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Sunni-Shi'a Battles Erupt in Iran
Iranian schoolgirls wave their national flag and hold an anti-US slogan during celebrations in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Sunni-Shi'a Battles Erupt in Iran

Walter Russell Mead

Something is stirring in Iran. AP:

Iranian security forces on Tuesday killed three Sunni militants in a firefight in the country's west, the police said.

According to the report, posted on the official police website, the firefight took place in a neighborhood in the city of Kermanshah, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran.

The police confiscated a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a suicide vest at the site of the clash, the report said. It did not identify the militants, though it called them "takfiris," a derogatory term in both Arabic and Farsi referring to extremist Sunni Muslims — such as members of the Islamic State group — who accuse other Muslims of being infidels.

Later in the day, Kermanshah Gov. Asadollah Razani told the official IRNA news agency that security forces on Monday killed another member of militants he described as "takfiri Daesh." Dauesh is an Arabic language acronym for the Islamic States group.

It’s important to remember that Iran is not a nation state in the way France or the Czech Republic is a nation state—that is, a state where one ethnic group with one culture is an overwhelming majority, and where the institutions and ideas that shape national politics flow naturally out of the culture and history of the dominant ethnic group.

Iran is more like the old USSR, where one ethnic group—Russians in the USSR, Persians in Iran—dominates the political and institutional life of the country, but large ethnic minorities are less comfortable with the dominant system. In both the USSR and Iran, ideology is used to paper over the divides: communism in the USSR, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s version of Shi‘a Islam in Iran. For both countries, an additional glue was provided by the sense of opposition to and fear of the United States, seen as the chief instrument of a global conspiracy against the one true representative on earth of the ‘right’ ideology or religion.

Communism held the USSR together for 70 years; so far Khomeinism has held Iran together for about half that length of time. But ideologies, even religious ones, have a tendency to rot and decay over time. Most of the people around Lenin were fervent Bolsheviks who really believed that they were ushering in a new era of light and truth. Over time, that hot faith cooled, and ultimately the Bolshevik state and the Soviet Empire fell apart.

Many in the West thought that the Soviet collapse would lead to democracy—and it did, in some of the non-Russian parts of the old Soviet Empire. But in much of the USSR, what happened was very different: the Communist era elites went on ruling, but relied on nationalism rather than communism as the legitimating ideology for their rule. That’s probably a better window into Iran’s future, when and if the Khomeinist state dies of corruption and old age, than the Obama administration’s hopeful vision of a Great Mellowing.

The Khomeinists now ruling Iran know the history of the Soviet Union as well as anybody else, and so they are unlikely to be duped, as some communists were, into thinking that a Gorbachevian reform wave will consolidate their power. They understand that the alternative to a Khomeinist Iran probably isn’t a democratic Iran, prosperous and secure, but a smaller Persia in a sea of mostly hostile but also unstable and weak neighboring states. They suspect—and with good reason considering what is happening in the rest of the Middle East—that ‘reform’ will be followed by weakness and division, rather than by strength.

Incidents like this one will reinforce that belief among the Khomeinist elite. This means among other things that they are more likely to resist democratization and reform, and more likely to hold onto the empty symbols of Khomeinism even after the ideological fire at the heart of the Iranian Revolution has burned out. You don’t need to believe in a belief system to keep milking it. How many sincere communists are there in Pyongyang, Beijing, Hanoi or Havana? How many Kremlin insiders industriously sprinkling themselves with holy water on Orthodox feast days truly believe in Christianity?

Yet those regimes endure, and their functionaries continue to utter the pious phrases and hollow invocations that once meant the world to the revolutionary founders. What most elites worship around the world, whatever words they dress their faith in, are the gods of power and wealth. Their faith in those gods is entirely sincere; it is fervent, heartfelt and all-encompassing. If the Great God Power is best approached in their country by mouthing communist pieties and citing the works of Marx, they will devote hours to these rituals—not animated by an assumed belief in communism, but by the true ruling passion of their lives: the lust for power. If Khomenism or Sunni Islam, liberal cosmopolitanism, or conservative evangelicalism or orthodox Catholicism is the language of power in their country, they will worship their unchanging god by the appropriate rites. Like Donald Trump at an evangelical prayer meeting, they will say whatever magic words will open the door to power and acclaim.

The liberal cosmopolitan view, that all other faiths must ultimately crumble before its majesty and appeal, that every knee must bow and every tongue confess that liberal cosmopolitanism is the One True Idea, is, to put it as inoffensively as possible, not proven. But it is the faith in which much of the American political establishment has been raised and, while some of our rulers are hypocrites mouthing liberal platitudes in order to gain power, the liberal faith burns bright in our President and many of those around him. It led them to predict that Erdogan would lead Turkey to become more liberal and democratic; that the Arab Spring would lead to a wave of liberal democratic state building across the Middle East; and that, in due course, Khomeinist Iran, through the same inevitable and inexorable processes that are transforming the whole world into a liberal utopia, will become a liberal regime at peace with itself, its neighbors and the United States.

Faith, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us (chapter 11 verse 1), is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and America’s current stance in the Middle East is a striking example of faith-based diplomacy. (President George W. Bush was also a man of liberal faith when it came to the Middle East; the result of his decisions was also, again, to put it inoffensively, disappointing.) Unfortunately, President Obama and his team seem to have underestimated the power and the sophistication of the widespread cults of Mammon and Moloch, the ancient and universal gods of wealth and power. As faith in creeds like communism and Khomeinism congeals into cynicism, the devotees of these faiths are far more likely to embrace Mammonism and Molochism than liberal cosmopolitan enlightenment.

The mysterious outbreak of religious violence in eastern Iran—and the one thing we can be sure about is that we are not getting a full account of what’s happening there—should serve as a helpful reminder that American ideas about impending democratic transitions across the Middle East are almost always delusional fantasies, whether embraced by overconfident neocons in the Age of Bush or by overconfident liberal internationalists in the Age of Obama. That may in time change; one can hope so. But the wretched consequences of two successive national strategies in the Middle East should, one hopes, reduce the liberal crusading spirit of the Oval Office’s next occupant.

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