encouraging ethnic separatism in Iran, or by working with groups like the Mujahedin al-Khalq, which, whether or not they are designated terrorists in Washington, are despised within Iran by ordinary Iranians who view them as Americans. Look at American Taliban John Walker Lindh.
So here’s to Kaplan recognizing that the default position within the State Department, CIA, and Pentagon — Sunnis good, Shi’ites bad — is wrong. But let us hope that one day Americans will recognize that the Islamic Republic can never represent the world’s Shi‘ites.