The Magazine

Regime Change in Iran?

Applying George W. Bush's "liberation theology" to the mullahs.

Aug 5, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 45 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THOUGH OSAMA BIN LADEN, Afghanistan, Israel, and Iraq have commanded our attention since September 11, it is always good to remind ourselves that the most consequential country in the Muslim Middle East is Iran. This has been true, with a few intermissions, for a thousand years. And since the victory of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his revolution in 1979, Iran has held center stage in the current Muslim drama: How will God and man interact in a modern theocratic state? Will the Western idea of individual freedom, which has been gaining ground in Iran for over a hundred years, triumph over the Islamic injunction to submit oneself to God's law in virtually all matters public and private? Would the notion of individual rights, always present in the intellectual storm that produced the Iranian revolution, congeal and allow a separation of church and state where the democratic franchise, not the Holy Law or a cleric, becomes the final arbiter of politics? And could the dictatorial dispensation of the entire Muslim Middle East--no democracy except in secular, half-European Turkey--conceivably be shattered by the state whose religious raison d'etre has been the most explicit?

The Bush administration--and it is perhaps accurate here to underscore, the president himself more than his foreign-policy team--appears to be trying to grapple seriously with an American response to tyranny in the Muslim world, particularly in Iran. The president's "axis of evil" speech, his July 12 address on Iran, the subsequent delivery of this statement in Persian over Voice of America radio by the National Security Council's Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Captive Nations Week proclamation of July 17 have revealed a man who obviously believes that certain Western ideas have universal range and roots. The president, who is probably the most sincerely religious commander in chief since World War II, has stated repeatedly that faith does not countenance despotism, that Muslims, too, have the right to "liberty and justice . . . the birthright of all people."

Stepping away from the "realist" world of his father--where a vision of regional stability, not a belief in individual liberty and democracy, drove foreign policy--George W. Bush has sliced across national borders and civilizational divides with an unqualified assertion of a moral norm. The president declared, "The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world." America will stand "alongside people everywhere determined to build a world of freedom, dignity, and tolerance. . . . America affirms . . . its commitment to helping those in captive nations achieve democracy." These are, at least to Iranian ears, truly revolutionary words for an American president. One has to go back to Woodrow Wilson to find an American leader who so clearly directs his message far outside the West. And Wilson's call for self-determination, made in the declining years of European empire, addressed collective, "national" ethnic aspirations more than the liberal rights of individuals.

Though the president's "liberation theology" is obviously a work in progress (as, if we remember, was Reagan's), the philosophical borders of the president's views are sufficiently clear that it will be difficult for those in his administration and in the media who are disturbed, if not terrified, by Bush's creed to walk back the policy. They will, no doubt, try. The State Department of Colin Powell will endeavor to introduce a bit of opaqueness into the discussion, striving to keep open the possibility, deeply cherished, it strongly appears, by the director of policy planning, Richard Haass, that U.S. and Iranian officials can somehow sit and talk. For State, sitting and talking with foreign dignitaries is usually an end in itself, imbued with a non-negotiable moral goodness. (Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer will, of course, have the unenviable task of articulating the contradictory public truces between State, the Pentagon, and the White House, which will make it appear that the president is trying to alter his original language, if not his intent.) And the president may well be lazy, cautious, or somewhat confused about turning his ideals into a consistent, effective policy. For example, preaching liberty, the rule of law, and democracy for Palestinians on only one bank of the Jordan river is an odd, if not unsustainable, rhetorical position. Yet despite the unorthodox, public way foreign policy is being made, and unmade, in this administration, it seems clear that the president isn't going to stop his Reaganesque approach. The possible contradictions in the president's actions are unlikely to blunt the revolutionary edge and appeal of his message in the Middle East.