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Thoughts From Tehran

We were all dreamers then. When we overthrew the Shah, we thought a bright new age had dawned. Tyranny had been defeated and soon we would vanquish all the secularists, Westernizers, imperialists, and Zionists. Our glorious revolution would be the model for millions, not only in the Middle East but among Muslims everywhere. Islam would be restored to its rightful place at the center of people’s lives, and piety would replace politics. Some of us even imagined that all the prophecies of the Koran were about to come true.

Such dreams. Could we not have seen that Arabs would never follow Persians, and that Sunnis would not consider a Shia revolution to be a true Islamic revolution? We are not a vanguard, as it turns out. Instead, we are dangerously isolated, with enemies on every side. And so we have worked very hard to find allies—but what allies are these!

Bashar Assad is completely unreliable, a sheer opportunist. He would make a deal with the Zionists tomorrow if it suited him. Fortunately, he continues to hope for a Greater Syria, a Syria that strides across the world stage instead of the puny state that it is. It’s good for us that his reach exceeds his grasp. But if reality ever seized his fevered mind, he could abandon us as quickly as he has abandoned his other allies when it has suited his purposes.

Hamas? Let us not kid ourselves. They would hate us if they didn’t need us. And if the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of Egypt, the Palestinians of Hamas are certain to discover their true feelings about Persian Shiites.

In Iraq Bush did us a favor by getting rid of that atheistic dictator Saddam Hussein and bringing in a Shia government. There’s no question that our influence in Iraq is greater than when that Sunni slaughterer of millions was threatening us. And yet what kind of Shiites are these Iraqis? Did they rise up when Saddam waged war against us for eight long years in the 1980s? No, they were loyal subjects to our greatest enemy and fought by his side in his brutal war of aggression against us. They have proved one thing to us: They are Arabs before they are Muslims.

Praise be to Allah for Hezbollah in Lebanon! They are genuine friends, pious Shiites committed to ridding the region of the Zionist entity. They remind me so much of what we were like when our revolution was young, and we must do whatever we can to assure that they remain strong.

And yet we must face the truth: This is an alliance not of strength but of weakness. Hezbollah cannot stand on its own—they would barely exist without our money and arms. They will never be able to take control of Lebanon simply because no one can—the country is divided into too many sects and sub-sects. Even I can’t fathom them all. Besides, the Zionists and Western powers would never permit a Hezbollah takeover; and our great “ally” Assad would probably oppose it as well.

What’s worse, should our imperialist or Zionist enemies ever attack us militarily, we can’t be sure Hebollah would fight with us. We could ask them to fire rockets into the Zionist entity, but would they risk the inevitable retaliation and do it? It’s important to them, and to their credibility in Lebanon, that they be seen as Lebanese patriots, not proxies for us and our interests. It’s good for us that they are willing to harass the Zionists, even to the point of waging hopeless war against them (what is the Western phrase? “Useful idiots”) but we can’t ask more of them, nor can we expect them to provide more for us if it endangers their own country.

No, if we remain clear-headed, if we refuse to dream, we have to accept that in this perilous world we are alone, utterly alone. And here we can learn from the Zionists: When you are isolated and surrounded by enemies, your best friend is a nuclear weapon.

Of course our enemies want to deny us this ultimate security. I would be surprised if they said anything else. But when I read the debates in the West about how to stop our nuclear program, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The fools! Can’t they see that nothing will stop us? The Zionists have the bomb. So do the Americans, sitting to our west in Baghdad, and our eternal enemies the Russians, to the north. The Hindus have the bomb and even those unruly barbarians the Pakistanis have it. We are a great, a noble civilization, over 3,000 years old, and in our region especially, a civilization can only be great if it possesses nuclear weapons. No Iranian patriot denies this. Even President Ahmadinejad’s opponents understand that Iran needs the bomb.

This is a question of both national pride and national security. Our enemies continue to propose sanctions against us, and then even more sanctions, but they are fooling themselves if they think economic deprivation would cause us to change course. The crazier ones speak of the possibility of military action and some of the craziest demand it, because they claim that if we had the bomb we would promptly use it against the Zionist entity. This is the talk of fanaticism, of people unable to view the world from any point of view but their own. They really seem to believe that our leaders would sacrifice millions of Iranians to an inevitable nuclear retaliation, that in effect they would turn our entire country into one large suicide bomber.

But what would be the point when everyone knows that in a generation or two, Zionism will be finished? Before long, the Palestinians will outnumber the Jews, and the empty claim of democracy will be revealed as a sham. The Zionists have already lost most of their friends in Europe, and their Muslim friend, Turkey; in America the anti-Zionists are steadily gaining ground, even, we are told, among American Jews. It’s only a matter of time. All we have to do is keep the pressure on, and sit and wait.

Yet the crazies in the West could prevail. At the end of the day, perhaps after the next American presidential election, Washington and Tel Aviv could decide to bomb our facilities at Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak, take out our factories and missile bases, even target universities to kill our scientists. And what will they have accomplished? They will not destroy our nuclear program, only delay it for a few years—and at the cost of a possible all-out war that nobody could win, a never-ending war that would require them to stage raid after raid year after year as we rebuilt. When I try to think of the consequences if the Zionists or the Americans bombed us, my mind reels.

Still, I cannot deny, Allah forgive me, that a part of me wishes they would bomb us. Our revolution has grown feeble. We are being forced to use ever harsher measures to suppress our opponents. The young are increasingly seduced by the hedonistic, decadent West; they take us seriously only when they experience the pain we can inflict in Evin prison. Sometimes, I think we are losing, that Islam is losing, and that everything we have worked for, sacrificed for, is coming to nothing. It’s at such moments as these that I wish for the bombs.

For if our “forms of persuasion” can’t bring the young back to the revolution, surely the bombs of the Zionists or the imperialists would. I can imagine no more effective means of solidifying public support for one, two, maybe three generations than Western aggression. Even today, after all, the fallen Mosadegh is spoken of reverently in the streets of Tehran. How much more powerful would be the memory of thousands of innocent martyrs who would lose their lives to the aggressors’ bombs?

But then another question immediately presents itself. What will happen when we get the bomb—what then? This is a formidable question indeed. Our enemies, even in the umma, would not sit back quietly. Even now, many in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are urging the Zionists to bomb us. Certainly, an Iranian bomb would induce them to start up their own nuclear programs, and here we are truly caught on the horns of a dilemma: The effort to make us more secure could end up making us less secure. It’s a paradox, to be sure.

But perhaps it’s a paradox with a solution. What if we did everything to develop a nuclear weapon except take the final step, or what is called making the final twist of the screwdriver? Or what if we do what the Zionists have done all these years and build up an arsenal without ever acknowledging our nuclear capability? The Zionists play a parlor game in which no one is fooled. Still, it’s a game that has forestalled a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East. Why couldn’t we do the same? We will have to think all this through, and ponder very carefully. It may be that we have a great deal to learn from the Jews.

Barry Gewen has been an editor at The New York Times Book Review for over 20 years. He has written frequently for The Book Review, as well as for other sections ofThe Times. His essays have also appeared in World AffairsThe American Interest,World Policy Journal, and Dissent.