Christopher Hitchens asks what I think is a necessary question for anyone honestly seeking to understand the effects of recent U.S. policy in the Middle East: “Did the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, and the subsequent holding of competitive elections in which many rival Iraqi Shiite parties took part, have any germinal influence on the astonishing events in Iran?”
Many Iranians go as religious pilgrims to the holy sites of Najaf and Kerbala in southern Iraq. They have seen the way in which national and local elections have been held, more or less fairly and openly, with different Iraqi Shiite parties having to bid for votes (and with those parties aligned with Iran’s regime doing less and less well). They have seen an often turbulent Iraqi Parliament holding genuine debates that are reported with reasonable fairness in the Iraqi media. [...]
Iranians by no means like to take their tune from Arabs — perhaps least of all from Iraqis — but watching something like the real thing next door may well have increased the appetite for the genuine article in Iran itself.
A few days before Iran’s election, I put a very similar question — what, if any, discernible impact have recent elections in Iraq had on Iranian politics? — to a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (video here).
The panelists were very skeptical of the idea. WINEP deputy director Patrick Clawson dismissed outright the idea that Iranians would be influenced by Iraqis, assuring me (at 1:19:55) that “if it comes to comparisons between Iran and Arab countries the Iranian people kind of go ‘huh?’”
Their self-centeredness and their conviction that they are unique, a polite way of saying superior, is deep and strong. And so the idea that you would make a comparison between them and “those people” would just seem strange to a great many Iranians. And let me just note that besides Iraq, Iran has another larger, more prosperous, more democratic, and more stable neighbor with a Islamist-of sorts-government, namely Turkey. And yet the ability of Iranians to ignore developments there is really quite impressive, quite impressive.
With due respect to Clawson’s recognized expertise on Iran, I’m less inclined to simply dismiss the possibility that elections in Iraq, or in Turkey for that matter, have influenced those in Iran. While it’s impossible to know just what and how much news from Iraq Iranians are receiving, it seems likely to me that events in Iraq have had at least some impact.
I think it’s important to recognize, however, as Iranians surely do, that an election isn’t the only thing that has happened in Iraq over the past few years. There has also been the collapse of the Iraqi state following the U.S. invasion, a sectarian civil war midwifed by the U.S. occupation, and then the slow, painful and still incomplete rebuilding of the Iraqi state, of which elections are an important element but by no means the whole game. This was always the problem with trying to promote democracy on the back of war and occupation. The idea that any people, anywhere, should want to repeat the Iraq experiment is just daft.
Having said that, I think we should be open to the possibility that the new Iraq could have positive effects on the region. This openness shouldn’t be conflated, however, with the suggestion that the Iraq war was, in any sense, “worth it,” which is the clear implication with which Hitchens’ question is loaded. Whatever positive consequences may eventually issue from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there’s just no plausible moral or strategic calculus through which the positive effects can be said to outweigh or justify the war’s staggering costs. Americans and Iraqis seem, fortunately, to have managed to pull Iraq back from the brink of total destruction, but we shouldn’t ever confuse the avoidance of catastrophe with “victory.”
Finally, while Hitchens is right to spotlight the strong and growing critique of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of the “rule of the jurist” that exists among mainstream Shia clerics, both in Iran and elsewhere, (which I’ve also written about), his positing of “Saddam gone, Iraqi democracy now” obscures the significant role of Iraqi Sunni and Shia religious leaders in buttressing the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, as well as the religious nature of Iraq’s leading parties themselves, and thus the significant implications that all of this could have for political reform in the region. This is unfortunate, because I think this is actually where the potential impact on Iran, and on the broader Middle East, could be strongest. It’s deeply ironic, to say the least, that a war that was partially sold as a battle against global Islamism managed to deliver Iraq into the hands of Islamist parties, but Iraq’s being the first Arab country in which Islamists have been permitted to govern may eventually prove to be the war’s most important contribution.
I put the question to Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council, who also expressed skepticism. While acknowledging that it was difficult to really gauge the impact of Iraq in Iran, Disney said that the Iranian people “are looking to their own past, to 1997 and 2001, when they were energized to bring reformists to a position of influence. It was ultimately a disappointment, but those elections were still important to them.” Looking back to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, Disney said “It’s not as if Iranians have just now discovered democracy.”