In a letter to a Chinese friend David Goldman attempts to explain political events in Western Asia, especially in Turkey and Iran. His is an informed and interesting perspective, and so, it is well worth sharing.
When we last spoke some months ago in Beijing, Turkey’s President Erdogan infuriated you. Turkey meddled where it had no competence—in nuclear negotiations with Iran, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with Hamas in Gaza, with ISIS in Syria, and with Uyghur rebels in China’s Xinjiang province. Not long from now, I predict, you will be furious at Iran’s meddling in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and perhaps Azerbaijan. Why, China asks, do the petty pretenders to empire in Western Asia risk their own well-being with adventures of this sort?
The answer lies in the toxic combination of two historic circumstances. The first is profound internal problems arising from the failure of most Middle Eastern countries to adapt to modernity. The second is a sense of national identity left over from their past days of imperial glory. Islamist leaders like Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei believe that reviving the imperial identities of Persia and Turkey respectively will lead them out of internal crises which threaten the integrity of these states.
From the Chinese perspective, or better, seen through the lens of rational self-interest, the behavior of Turkey and Iran makes no sense. Having failed to modernize, they feel like history’s also-rans. Their solution is not rapid modernization—as Deng Xiaoping instituted in China—but the recovery of a long lost imperial past.
For our purposes, and given the current debate over Obama’s “deal” with the ayatollahs, I will focus on Goldman’s analysis of Iran:
Chinese civilization has proven its robustness in the modern era; not so the rumps of failed empires in Western Asia, who have crashed against modernity rather than mastered it. Iran’s present leaders do not view their intervention in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrein and other neighboring states as elective wars, but as an existential requirement for Iran’s future. Behind its aggressive façade Iran faces galloping demographic decline and an epidemic of social pathologies, and its leaders believe that a new Persian imperial identity is the only alternative to rapid internal decay. Iran’s failure of identity in the face of modernity can be gauged by the collapse of its fertility rate from seven children per female in 1979 to only 1.6 in 2012. The number of military-age Iranians will fall by almost half between 2010 and 2020 due to the earlier collapse in the birth rate, and the number of prospective mothers between the ages of 20 and 30 will fall by a third. By mid-century, a third of Iranians will be older than 60, the fastest-aging population in the world.
It is useful to weigh the facts about fertility rate (and replacement rate). Will a nation that recovers a measure of national pride by asserting its imperial ambitions also recover its desire to produce more children? That, after all, is the wager. But Iran is also trying to bolster its flagging morale by attacking the soft and vulnerable underbelly of more modern nations. In Western Asia, that means: attacking Israel.
For those who believe that a newly empowered Iran will happily join the nations of the world in peaceful comity, Goldman offers a counterargument:
Regimes do not collapse of their own weight, and the P5+1 deal with Iran strengthens the present regime enormously. Its imperial ambitions are not a matter of calculation but identity, and it will pursue them until it is prevented from doing so.
What is the alternative to the ayatollahs and Erdogan? Goldman admires the new president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a man who values economic growth ahead of imperial overreach, and who, incidentally, has declared war against Islamist terrorism:
Western Asia needs more leaders like al-Sisi, who can put national prosperity and security ahead of the imperial fantasies of failed empires. Turkey and Iran, by contrast, have undermined their international position and damaged their economies by devoting their policy to imperial delusions rather than national self-interest. Their present governments cannot change their nature, but the countries can.
His solution, in other words, is regime change.