Monday, December 29, 2003

A Small Window of Opportunity

The recent Iranian earthquake has been a disaster - the body count continues to rise, and the chances of finding survivors, low even in the immediate aftermath, are now virtually nonexistent.

Already, the United States has sent 60 tons of medical supplies and water to Iran, and, as this Christian Science Monitor article notes, such assistance has helped break the ice between hostile nations in the past.

This is a good start, and the CSM article is rightfully optimistic, but the way I see it, we have an opportunity -- one, I fear, of short duration -- to do much more. Actually, "opportunity" isn't the word, because it seems quite possible that failure to do so could result in active harm to our longterm goals, rather than simple failure to capitalize on possible gains.

This disaster provides us with the chance to show the Iranian people -- taught to hate the US for 25 year -- that we can help them. Unfortunately, it also provides a mirror-image opportunity to the religious hardliners fighting tooth and nail against the reform movement within Iran.

It is almost impossible to come face to face with an event that destroys something we love without searching for a reason, an explanation, to give our loss some sort of meaning. When tragedy strikes, one of the first reactions anyone has is to question their own actions - "What could I have done differently?" Even for someone who realizes, on an intellectual level, that the answer is "nothing," emotional acceptance is elusive. This is equally true for a lethal mudslide, a case of inoperable cancer, and for an earthquake. It is our nature to try to find an answer.

And if one is a religious person, one tends to look to God for such answers.

Herein lies the potential problem in Iran - large numbers of devoutly religious people are going to be looking for answers, and it doesn't take much thought to imagine what their religious leaders are going to tell them: God is angry.

We saw it here in the US after 9/11 - Falwell may have been the only one stupid enough to say it, but I guarantee a decent number of extreme religious types felt the same way.

According to our hardliners, America's sin that earned it 9/11 was acceptance of homosexuality; according to Iran's hardliners, Iran's sin that earned it the earthquake could very well be increasing acceptance of western values, symbolized by the reform movement.

Combined with criticism of building codes in the areas hardest hit, the idea of God punishing Iranians for resisting the Ayatollahs could significantly weaken the position of reformers in the government.

We must work to prevent this from happening.

I disagree with the neocons about a great many things, but one point on which we agree is that a significant change for the better in US-Iran relations is crucial to longterm American security. The route that holds most promise in this regard is an internal revolution in Iran, preferably democratic, that throws the religious fanatics out, or at least marginalizes their power. As the younger generation comes of age in Iran, prospects for just such a revolution continue to improve- they aren't there yet, but they're getting closer. Unfortunately, the reform movement is still relatively delicate, and a sudden, significant gain in power by the religious establishment in Iran could set the reform movement back for years.

That's why putting forth a massive aid effort right now is so critical.

Iranians have been taught for years to hate the American flag, and so I want them to see American flags everywhere, on food packets, on medical supplies, on water bottles, stitched onto the corner of blankets. I want them to see American flags on the sleeves of doctors and nurses tending to the wounded, on the hardhats of construction workers helping to clear the rubble and rebuild homes, on the lapels of architects and engineers teaching how best to build earthquake-resistant buildings.

The reformers are already linked to the west, and so we must strengthen the position of the reformers by showing the people of Iran that the west -- specifically, the United States -- can help them. The better the US seems, the stronger the reformers will get.

We need to help in every capacity the Iranian government will let us, so that when fanatical Islamist clerics teach hatred of the United States, more and more people think to themselves "But the Americans healed my mother," or "But the Americans rebuilt my home," or "But the Americans provided me with food and shelter when I had nothing." If we do that, we can, with a bit of hope and good fortune, hasten the day on which a critical mass of people think such things, and they say them out loud, and the hardliners will be unable to silence them.

And then, perhaps, the people of Iran will have found a small bit of meaning in this tragedy.

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