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The Persian New Year, or Norouz, is celebrated this month, often with great extravagance. Among its traditions is jumping over a bonfire while declaiming: “Take away my yellow complexion and give me your red glow of health.”
One way of looking at Iran’s particular calendar, its language and Shiite branch of Islam is as forms of resistance against the Arab and Sunni worlds. Shiism has been a means to independence. The defense of Farsi against Arabic took the form of a medieval epic, “Shahnameh,” by the poet Ferdowsi.
I have, in a series of columns, and as a cautionary warning against the misguided view of Iran as nothing but a society of mad mullah terrorists bent on nukes, been examining distinctive characteristics of Persian society.Iran — as compared with Arab countries including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — has an old itch for representative government, evident in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. The June presidential vote will be a genuine contest by the region’s admittedly low standards. This is the Middle East’s least undemocratic state outside Israel.
Another Iranian exception is that it had its Islamic Revolution three decades ago. Been there, done that. So its lessons are important.
From Egypt to Algeria to Afghanistan, Islamist movements are radicalized by dreams of everlasting dominion. Democracy is feared because it may prove to be their means to power. In Iran, by contrast, life is a daily exercise in difficult compromises that temper Islam with modern society’s demands. Iran is emerging from extremist fervor as clerical absolutism and pluralism spar.
While Bernard Lewis, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, posits an epochal clash between “Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy” whose outcome will be decisive, I don’t see any victor in this fight. Rather, a variety of compromises between the two forces will emerge, as in Iran.
It is therefore in America’s strong interest to develop relations with the most dynamic society in the region. What autocrats from the Gulf to Cairo fear most is an Iranian-American breakthrough, precisely because it would shake up every cozy, static regional relationship, including Washington’s with Israel.
Another distinctive characteristic of Iran is the presence of the largest Jewish community in the Muslim Middle East in the country of the most vitriolic anti-Israel tirades. My evocation of this 25,000-strong community, in the taboo-ridden world of American Middle East debate, has prompted fury, nowhere more so than here in Los Angeles, where many of Iran’s Jewish exiles live.
At the invitation of Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple, I came out to meet them. The evening was fiery with scant meeting of minds. Exile, expropriation and, in some cases, executions have left bitter feelings among the revolution’s Jewish victims, as they have among the more than two million Muslims who have fled Iran since 1979. Abraham Berookhim gave me a moving account of his escape and his Jewish uncle’s unconscionable 1980 murder by the regime.
Earlier, Sam Kermanian, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community, said I had been used, that Iran’s Jews are far worse off than they appear, and that my portrayal of them was pernicious as it “leads people to believe Israel’s enemies are not as real as you may think.” He called the mullahs brilliantly manipulative: “They know their abilities and limitations.”
On at least this last point I agree. Just how repressive life is for Iran’s Jews is impossible to know. Iran is an un-free society. But this much is clear: the hawks’ case against Iran depends on a vision of an apocalyptic regime — with no sense of its limitations — so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.
The presence of these Jews undermines that vision. It blunts the hawks’ case; hence the rage.
I think pragmatism lies at the core of the revolution’s survival. It led to cooperation with Israel in cold-war days; it ended the Iraq war; it averted an invasion of Afghanistan in 1998 after Iranian diplomats were murdered; it brought post-9/11 cooperation with America on Afghanistan; it explains the ebb and flow of liberalization since 1979; and it makes sense of the Jewish presence.
Pragmatism is also one way of looking at Iran’s nuclear program. A state facing a nuclear-armed Israel and Pakistan, American invasions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, and noting North Korea’s immunity from assault, might reasonably conclude that preserving the revolution requires nuclear resolve.
What’s required is American pragmatism in return, one that convinces the mullahs that their survival is served by stopping short of a bomb.That, in turn, will require President Obama to jump over his own bonfire of indignation as the Mideast taboos that just caused the scandalous disqualification of Charles Freeman for a senior intelligence post are shed in the name of a new season of engagement and reason.