Iran's revolution is in its infancy - but it may have just found its Stalin
By Niall Ferguson
Never underestimate a revolutionary regime. In particular, never underestimate the durability of the revolutionaries' fervour to fight for their cause. The French revolution began in 1789, but it was only after two decades of war that the fight was finally knocked out of the revolution's heirs, and repeatedly - in 1830, 1848 and 1870 - they threatened to make a comeback.
The Russian revolution began in 1917, but the Soviet Union posed a mortal threat until the mid-1980s. As for the Chinese revolution of 1949, it was only last month that the regime in Beijing was threatening to go nuclear over Taiwan.
We in the English-speaking world never give up hoping that the revolutionaries will suddenly see the advantages of peace, the rule of law and representative government. That may be because we think our own revolutions - the English revolution of the 1640s and the American revolution of the 1770s - followed that pattern.
Yet there was no more bellicose British government than Cromwell's. And the United States was scarcely a peaceful power as it expanded from sea to shining sea in the century after independence.
So it was pure pie in the sky to imagine that the Islamic Republic of Iran, founded in 1979, was just about to morph into a touchy-feely democracy. Yet people did. Only last year I had dinner in Washington with the son of the deposed shah. His country, he assured the assembled company, would soon make the transition to democracy. People were fed up with the ayatollahs and the mullahs.
The same kind of argument used to be made by neo-conservatives such as Richard Perle, the former chairman of the US Defence Policy Board, and Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute.
"In Iran," President Bush himself declared in a speech back in November 2003, "the demand for democracy is strong and broad." Dream on. Far from being on the brink of democracy, Iran is now on the brink of becoming the single biggest threat to democracy in the world.
Last Monday the Iranian government flatly rejected a European package of political and economic incentives to halt its covert nuclear weapons programme. With a defiant flourish, the Iranians reopened their uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan.
The Iranians say their aim is merely to become a "nuclear fuel producer and supplier within a decade". Given that they are among the biggest oil producers in the world, this rush towards nuclear power is a mite suspicious. It's certainly not actuated by a desire to combat global warming.
Just what does the Isfahan plant do? The technical answer is that it turns uranium tetrafluoride (known as yellowcake) into more user-friendly uranium hexafluoride.
The next step - which the Iranians have not yet taken, but soon will - is uranium enrichment, which provides the fuel for either nuclear reactors or nuclear warheads. In short, an Iranian nuke could be a reality "within a decade", if not sooner. All the Iranians need is time - and this we seem to be giving them.
The problem is that, once again, the West is divided and the international community stalemated. Britain, France and Germany have long favoured diplomatic carrots. But the months we have spent in fruitless negotiations have merely given the Iranians time to press ahead. President Bush still insists "all options are on the table" including "the use of force". But with an insurgency raging in neighbouring Iraq, he can hardly relish the prospect even of air strikes.
Now it seems likely that Washington's Plan B will be adopted - to go to the United Nations Security Council. But don't get too excited. First, the American aim is simply to threaten economic sanctions. With oil at $66 a barrel, the Iranians are unlikely to be intimidated. Second, any UN resolution would need to be approved by all five permanent members of the Security Council itself.
The irony is that the resumption of the Iranian nuclear programme comes just weeks after presidential elections that were interpreted in the West as a victory for populism. Indeed, the reopening of the Isfahan plant has been practically the first act of the new president, Mahmoud Ahamadinejad, who was inaugurated last weekend.
To be sure, Ahamadinejad's victory was not achieved without irregularities. On the other hand, it's hard to pretend his victory over the favourite, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was wholly rigged. Rafsanjani was the candidate backed by all the grand ayatollahs of the holy city of Qom as well as the Society of Combatant Clergy.
Yet Ahamadinejad routed him by 17 million votes to 10 million. But hang on, wasn't democracy supposed to be what the neo-cons wanted in Iran? Unfortunately, they forgot that the passage of time does not necessarily favour moderates in a revolutionary regime. Ahamadinejad's hostility to "the corrupt Western way of life" could scarcely be more explicit. As one of his supporters told the Washington Times: "I picked Ahmadinejad to slap America in the face."
Obviously, Ahamadinejad's victory is proof that democracy in the Middle East does not necessarily translate into victories for Western liberalism. On the contrary, it may reveal the popularity of fundamentalism and nationalism among the impoverished Muslim masses. But it also suggests that Americans and Europeans alike are misreading the trajectory of the Iranian revolution.
The Iranian Revolution was an event of world-historical importance, comparable in its implications with 1789 in France, 1917 in Russia and 1949 in China. That may strike you as hyperbolic. But consider Iran's historic, economic and demographic importance.
Then consider just how much the Iranian revolution changed the balance of power in the Middle East. At a stroke, it rendered obsolete the bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War. Suddenly the world was confronted with a regime that was neither capitalist nor communist, but Islamist.
Israelis have long understood what this meant. They have been battling for years against the Iranian-backed fanatics of Hezbollah. Yet Americans and Europeans have persisted in believing that the Iranian threat does not apply to them. On the contrary, we have inadvertently done much to strengthen the position of the regime in Teheran.
Henry Kissinger famously said of the Iran-Iraq War, launched by Saddam Hussein in 1980: "It's a pity they both can't lose." But as a result of our two military interventions against Iraq, in 1991 and 2003, Iran finally has won. Indeed, Teheran now has every prospect of reducing Iraq - or, at least, southern Iraq - to the position of a satellite state.
The point is that President Bush's "axis of evil" - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - was never an "axis" at all. Iran and Iraq were historic adversaries. To weaken one was, inevitably, to strengthen the other. Moreover, as the British Government knew all along (see the Downing Street memorandum of July 2002), Iran was significantly closer than Iraq to acquiring real weapons of mass destruction. Now it is even closer. And, worst of all, no one in Iran wants WMD more avidly than President Ahamadinejad.
It is the old revolutionary story: the generation forged by revolutionary war turns out to be more belligerent than the generation who led the revolution itself. Significantly, Ahamadinejad's main election backers were the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basiji, the paramilitary popular militias formed during the Iran-Iraq War. Ahamadinejad is himself a war veteran - one of hundreds of thousands of Iranians who came of age under fire.
So where do we go from here? Plan A - the European carrot - has failed. Plan B - the flaccid UN stick - will also fail. Unfortunately Plan C - American (or Israeli) air strikes - is fraught with peril. According to Michael J Mazarr of the US National War College, Iran could retaliate with "an elaborate, ferocious, global provocation designed to draw the United States into a protracted conflict".
That translates into more terrorism in our cities and an escalation of the war in Iraq. "If Iran wanted," Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid Al Bayati said in February, "it could make Iraq a hell for the United States."
Now, ask yourself, what would be the likely effect of such a confrontation on Iranian politics?
To repeat: the Iranian revolution is still at an early stage. It has not yet produced its Bonaparte, its Stalin, its Mao. Or has it? A full-scale war with the "Great Satan" may be all Mr Ahmadinejad needs to don that bloody mantle.
• Niall Ferguson is Professor of History at Harvard University and a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford
Might as well bump this one too
Hey if your lucky you will get to have a piece of iran in your home.
Might make a good window or mirrror.