Now that Riyadh seems to be trapping Washington into supporting its counterrevolution, the fate of Iranian crusaders for a new, anti-American world order seems to be in good hands with...Washington. Tehran is on a strategic roll playing the good guy, cheering Arab democracy against the Saudi-Israeli-U.S. axis of dictatorship. In a word, Washington is empowering the Iranian World Order, and all Tehran needs to do is be patient.
The American World Order has always been schizophrenic, the imperial face biting the democratic face. Aspiring to lead a new world order, Iranian rejectionists—be they nationalists or militant Shi’a—have a simple theoretical answer to what liberals see in the American World Order as a fundamental dilemma: the Iranian rejectionists dismiss both faces. Whether Washington aspires to lead a global crusade to establish empire or to spread democracy makes little difference to Iranians dedicated to domestic supremacy of the state over the people and international overthrow of a U.S.-centric international order.
Theory is one thing, practice another, however, and the relative emphasis Washington gives to its imperial tendencies vis-à-vis its democratizing tendencies has enormous impact on the practical difficulties facing Iranians on a crusade to upset the global political system. As long as Iran remains the only serious challenger to the corporate-friendly American World Order, Iran’s real goals are less the issue than Iran’s symbolic position of exceptionalism as the only defender of liberty (though, to be sure, Iran is only defending the liberty of the state vis-à-vis the international system, not the liberty of individuals, but that is a distinction that will be lost on young Arabs being murdered in the street by their own governments). To the degree that people worldwide begin to see Iran as the sole champion of liberty, its dissident crusade becomes immeasurably empowered.
Such a perception would be worth far more than a primitive collection of nuclear bombs to Iranian crusaders, but there is probably little Iran, by itself, can do to spread such perceptions. Ironically, there is much that Washington can do: all it will take is a few simple foreign policy miscalculations in Washington, the type of miscalculations Washington decision-makers are quite prone to make, to hand Iranian crusaders this present on a silver platter. It is ironic that confident, forward-leaning Tehran must rely on its main adversary to open the door for it to make progress. It is even more ironic that it is precisely the Zionists’ fears of a nuclear Iran that induce them to engage in the most short-sighted oppression of civil liberties in the Mideast, “short-sighted” because it plays so neatly into the hands of precisely those Iranians most interested in acquiring nuclear arms.
Again, the issue is not the real goals of Iranian crusaders but the degree to which people, for the moment specifically the people of the Mideast and Central Asia, perceive Iran as their only ally in their struggle for liberty and justice. The virulence of repression in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Palestine will not allow those repressed populations the luxury of examining the motives of a potential supporter.
Tehran could of course always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by making its own mistakes. Tehran could terrify the Mideast with nuclear threats, drive its own people into revolt, or alienate democratizing Arabs with images of fundamentalist Shi’i velayat-e faqih (Khomenei’s theory of rule by religious dictators responsible only to Allah). One of the difficulties in predicting political events is the ever-present possibility that politicians will manage to defeat themselves by overreach regardless of how certain their victory appears. But as long as Iranians avoid such blunders, with the U.S. dog on the leash of the Saudi billionaires, time is on Tehran's side.
Ironically, in view of the panic they provoke, Iranian crusaders actually have yet to demonstrate that they have much to offer the Mideast or any other part of the world that many would find attractive. Aside from talking a good talk (and even then frequently lapsing into clumsy, self-defeating rhetoric), Iranian crusaders have little military power, little money, little attractive ideology. They have not succeeded in accomplishing much that is very impressive in Iraq, despite the strong position the neo-con adventure granted them. What improvements in living standards do Iraqis credit Iran with having given them over the last decade? Similarly, what improvements in the lives of the average poor Shi’a in Lebanon would the average person there thank Iran for. The truth is that Iranian crusaders, their noise notwithstanding, have yet to demonstrate that their opponents need fear them very much.
But if Washington succeeds in alienating the rising generation of Arab youth--just as it begins to assert itself--by allowing the American imperial face unambiguously to take precedence over the American democratizing face, then where else will Arabs have to turn? Communism is gone. Salafi jihadis have slaughtered so many Sunnis that they have managed thoroughly to discredit their vision of a new Caliphate in the eyes of the Sunnis masses. Only one symbol of an alternative to the American World Order exists: Iran. (Mr. Davutoglu, if you disagree, please step forward and make your case.) But it is, for obvious reasons, a tarnished symbol, and can only be made attractive by comparison with the degree to which Arabs perceive that the American World Order will or will not permit them to have a decent future within its constraints. If Washington defines the masses of the whole Arab world as rebels to be crushed by the American World Order, it will give Tehran a victory it could never achieve for itself.
Riyadh has clearly thrown down the gauntlet, its savage repression of Bahraini hopes for a new dawn spelling out exactly what the old guard is willing to offer the Arab people. Iranian crusaders presumably have no interest in a genuine flowering of democracy in the Muslim world; that would put them in a highly unstable and marginalized position. But to be the only country unconditionally cheering for Arab democracy against the unholy trio of Zionist Israel, salafi Saudi Arabia, and an imperial U.S. would be a dream come true for Iranian crusaders in which they could finally dominate the Arab street…and do so at no cost.
Whether or not the Iranian crusaders are smart and patient enough to play this game remains to be seen, but initial indications are that they are doing so far more skillfully than Obama, who, after a good start in response to Tahrir Square, now appears to be falling solidly under the spell of the Saudi sheikhs. The game, admittedly, is hard for the U.S.: it must figure out how to balance the removal of bad allies so that new and independent regimes arise in a context that leads them to chart their own course in a way compatible with U.S. interests: that will be a tricky thing to pull off. For Iran, things are easier. Iran’s strategic position is so much improved with Iraq in its orbit, Afghanistan imploding, Turkey friendly, and Egypt warming up that it (i.e., the ruling elite) can afford to be patient (whether particular individual Iranian leaders will calculate that they personally can afford to be patient is another thing). In essence, Washington must work assiduously to balance contradictions, while all Iran need do is…nothing. Given the daily slaughter by murderous security forces in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, Iran’s call for a new world order can hardly help but shine brighter and brighter over the desert sands. Terrified at the thought of its old alliance system crumbling, Washington is busily empowering Iran’s crusaders for a new world order.