Sunday, May 14, 2006

Son of the Ayatollah

Fouad Ajami, US News & World Report:
"Is Persia about to enter, nay, has she already entered the comity of civilized nations or does she still sit a contented outcast without the gate?"


Writers on "revolutions" always dwell on the course of these upheavals in human affairs, on their natural life cycle. In his seminal great book, The Anatomy of Revolution, historian Crane Brinton sketched the progression of revolutions--their outbreak and early euphoria, the destruction of the moderates who had brought to the revolutionary experiments their own idle hopes, the triumph of the extremists as revolutions, like the Roman god Saturn, devour their own children, the reign of terror and virtue. In the final phase, there is Thermidor--borrowed from the "poetic new calendar" of the French Revolution--where there is a slow return to less heroic times, a period of "convalescence." The fanaticism now guiding the Iranian state is thus a break with the calendar of revolutions. In Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man at the helm of the Iranian state, the great Brinton has met a challenge to his "anatomy" of revolutions. READ MORE

The idle hopes of the era behind us, the claims that the Iranian experiment had begun to "mellow," have been shown to be a thin reed. If anything, the Iranian revolution appears to have entered an "apocalyptic phase," as Bernard Lewis, the great historian of Islam, recently warned. It is thus that the world now watches Ahmadinejad. The man seems unhinged, a stranger to this modern world. As is the way of evil, this man's evil was, at first, hard to recognize and to acknowledge. For eight years, his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, courted the world, talked seductively of a "dialogue among civilizations." In Europe, Khatami had been a hit, and it was a matter of time, it was thought, before Iran made its peace with the world. But the Khatami era was a swindle.

Ahmadinejad's primitiveness seems more true to Iran's brutal theocratic enterprise than Khatami's false spring. He is a faithful son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He hails from the depth of Iranian society; he had his induction into politics through the Basij, a volunteer underclass militia that the merciless Khomeini had established to "deepen" the revolution and supply dispensable young foot soldiers for the terrible war of the 1980s against Iraq. The Basij were fed on a diet of "martyrdom" and sacrifice. Men like Ahmadinejad are no mystery: They are awake at the apocalypse. They are believers and cynics at the same time. They set fires and have a way of walking away from them in the nick of time, leaving the heartbreak to others. What are we to make of Ahmadinejad's millenarianism--the belief he expressed in the return of the Hidden Imam, that apocalyptic moment in history when the wicked are punished and the lowly inherit the Earth? In the same vein, what is one to make of the man's threat to "wipe Israel off the map"?

Persian power dreams. A darkness has settled upon Iran. Ahmadinejad and the clerical custodians of the state appear to have convinced themselves that history is on their side, that America is a "wounded beast" in Iraq. A new oil windfall sustains this primitivism. There is no need to give Iran's tormented people a chance at normalcy, give an overwhelmingly young generation a piece of this modern world. An impressionable population has been presented the dream of Persian power through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. To be sure, voices can be heard in Iran at variance with the official orthodoxy. A maverick cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei, recently opined that "no one can lead a country to death and destruction in the name of nuclear energy, neither those who are in charge here nor those who are in charge in other countries." In the tumult of Iran, and in the balance of its power, this cleric is a loner.

Revisionist regimes that break with the code of international order are never easy to deal with. The arguments of appeasement are always there--and legitimate fears of the destruction these regimes could unleash. But slowly a clarity is coming on the challenge Iran poses. The best words uttered yet are those of Sen. John McCain: "There is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran." Ayatollah Khomeini is long gone: We now await how the world shall come to terms with his terrible inheritors.