For the past few months, Iran’s nuclear program has been one of the most pressing issues hitting international headlines. Without delving into the details about how likely it is that Iran can produce a weapon in the coming months or years, let us concentrate our attention on a different question—how important are the prejudices prevalent in modern Western society to this whole story?
In our opinion, there are a number of significant reasons for the current hysteria over Iran’s nuclear program, and they need to be spelled out. Let’s start with the most deeply rooted. First of all, Iran has been an Islamic state since 1979. That is, it is not just Muslim, it is also Islamic. There is an important difference in meaning between the two terms—a Muslim state is a state where the majority of the population is Muslim. An Islamic state is something different—here, Islam is part of the political system, Sharia law is in effect, and authority derives from fundamental religious sources. Most Muslim countries today are not Islamic; their state institutions and judicial systems, etc., are copied from Western institutions. Iran is one of the few Muslim Islamic nations. And that is enough for the West to look upon it with distaste. The Egyptians, Lebanese and Afghans may be scorned, but at least they are trying to build a “proper society” according to the Western model. But Iran wants an Islamic order. The concepts of an Islamic (or any theocratic) state are foreign to the liberal West—an “advanced” European will almost always regard a theocracy with a measure of disdain. Indeed, for the West everything associated with a religious state was left in the deep, dark Middle Ages. Today, to an inhabitant of the “progressive” liberal West any religious element in public life will be seen as obscurantism and a sign of backwardness. The attitude of a European liberal can be described with one phrase: “Europe left that behind—and now it’s leading the world.” Westerners who fight against medieval religious obscurantism forget one thing—only Western Europe went through the “dark” Middle Ages. For the Muslim peoples it was a “golden age.”
The Nietzschean “God is dead” philosophy should be interpreted as the victory of secularism in the West and the displacement of religion from all spheres of public life into the pigeonhole of “it’s a personal matter.” That is why the expression “Christian Europe” has little meaning today, except in those countries where Catholicism and Orthodoxy are still strong. But those countries are not the ones that determine European policy. In Germany during 2006 there was a performance of “Idomeneo, King of Crete,” in which the severed heads of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha were hung on the stage. Muslims regarded it as an insult to believers and protested, but Christians did not react at all. The defamation of religious shrines in modern Europe is a sign of tolerance, devoid of religious obscurantism. The chief paradox of modern liberalism is the desire for equality and freedom, but traditionalism in any form is rejected. A man who puts on women’s clothing is seen as freely expressing his sexual deviation, while a woman who refuses to take off the hijab is a sign of religious obscurantism.
In addition to their general rejection of religion in public life, liberal Europeans also feel a personal dislike for the Muslim world. Islamophobia is one of the most entrenched diseases of Western society—it is shaped by European historians and politicians and is a component of the ideological propaganda of the Western nations.
European anxieties regarding Islam go far back in history—the Arab conquests in Europe, the Crusades, the Conquista and Reconquista, wars with the Ottoman Empire, colonial conquests in Asia and Africa, the national liberation movement and the collapse of the colonial system, and the problem of guest workers in modern Europe. Islamophobia took different faces and forms—in the Middle Ages, the Moors and Turks were used to frighten children; in modern times, the colonial conquests were justified by the need to civilize “backward peoples” (with a European civilization, of course); in our day, this same Islamophobia manifests itself in discontent with women’s rights in Muslim countries and in requirements to keep symbols of religious affiliation out of sight.
Thus, modern Islamic Iran, albeit superficially, represents for the liberal West the worst thing that can be imagined—a theocratic Islamic state on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. In the West today, the image of an enemy is best personified by Osama bin Laden, a frail, bearded man with sad eyes who is forever hiding in a deep Afghan cave and hatching plans to destroy all of “free humanity.” Bin Laden and his underground organization Al-Qaeda are certainly a striking image of a hidden enemy who is always ready to launch a sneak attack. To fight him, it is okay to tap citizens’ telephones, increase spending for new weapons, authorize attacks on countries harboring terrorists and, in general, carry out aggressive “defensive” operations. However, the psychology of the modern Westerner calls for a more tangible enemy. The “regime of the mullahs” in Iran is a sort of national reflection of Al-Qaeda, an actual image of an enemy that exists on the map.
