Why bombing Iran is an absolutely awful idea

In the summer of 2006 there was a curious outbreak of apocalypticism on the right. Islam scholar Bernard Lewis wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal noting that Iran had promised to give the United States a final answer about its nuclear program on August 22, 2006, a holy day on the Islamic calendar. From there he made a slight jump to conclusions. “This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world,” he reasoned.

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A little-known CNN Headline News host named Glenn Beck seized on Lewis’s prophecies and soon the doomsday rhetoric was flying. Humanity managed to survive August 22. But the incident is a perfect demonstration of how many on the American right view Iran: as a theocratic dungeon where mad mullahs ride atomic dreams to the world’s edge.

That image isn’t entirely undeserved. Iran has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Adulterous women are sentenced to death by stoning. Morality police reminiscent of something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four hunt for unsanctioned peeks of flesh from under women’s hijabs. Its government has been a leading funder of terrorism in the Middle East.

But there’s also great tension in Iran, between the old and the young, the Islamic and the secular, the traditional and the revolutionary. Look under Iran’s hood and you’ll find formerly prohibited rock bands that are thriving, women challenging wardrobe laws, teenagers watching Western movies. The changes are subtle, but they’re reason for hope.

The most visible symbol of Iranian reform is its president, Hassan Rouhani. Elected in 2013, Rouhani pledged to engage with the West and end Iran’s economic isolation. He called for “equal opportunities for women” (his words) and appointed two female vice presidents and Iran’s first foreign ministry spokeswoman. He demanded that Islamists stop “interfering in people’s lives” and diminished the presence of the morality police. He appointed as his science minister Reza Faraji Dana, who worked to reform Iran’s universities.

Rouhani has met fierce blowback from conservatives, culminating in Faraji Dana being sacked in a vote by the Iranian parliament earlier this year. But his brief tenure shows that Iran is not some nightmarish monolith. While traditionalists still rule the parliament, moderates are gaining influence, and there’s an election coming up in 2016 that could further bolster reformist power.

Some of that power will be derived from Iran’s hefty “young voters” bloc. Forget Social Security recipients; Iran has the real baby boomers, with two thirds of its population under the age of 30. Consequently it also has the biggest market for cell phone subscriptions in the Middle East, and while the government imposes restrictions on Internet access, one study estimates that 69 percent of young Iranians are using the Internet illegally. That’s given them a pipeline to Western culture that the ayatollahs haven’t been able to block.

Iran also has a surprisingly vibrant feminist movement. Sixty-five percent of all Iranian university students are female. That’s not to deny that Iranian women are oppressed, but it’s not quite as bad as the stereotypes portray.

This is usually when some harrumphing neoconservative beams into the room to enforce the party line. That’s just window dressing! The theocrats have the real power in Iran. That’s true to an extent. Iran’s Islamic Guardian Council has squelched some of Rouhani’s reforms, and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, wields ultimate military and political power. But cultural power matters too, even under a partially authoritarian government.

Take sex, which has become a dire problem for the theocrats. Premarital sex is illegal in Iran and yet few people are having premarital sex like the Iranians. Anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi, who studied Iranian culture, found that sex parties and group sex that would make most Americans blush had become commonplace among Iranian youths, who relished the thrill of defying the state. It calls to mind Winston Smith’s excitement during his affair with Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.”

Sex in Iran is a revolutionary activity, as is watching a Western music video or sending a Tweet. Tell someone they can’t do something, and eventually they’ll find a way to do it that compensates for lost time.

That cultural subversion is Iran’s best hope. Already Iran’s Supreme Leader is terrified of the reformist Green Movement, which took to the streets in 2009. Khamenei has used the word “seditious” to describe the Greens so many times that it’s become a boring Iranian TV cliché. But here Khamenei is, to borrow another boring cliché from our own MSNBC, “on the wrong side of history.” The widening divide between Iran’s moldering clerics and rebellious youth is forcing change—slow, incremental, but change nonetheless.

That might sound a little optimistic. But consider the alternative. American hawks regard mothballing Iran’s nuclear program as non-negotiable. This is never going to happen—Iran views nuclear power as a crucial tool in its quest for status—which means what hawks are really clamoring for is military action. What’s more outlandish: going to war against a stable Middle Eastern nation of 77 million people or giving Iran time to change from within? Call my solution Munich, but their solution is a massacre.

America’s relationship with Iran over the past fifteen years has been a series of stops and starts. Iran helped us defeat the Taliban, bristled when we included them in the “axis of evil,” supported our war against Saddam Hussein, and helped fund Shiite gangs that killed our soldiers in Iraq. Now Iran and America are once again united against a mutual enemy, bombing ISIS and communicating through Iraqi emissaries. Iran has commanded Shiite militias in Iraq, including its lethal Quds Force, to leave Americans alone. If there was ever an opportune moment for Washington to reboot its relations with Tehran—going beyond nuclear negotiations to set aside old differences—it’s now.

A war would empower the mullahs who say the West can’t be trusted and stymie any progress towards secularism. What’s really needed for Iran is that least neoconservative of virtues: patience.

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