Stephen M. Walt

The silver lining in Iran

The death of Bela Kiraly earlier this week got me thinking about revolutionary contagion — i.e., the spread of revolutionary movements across borders — in the context of the recent turbulence in Iran. Kiraly was the Hungarian military officer who commanded the rebel forces in the 1956 uprising, a rebellion crushed by the Soviet army. ...

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The death of Bela Kiraly earlier this week got me thinking about revolutionary contagion — i.e., the spread of revolutionary movements across borders — in the context of the recent turbulence in Iran. Kiraly was the Hungarian military officer who commanded the rebel forces in the 1956 uprising, a rebellion crushed by the Soviet army. He escaped into exile, but made a triumphant return to Hungary after communism fell.

Together with Nikita Khruschchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalinism, the Hungarian Revolution dealt a major blow to communism’s ideological appeal. For several decades after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, communism seemed to be an attractive alternative to liberal capitalism and plenty of smart but gullible people succumbed to its allure. Western leaders worried that Bolshevism would spread rapidly in the 1920s and again after World War II, and an exaggerated (indeed, paranoid) fear of communist subversion was the essence of 1950s McCarthyism. But the exposure of Stalin’s tyranny and the brutal suppression of revolts in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968) revealed Soviet communism for what it was: a brutal dictatorship that depended on the jackboot of the Red Army to survive or spread.  

Marxism-Leninism did take root elsewhere, of course (most notably in China and Cuba), but China quickly broke free of the Soviet orbit and Moscow’s other revolutionary clients tended to be weak, fractious, and dependent on Soviet subsidies. The United States enjoyed strong alliances with Western Europe and Japan (the other major centers of industrial power), while the USSR had to prop up its Eastern European satellites and recruit a lot of minor powers like Ethiopia, South Yemen, or North Korea. As a result, America’s global alliance network dwarfed the Soviet system on most measures of latent and manifest power. With the benefit of hindsight, communism’s eroding appeal was good news for the United States and its allies.

Now consider Iran. Back in 1979-1980, the Islamic Republic seemed to be the vanguard of an emerging wave of Islamic fundamentalism, and the novel combination of democratic structures (including more-or-less free elections) with religious oversight (via Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of velayet-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurisprudent”) seemed like it might be an attractive model for other predominantly Muslim societies. Because Khomeini sometimes portrayed Iran’s experience as a model for others and spoke of the necessity of overthrowing “all treacherous, corrupt, oppressive, and criminal regimes,” Iran’s neighbors worried that the its revolution might prove contagious. Yet revolutionary Iran has been unable to export its principles elsewhere, and its influence over groups like Hezbollah depends more on material support than on ideological fidelity.

Here’s the good news from Tehran. In the aftermath of a stolen election and a harsh government crackdown, the Islamic Republic is an even less attractive model for the many Arabs and/or Muslims who currently seek greater tolerance, openness, and engagement with the outside world. Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards are clearly no more tolerant than the ruling elites in places like Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, and they have no new model of governance to offer others. Ironically, Iran’s ideological appeal would have been enhanced had Ahmaninejad & Co. run a fair election and permitted the Iranian people to express their preferences without coercive interference, but they didn’t do that.

The one remaining tool in Iran’s ideological arsenal is anti-Americanism, which still plays well in the region. The United States can defuse that weapon too, if we continue to adjust our policies in ways that are more consonant with our overall interests. Obama’s Cairo speech and his more principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are steps in the right direction, as is pragmatic engagement with Syria and a gradual shift back to an “offshore balancing” strategy in the Gulf. None of these steps will solve all our problems in the Middle East, of course, but they will make it harder forTehran to score points by criticizing the United States and its allies.

The ability of Iran’s current rulers to suppress the current challenge to their rule is both disheartening and unsurprising, but there is a silver lining. By forcing them to reveal their true colors, recent events have further diminished whatever regional appeal the Islamic Republic might once have possessed. If Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran does not succeed and we are forced to rely on some combination of containment and deterrence, Iran’s tarnished image will make that task much easier.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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