In Iran today all the crimes that modern Western man can imagine are being committed—homosexuals are executed, women are forced to wear head scarves, and American films are banned. Unfortunately, Iran holds democratic elections—but faith in the “infernal regime” is lacking even there. The recent presidential elections ended in victory for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the international community is hardly prepared to recognize his victory as legitimate. If Ahmadinejad is unhappy with someone in Israel, the United States or Europe, one can boldly assert that his victory was the result of fraud. Just that, but not the reverse. If Iran had made peace with Israel, signed military cooperation agreements with the United States and guaranteed an uninterrupted supply of oil and gas to Western nations, no one would have denied the legitimacy of any government, even one that is totalitarian and unprincipled. It is customary to consider democracy and honest elections only in certain cases.
Israel’s attitude is another reason for the anti-Iran hysteria. Israel’s policy is that no other country in the region can be allowed to be strong. That is, no one can be more powerful than Israel. We can consider this statement to be a constant of modern international relations. A state gains power from a nuclear arsenal, among other things; nuclear weapons can transform an underdeveloped Middle Eastern country into a serious enemy to be reckoned with. Would Israel dare to invade neighboring countries under the pretext of fighting terrorism, or pour napalm on Palestinian villages, if a neighboring Muslim country has nuclear weapons? Of course, Israeli and American political analysts hasten to assure us that the acquisition of such weapons would lead to Israel’s immediate destruction. This is also one of the newly concocted rules in international relations theory. Few would deny it. A simple axiom has been introduced into the minds of a large number of people, and it needs no proof—an anti-Semitic Islamic regime will rush to develop nuclear weapons in order to destroy the Jewish state.
If we dig in the archives, we will find a lot of similar axioms that have been disproved with time—we should remember the hysteria of Western society over the Soviet nuclear bomb, which fanatic Communists developed in order to drop on the head of world capitalism. It was not dropped. On the contrary, peace was established, based on the terrible guarantee of mutual destruction; but that “bad” peace was better than a good war. The same cries of panic rang out over China when it acquired nuclear weapons. But China did not use nuclear weapons to wipe the planet clean, either.
Henry Morgenthau, the American political analyst and classicist of international relations theory, put forward several paradoxes of nuclear weapons, one of which points out that the behavior of a nuclear state changes. After obtaining nuclear weapons and the means of delivery, Iran will not only have equalized its position relative to Israel and will have established a balance of forces based on mutually assured destruction, but it will have become a guarantor of peace in the Middle East. But what kind of balance can it be when Israeli technologies, including missile technologies, are several decades ahead of Iran’s? No matter how fanatically Iran’s regime is depicted, it obviously will not sacrifice the entire country for the sake of freeing Palestine from Zionist occupation and aiding the Palestinian people, which would certainly be destroyed by Iranian missiles.
Nor should the inhabitants of European nations, much less the United States, fear Iranian attacks. The anti-American rhetoric of the Iranian authorities does not imply that attacks on the United States and the NATO countries will necessarily be forthcoming. Obviously, Iran is unlikely to emerge victorious in such a war. We should not forget that Iran began actively developing its military programs when the Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, countries with which Iran has a long border. Iran’s regime harbors no illusions under the circumstances—indeed, the Western media have been harping on the next stage in the military “democratization” of the Middle East for several years now; this time it will be Iran’s turn. Under these conditions we can hardly expect the victory of moderate forces in Iran and friendly speeches about the United States.
It is worthwhile to remind our kind readers about the media campaigns that preceded the war in Iraq. Accusations that the Iraq regime was developing WMD were only a prelude for the American invasion. Just as happened prior to the war with Iraq, the Iranian threat is being exaggerated and represented as a threat to all humanity. The United States and Israel, where alarmist sentiments toward Iran are strong, have carried out a very large number of military invasions in the Middle East during previous decades. And they should be taken as actual precedents instead of the abstract scares about the “aggressive regime in Tehran” that is preparing a bomb to blow up the entire world.
Gumer Isayev is a Ph.D. in History and Chief Editor of the St. Petersburg Center for Study of the Modern Middle East.