The election of Muhammad Khatami as president of Iran a year ago seemed to signal a move toward political moderation. But recent developments—Tehran's reformist mayor sentenced to five years in jail, the testing of a 1,300-kilometer missile—point to the limits of his power. What is going on? To understand, it helps to step back and look at the big picture.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a totalitarian state. In this, it resembles such polities as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the People's Republic of China. Of course, its ideology is Islamist (rather than Marxist-Leninist or fascist), but this is a technical detail, for in key ways it shares much in common with other totalitarian regimes.
It seeks to remake the human being in order to establish a perfect society. Toward this end, it aspires to complete control over its people and is ready to destroy anyone in its way. It has global ambitions and will do everything possible—from publishing books to engaging in terrorism to deploying arsenal weapons of mass destruction—to increase its power.
In the early years of this century, when totalitarian regimes were in their infancy, they baffled the outside world. It took a political genius like Winston Churchill, for example, to understand the true dimensions of the Nazi state.
Today, however, the world has had eighty years of experience with such regime. Whether it be North Korea or Cuba, we have learned that they are inherently aggressive; and that appeasing them does not work. Moderate leaders prevail over hardliners only when things become desperate.
On the positive side, we have also seen that such radical utopian regimes have a limited life span. Unlike normal states, they don't last. Instead, they expire in a blaze of steel and fire (Nazi Germany, Cambodia), collapse of their own weight (East Germany, Soviet Union), or transmute into more normal states (China, Vietnam).
These three patterns have direct implications for developments in Iran. First, we can assume the regime there will not be around for very long. Second, it will moderate only if the failure of the Islamist ideology becomes widely apparent.
Implications for the outside world are also clear. We must do everything to clarify and speed up the failure of the Islamist program. In particular, commerce with Iran (which anyway has limited potential) should be minimized so as to isolate the country and turn its population against the Islamic Republic. We must also take steps to protect ourselves from an intrinsically bellicose regime and not let diplomats wearing smiles distract us from its aggressive purposes.
It is especially important that Turkey adopt such a policy of containment, for the men in Tehran fear and loath the Atatürk legacy, and show particular intent to dismantle it. Unless Turks stand firm, they invite Iranian meddling, with possibly catastrophic results.