It’s Saturday, and it’s’ sort of tradition to set the topic to something not necessarily connected to science. At this point I think there’s not a whole lot in the world that’s of more immediate interest than what’s going on in Iran.
The summary, which you already know: Iran is a theocratic state run with absolute control centered on an Assembly of Experts headed by a Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. They’re unelected and above any system of checks and balances. But on the other hand, they’re not really a governing body as such either. The actual daily government is an elected office, chosen from a slate of candidates approved by the Assembly of Experts. While the country doesn’t exactly follow the bill of rights, in some respects there’s a degree of freedom at least by Middle Eastern standards. Criticism of the government usually doesn’t get you thrown into a wood chipper, though plenty of people have been jailed or worse for speaking freely. Nonetheless this produces an environment where it’s possible for widespread unrest such as we’re currently seeing. It’s fairly clear that any kind of victory by reformist protesters is very likely to be an improvement on the current government, and so the US ought to support the protesters where possible. In reality there’s not all that much that can be done other than helping keep internet access flowing and possibly providing intelligence and some funding to the anti-Ahmadinejad movement. It probably wouldn’t pay for support to be much more overt than that, as the US isn’t exactly so popular in Iran even among reformers.
But as I’ve heard it said, there’s very little point in trying to predict what will happen. Politics in our own country is blisteringly unpredictable; most pundits might as well be reading bird entrails when predicting possibilities in Iran.
It may not matter. I’ve not heard any reason to believe Mousavi has any less desire for Iran to be a nuclear weapons state than Ahmadinejad. He’s much less of a nut and less likely to want to see those weapons used aggressively, but there’s not much reason to hope he’d stop the projects which are developing those weapons. For that matter, in the absence of a full-scale revolution it will still be the Supreme Leader making the call either way.
As such, Iran will probably be a nuclear weapons state in a few years. They learned the lessons of Osirak, and have scattered and buried their nuclear program. As such the US probably couldn’t stop it. Air raids might slow the progress, but are unlikely to set it back very far. A full-scale ground invasion might theoretically do the job, but is absolutely out of the question for both political and practical reasons. Non-forceful means like sanctions and diplomacy are worth a shot, but if they work better than placebo I’ll eat my hat. Israel can’t do anything either – their air force would have trouble just reaching Iran, much less actually accomplishing anything once there.
So they’ll get the bomb. Iran’s leadership is probably not crazy enough to actually launch, but a nuclear arsenal would be one heck of a bargaining chip. Worse, Iran is not exactly so popular with its Middle Eastern neighbors. Other regional states will probably develop their own programs out of sheer self-preservation. Nukes will proliferate like rabbits in a region that’s already been a powder keg for millenia. Having a government not run by the Ahmadinejad might mitigate some of the risk, but as I said prediction is probably futile.
I’m not a geopolitical optimist. But hey, at least if I’m wrong it will be good news.
All that aside: for the sake of the Iranian people I’d much rather see them win a government that’s more free and more democratic. As a fellow human being I think it’s a great thing they’re trying to do for themselves and their fellow countrymen. Despite my pessimism I’m fully behind the brave men and women trying to change their nation for the better. I hope they succeed.