Green-clad supporters of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the… (Kamran Jebreili / Associated…)
The Middle East showdown over Iran's apparent effort to obtain nuclear weapons capability is not entirely about nuclear arms, nor even about regional security. The dispute is, at heart, about power, and preserving it. It's about the governments of two religiously defined nations using nuclear brinkmanship to distract from the legitimate grievances and explosive restiveness of their own populations.
In the case of Iran, the most potent threat to the theocracy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not one that a nuclear weapon could deter, for it lies within Iran. It lies in a young, sophisticated, highly educated, Westward-leaning and frustrated population that is demanding a say in its future and the right to choose its leaders in fair elections.
After the stunning 2011 uprisings across the Arab world, it is easy to forget that Iran's 2009 demonstrations against the rigged election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dwarfed the gatherings at Egypt's Tahrir Square or Bahrain's Pearl Square. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Tehran during the so-called Green Revolution, in corteges often stretching more than a mile. The repression that shattered those remarkable demonstrations, if not as violent as the tactics that Syrian President Bashar Assad has been using, was no less determined.
There was little international outcry over the Iranian government's crackdown, and there has been little outcry as the repression has continued. In its latest report on Iran, Amnesty International highlights the continued house arrest of two presidential candidates and the disappearances and intimidation of journalists and others who speak out. It calls attention to torture perpetrated in the notorious Evin Prison and to a clampdown on the Internet. And it notes a sharp rise in capital punishment, with four times as many public executions in 2011 as in 2010, often public hangings from cranes.
It is not Israel or the West that terrifies the Iranian leadership so much as the memory of 2009 and the possibility of a new "Iranian Spring" in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Many Iranians believe their leadership is deliberately provoking international armed action as just the thing to short-circuit such a transformation. As one opposition journalist puts it, "in the case of a military strike, people will gravitate toward unifying behind the government."
In other words, the Iranian government's nuclear posturing has more to do with domestic rather than foreign policy. Its aim may well be to provoke the kind of Western or Israeli response that would drive some Iranians back into the fold, and provide a national security pretext for even more arbitrary measures against the remaining democratic opposition. Israel, and some Westerners, seem to be playing right along.
Israel's case is ironically similar. Although the Israeli government likes to portray the nation as facing an existential threat from outside its borders, the most potent danger to the state of Israel as it is currently constituted lies not to the east, in Iran, but within Israel itself. It lies in a young, sophisticated, highly educated, frustrated and growing Palestinian population.
For more than a decade, the world has urged Israel to negotiate fairly to reach a peace settlement that would establish a Palestinian state. Now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is effectively using Iran's nuclear gambit to deflect attention from that fundamental issue. On his U.S. visit, Netanyahu was scarcely asked a question about the Palestinian situation.
But if Israel puts off reaching a fair two-state settlement much longer, it will seal its own fate. It will cease to exist as a democratic, Jewish state. Today, there are as many Muslim Arabs as there are Jews under Israel's control. Without a two-state settlement, Israel will have to choose between becoming a permanent occupying power, thus losing all claim to being a democracy, or else accepting some version of a "one state" solution with equal rights for all, in which Jews are no longer a majority.
In this context, redirecting the world's attention to the Iranian boogeyman may be clever in the short term, but it is suicidal in the long run.
There is potential merit in a policy of sanctions aimed at the circumscribed goal of curbing Iran's development of a nuclear weapon — if they can be an alternative to war. But the long-term answer for both Iran and Israel can only be to provide a real voice for their vibrant populations. In other words, they must let democracy flourish, and the United States should do everything it can to encourage that, rather than focusing solely on the nuclear issue.
Sarah Chayes, a former senior advisor to theU.S. military, is a contributing writer to Opinion. Amir Soltani is the author of "Zahra's Paradise," a graphic novel about people power in Iran.