The end result of the domestic political strife in Iran may be the replacement of the regime with a kinder, gentler regime, but for the moment the strife creates yet another cycle of radicalization in the Mideast. Since this cycle is liked in many ways with the other cyles (the battle for Palestine, the Iranian nuclear dispute, the Western war with radical Islam), its immediate impact is to make the Mideast a still more dangerous place.
Farhideh Farhi portrays the radicalization of domestic politics in Iran, a process by which regime repression of within-system dissidents is pushing the dissident movement toward more hardline tactics in self-defense, thereby further radicalizing the regime, in a vicious cycle that makes compromise ever more difficult. This domestic process is occurring in the regional context of Israel’s increasingly intransigent approach to Palestine, demonstrated by the viciousness of its Gaza attack a year ago and its insistence on expanding the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Globally, the Western conflict with activist Islam continues to expand, with the surge into Afghanistan and recent expansion of the U.S. bombing campaign into Yemen the latest examples. Not surprisingly, the Western nuclear dispute with Iran proves, in this context, difficult to resolve. Whenever one side offers any signal of moderation, something—possibly related to the nuclear dispute but very likely unrelated—intervenes to poison the atmosphere and obstruct progress.
As each of these cycles of radicalization feeds on the others, the momentum for war can build far more rapidly than would be justified by the actual reasons.
Violent domestic political strife tends effectively to preclude foreign policy compromise in any country. For the Iranian regime to compromise on a core issue such as its right to develop nuclear technology in the face of highly abrasive and public Western pressure is virtually inconceivable. At a minimum, a nuclear breakthrough during the current Iranian domestic crisis would probably require public silence on the part of Western leaders about Iran’s nuclear program, secret diplomatic overtures to Iran promising fundamental shifts in how the Mideast is managed that would entail greatly enhanced Iranian influence over the U.S. role in that region, and acceptance of a common standard for Mideast nuclear powers that would explicitly link what is tolerated in the nuclear arena on the part of Israel with that which is tolerated on the part of Iran.
Given the rising radicalization of the global Western-Islamic conflict, however, it is hard to imagine the Obama Administration having the courage to offer anything remotely like the above concessions. Even if the political opposition from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to such a policy could be overcome, the question would remain of how one might reasonably launch such a policy now without having it be misinterpreted as support for, or effectively constituting support of, the repressive regime.
The distinct, but linked, cycle of radicalization in the Levant is provoked by the hardening of Israeli elite attitudes toward Palestinians in recent years, the continuation of apartheid policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank, the intensification of collective punishment of all Gazans, and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory (constituting an effective policy of ethnic cleansing). Such Israeli behavior not only provokes occasional violent Palestinian reactions and poisons Israel’s relations with Lebanon and Syria but offers Tehran hardliners irresistible temptations for exploitation to gain regional influence. Such Iranian behavior may frighten some Israelis but certainly offers, in its turn, its own irresistible temptations for exploitation by Israeli officials looking for ways to deflect American eyes from Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. Thus, both Iran and Israel whip up tensions that risk war even without either necessarily having any desire to go to war.
Once multiple cycles of radicalization become linked, they transform into a political structure of great durability. Extremists have a huge advantage over those counseling moderation under such circumstances. It takes concerted action simultaneously to resist the radicalization process within each cycle in order to create momentum toward peace, while it takes only a single tiny push anywhere in any one of the cycles to intensify the radicalization process, as exemplified by the emotional and self-defeating reactions in the West to the appearance of one Nigerian terrorist.
The appetites of many will be whetted by the spreading chaos, but the largest smirk of all must surely be on the lips of bin Laden.