Bruce Anderson: One week later and the world is more dangerous

Some had been under sentence of death. Now they thought they might be able to return to a free Iran
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The Independent Online

Hope and courage, tragedy and despair: it took only seven days to transform the one into the other. Last weekend, I had dinner with a group of Iranian exiles. For 30 years, none of them had been able to visit their homeland. Some had been under sentence of death. Now, they were daring to be optimistic: to feel that they might soon be able to return to a free Iran. As they paid tribute to the brave young people who had seized control of the streets, the intensity of their emotion was profoundly moving.

Despite eyes misty with joy, there were problems. The middle-classes of north Tehran wanted change and freedom. What about the rest of the country? That said, capital cities can often make the political running and bring everyone else along in their wake; Paris 1789-1848 is the obvious example. Yet it can be difficult for the capital to consolidate its position. Although street power looks wonderful on camera, it is transient. In Iran, there was no obvious mechanism by which real power could be transferred: no equivalent of Ayatollah Khomeini, waiting for the moment to arrive at the airport and take control.

Equally, there is no reason to place much faith in Mr Mousavi's reformist credentials or his democratic ones. If he had possessed either, the clerics would not have allowed him to stand. Had he taken power, the need to accommodate those who swept him into office might have forced him to move in their direction. It is also possible that he would have been a transitional figure, like some of the now-forgotten late Eastern European Communists who had a brief innings at the end of the Eighties. As that precedent demonstrates, transitions can be desirable – just as long as they do not end with Lenin.

But even if it was not clear how the new forces could take over, there were encouraging signs that the old ones were losing their grip. It is much easier to have a successful revolution if those who hold power lose the will to rule. A week ago, that did not seem inconceivable. There were some eloquent non-events. Where was the Revolutionary Guard? Where was the army? Why were they not crushing the demonstrators? Were they still loyal to the regime? What was going on in the Council of Guardians and the rest of the mysterious black-robed infrastructure of theocracy? Had some of them lost faith in President Ahmadinejad?

A week later, all those hopeful doubts seem horribly premature. There is no sign that the ayatollahs have lost their nerve, or their determination to support Mr Ahmadinejad. The repression is intensifying.

In the long run, this might not work. Iran is a rich country afflicted by economic chaos. Poverty in the midst of potential oil wealth will continue to breed discontent. It may be that we will come to look back on late June 2009 as the moment when the Iranian regime lost its legitimacy: 1905 leading to 1917. Yet even if we are merely dealing with hope deferred, there are some hideous short-term problems and we do not have 12 years to solve them.

Let us make four assumptions. The first is that Iran's rulers are rattled. The second is that they are still theocrats, absolute for their faith, determined to sustain the Khomeini revolution. The third is that when they blame the West for stirring up trouble, they may believe their own rhetoric.

Those of us who live in post-religious societies are at a disadvantage when trying to understand countries where religion is still potent. Even conservatives can slip into vulgar Marxism and assume that religion is merely a cover for economic grievance. But there is every reason to think that most Iranian clerics are sincere. As they believe in paradise for the faithful and hell for the rest of us, they also believe that all earthly activities should be subordinated to the religious imperative. When they proclaim that Allah's rule in Iran is under threat from Satanic forces marshalled by the United States, they are telling the truth as they see it.

The fourth assumption relates to geopolitics. The men in robes and beards may have decided that Iran would be safer from Satanic interference if it had nuclear weapons. That view is not confined to the Iranian clergy. Many moderates will insist that as Iran lives in such a dangerous neighbourhood, it requires a nuclear deterrent. But no one could accuse the ayatollahs of moderation.

So we are probably dealing with insecure millenarians who will soon have nuclear weapons: a profoundly disturbing prospect, offering only a choice of brutal and dangerous alternatives. If we miscalculate, the possible outcomes include: terrorism in the West on a vastly greater scale than 9/11, the overthrow of all pro-Western governments in the Middle East, the oil price at God knows what, a global economic crisis which would make the current disorders seem trifling – and finally, the nuclear destruction of Israel and Iran.

Just to add to the litany of reassurance, I detect increased pessimism among Western policymakers. Even two years ago, one would be told that Iran was a complex civil society, drawing on the deep roots of an ancient civilisation, and that whatever wild and whirling words Mr Ahmadinejad might sometimes utter, he had no wish to bring on a confrontation with the West.

Perhaps there could be a compromise. Iran would ensure that its nuclear weapons programme was within six months or so of completion, but would not take the final steps. The West would respond with leveraged engagement: lifting trade sanctions, proliferating diplomatic links and recognising Iran's status as a regional superpower. Mindful of Nietzsche's dictum that if you stare into the abyss for long enough, it will stare back at you, everyone would move cautiously away from the edge. That now seems absurdly optimistic.

There is a further factor. A couple of years ago, it was assumed that Israel would have considerable difficulty in bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. There was no Iranian version of Osirac, the Iraqi reactor which had been an inviting target. The Iranian facilities are much further away, much more dispersed and much better protected. An Israeli strike might need American help.

The difficulties remain, but Israeli attitudes have hardened. Would the current government take the risk of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons? Some Israelis are arguing that this might be the time to strike, when Neda Agha-Soltan's martyrdom is fresh in the memory and Iran has reverted to pariah status.

A week ago, the Lebanese elections had gone better than expected, Benjamin Netanyahu had talked about a two-state solution and my Iranian friends shed joyful tears. A week has turned joy to foreboding: tears of hope to tears of bitterness and grief.