None of the political conflicts across the globe make me sadder than the control that religious zealots hold over the people of Iran. On one hand, the strength of Persian culture and the hopes of the Iranian people make it plausible, if not inevitable, that one day the Iranians will throw off the theocratic ayatollahs and establish themselves as a modern nation. On the other hand, while the ayatollahs maintain their stranglehold on the country, they are trying to build nuclear weapons. While a Persian state (which Iran could become) with nuclear weapons would be less of a threat to world peace than Pakistan, the current Iranian state with nuclear weapons is something to be feared, and perhaps attacked.
Iran is not like Saudi Arabia. Iran has a rich culture that doesn't square with religious fundamentalism. Modern nationalists in Iran would have established their country as a modern state, if only the UK and the US hadn't intervened to keep the Shah in power. That intervention forced the students to join forces with their natural opponents, the fundamentalists. Only together were the students and intellectuals on one hand and the fundamentalists on the other able to overthrow the Shah's monarchical regime and its Western backers. The instability of this alliance is plain to see in Iran today, where zealots loyal to the ayatollahs massacre students and condemn professors to death.
For years and years, the Iranians have tried to resist the repression of the ayatollahs, with some progress. In overwhelming numbers, they elected reformists to parliament, and a number of social reforms were enacted. But the clerics held ultimate power, and they used it to kick out the reformists. A new parliament, one amenable to control by the ayatollahs, has taken power. Political reform in Iran has failed.
Periodically, students protest. Sometimes, they are killed for their efforts. The dream of freedom is not forgotten. In their private lives, Iranians resent and resist the ayatollahs' control. Given more time, the Iranians would reform or overthrow their theocratic government.
But time is something that we might not be able to afford to give them. While the people are trying to free themselves from the ayatollahs, the ayatollahs are trying to build nuclear weapons. They've seen what happens to a country that the US hates when it doesn't have the Bomb (Iraq) and when it does (North Korea). The rational course of action is to move oneself out of the "Iraq" category and into the "North Korea" category.
Unlike Iraq, Iran really does have ties to Al-Qaeda. Unlike Iraq, Iran really is controlled by Islamist extremists. Unlike Iraq, Iran does seem to have a nuclear weapons program, or at least a nuclear energy program that is getting them closer and closer to being able to field a nuclear weapon.
Iran's nuclear weapon program has the additional benefit of provoking hostility from the US. The ayatollahs know that a thaw in relations between the US and Iran would make it harder to control the Iranian population. They need the US to be antagonistic toward Iran to keep the Iranians from becoming even more pro-US than they already privately are.
Will it become necessary to attack and destroy Iran's nuclear assets? Can we simply support Israel should it decide to do so? Will any such action merely strengthen support for the unelected, theocratic regime, just as 9/11 strengthened support for the unelected, theocratic administration here in the US? Or will the Iranians be able to slip past attempts at monitoring them, giving them a surprise nuclear weapon? If they get a nuclear weapon, will the ayatollahs' religious extremism goad them into using it in a terrorist attack? It's hard to imagine a happy ending.
October 2007: Ahmedinejad Can't Dodge Protests
January 2007: Ahmadinejad Criticized
December 2006: Student Heckle Ahmadinejad
Extremists as Corruption Foes