Middle EastOpinion

Opinion: Iran is Fighting America and Israel With One Arm Tied Behind Its Back

Opinion: America’s desire to prevent the rise of a Muslim power capable of dominating the Middle East is masked under its ‘principled’ opposition to the Iranian government.

Opinion: America’s desire to prevent the rise of a Muslim power capable of dominating the Middle East is masked under its ‘principled’ opposition to the Iranian government.

Iran has been feuding with America and Israel for decades. America likes to pretend this conflict is based on its principled opposition to the repressive nature of Iran’s government. But its alliances with repressive regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among countless others) prove this is a lie. At its heart, this conflict is about America’s desire to prevent the rise of a Muslim power capable of dominating the Middle East. It has pursued this goal primarily to protect its allies in Israel.

America has struggled to contain Iran despite its massive advantage in resources because its objectives are completely unrealistic. Due to its large size, energy deposits, and long history as a unified political and cultural entity, Iran is the nation best positioned to dominate the Middle East. Even America’s unrivaled power cannot change what geography and common-sense dictate.

For the most part, Iran’s leaders have also played their hand shrewdly, but they have made some glaring miscalculations. Chief among them is the way they have violently repressed their own people. One does not need to be Sun Tzu to realize that alienating your own people while locked in a confrontation with foes as powerful and ruthless as America and Israel is not a smart strategy. But that is the path they have chosen.

The anti-government riots rocking Iran are but the latest in a long line that illustrate the dangers of their approach. When it comes to war and geopolitics, only those societies that work together triumph. Iran is still trying to devise a political system that can bring its people together over forty years after deposing the Shah. The hardliners who control its government have steadily chipped away at the few quasi-democratic features installed in the early days of the Revolution. They refuse to recognize the simple truth that certain decisions are inherently personal and should never be subject to government regulation. And they have directed much of their energy towards marginalizing the female half of their population. Their refusal to share power with the progressive elements within their society or empower Iranian women has made harnessing the full power of the Iranian people impossible. Instead of creating a political system that allows their people to work together to protect themselves, they have forced them to fight over women’s fashion.

Of course, the debate over the hijab is not really about women’s fashion but control and the degree to which Muslim governments can compel their citizens to follow religious edicts. In the Muslim world, this debate has been raging for centuries and, maddeningly, has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. As European powers began to conquer and divide Muslim lands amongst themselves, Muslims were forced to confront the glaring differences between their societies and those of their conquerors. Part of this involved comparing the limited governments created by Western societies and the individual freedoms they bestowed upon their citizens to the repressive political and social systems that forced conformity in the Muslim world.

Many astute Muslims recognized the need to create democratic and pluralistic political and social systems that could educate and empower their people. Despite the overwhelming empirical evidence, most of the Muslim world’s religious elite disagreed. Instead of embracing reforms that could protect them from further violence, they convinced the masses they were defeated because they had stopped living like true Muslims.

According to this worldview, the key to re-vitalizing the Muslim world was creating governments that strictly adhered to Islamic law and norms. The great irony here is that, as usual, the conservatives got it completely backwards. The West did not conquer the Muslim world because Muslim women stopped covering their heads. In fact, it was the authoritarian culture that forced women cover themselves that made the Muslim world so easy to conquer.

Again, we are not just talking about the hijab but the roots of the authoritarianism that compels women to wear them that has been a feature of Muslim societies for centuries. The Muslim world’s military and religious elite adamantly refused to share power with their people. To that end, they created authoritarian political and social systems to control them. In the process, they prevented their societies from evolving and developing the technological and economic foundations necessary to protect themselves. Forcing women to wear the hijab is just one of many examples of the dogmatic and reactionary ideas of the Muslim world’s religious elite that eventually destroyed its intellectual climate, stunting its development. This allowed Europe to conquer or subjugate nearly the entire Muslim world. Worst of all, the prevalence of these ideas today has kept it weak, impoverished, and vulnerable to more violence.

Iran may believe it has the upper hand now that it is so close the building a bomb. It may even believe America is unwilling or too exhausted to do anything about it. But that ignores the ugly reality of American politics or the aggressive mindset of Israeli military leaders. America and Israel are both shifting more to the right every day. That means their policies towards the Muslim world will grow increasingly imperialistic and violent. They may not have the stomach to put troops on the ground, but they will continue to use violence and economic warfare to keep Iran subservient to their interests. Unfortunately, their imperial worldview cannot envision anything else. The assassination of Gen. Soleimani by the right-wing Trump administration shows how easily another right-wing administration could escalate violence towards Iran.

Iran’s leaders must therefore brace themselves for sustained conflict even after they finally build their bomb. Doing so requires understanding why the West has been so dominant and reforming their society in accordance with these lessons. Democracy is not just the moral choice; it is the practical choice. Democratic systems based on the rule of law that protect property and human rights as well as freedom of expression have proven the best at generating wealth and technological innovation and these are necessary precursors for military power in the modern age.

I have argued elsewhere that they must also seek alliances with non-Arab Muslim Sunni states to protect themselves from the long-term dangers posed by America’s and Israel’s increasingly unhinged political climates. But an even more fundamental step is seeking peace with their own people. Without a strong political foundation based on the popular support of most Iranians, Iran will continue to fight with one arm tied behind its back.

Thus far Iran’s leaders have reacted to the riots in typical fashion. They have blamed Western conspiracies while dismissing the legitimate grievances of their people. In doing so, they are only hurting themselves and proving why the Muslim world has suffered at the hands of the Great Powers for so long.