Some of you may have been wondering when I was going to talk about the civil unrest underway in Iran. Like many of you, I have been too caught up in events there to give it much analysis. Moreover, I do not know that much about Iran other than what I know about it from watching the media. Unquestionably, the recent election was rigged. The massive street protests and the predictable crackdown underway are compelling and heart-wrenching to watch, even if the snippets we see are posted days or hours later and taken from hand held cell phone cameras.
I do not know if a new Iranian revolution is imminent or whether a harsh repression by Iran’s clerics will stifle dissent for a generation, such as what happened in Tiananmen Square in China some twenty years ago. I do know that theocracy is not a natural fit for a country that is so well educated and technologically advanced. This means that Iranian clerics, if they were wise, would be working toward measured political accommodation of the people rather than repression.
Unfortunately, when you live in a theocracy you tend to get stilted thinking rather than pragmatism. Just as Pope Benedict cannot see reason when it comes to contraception, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not adjust his notion of pure Islam to accommodate the reality that is modern Iran.
Much of the unrest is a consequence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to turn Iran into a modern state. You cannot build a great state when it rests on the foundation of uneducated minds. It takes engineers, scientists, academics and many learned people to get there. In short, you need a society where education is valued and where modern technology is embraced. Iranians have done a remarkable job of embracing technology. The third most used language on the social networking site Twitter is Persian. Pictures of the rallies in Tehran show a crowd where cell phones were as numerous as the hundreds of thousands of protestors.
It is likely that Shi’ite Islam (as Ayatollah Khamenei interprets it) is not compatible with 21st century technology. Yet, this technology is here to say. Satellite receivers are technically illegal in Iran, but are pervasive nonetheless. Attempts to disrupt unwanted communications only lead to clever ways to circumvent these limitations and, to the extent they succeed, breed anger, hatred and resentment.
There are some societies where the culture accepts a high level of government censorship and control. China appears to be one of them. I am betting that Iran is not one of these countries. Iran is also an overwhelmingly youthful country. For many Iranians, the Iranian revolution is at best a distant memory or happened long before they were born. However, they do understand the present and the power of what they have in front of them, and they like their Internet connections and cell phones. Moreover, Iranians are a very chatty nation, with reputedly the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. If Khamenei were reading tealeaves, he would be wary, if not very afraid.
It may take a generation or two, but widespread higher education (which has been underway in Iran for a generation) opens minds, broadens perspectives and retards insularity. In the United States, if you look at where the most highly educated people live, you will also find fewer churchgoers and greater tolerance for different ideas, cultures and beliefs. I certainly see it here in the Washington Metropolitan region. We have long been a melting pot of various ethnicities and cultures. Our attitudes are correspondingly relatively progressive.
With this in mind, perhaps our foreign policy toward Iran needs to be rethought. During the last presidential campaign, Senator John McCain was caught on camera (obviously in an unscripted moment) singing “Bomb, bomb Iran”. The implication was that the country was so intrinsically evil that there was no reasoning with Iranians, so we might as well bomb them into submission. It should now be clear that such actions would prove counterproductive, alienating the educated and increasingly liberal components of Iran who are becoming a majority. I am willing to bet that should a new Iranian revolution succeed then the next government will be far less hostile toward Israel. Educated Iranians already understand that the purpose of Ahmadinejad’s fixation on Israel is to cover his own deficiencies as a leader.
Repression may work in Iran for a month, or a year or possibly even a decade. However, the forces that have been unleashed in Iran because of this clearly fraudulent election cannot be kept bottled forever. A newer, more pragmatic and more progressive government will emerge from Iran in time. The United States should practice patience. The Iranian people have come around. In time, so will its government.