Two events last week make the Obama administration's gradualist approach to Iran seem rather too leisurely. They also put us on notice of two possible future developments, one of them extremely menacing, the other somewhat encouraging.
On May 15, we were subjected to a tirade by Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Kharrazi, leader of Iran's Hezbollah party and proprietor of the newspaper of the same name, which carried his incendiary article. The need of the hour, intoned the ayatollah, was for a "Greater Iran" that would assume hegemonic control over much of the Middle East and Central Asia (stretching from Afghanistan to Palestine, according to the broad-brush ambitions disclosed by his polemic). This new imperialism would, he urged, possess two very attractive attributes. It would abolish the Jewish state, and it would assist in the arrival of the long-awaited Mahdi, or hidden imam, whose promised reign of perfection has been on hold since his abrupt disappearance in the ninth century.
The second development took place in the material world and in the here and now. Iran's Kurdish population managed to bring off a well-organized general strike in all the major cities of their long-oppressed region. Schools and shops and bazaars were closed, and the claim that the strike was pretty solid seems to be well-supported by the evidence. The occasion for the strike was the brutal execution of five anti-regime activists, four of them Kurdish. This is the only tactic that the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to have left at its disposal, as the anniversary of last year's military coup by the Revolutionary Guards approaches.
Just as those guards are actually the embodiment of a vicious counterrevolution and an unstable dictatorial status quo, so is Ayatollah Kharrazi's call for a Shiite imperialism profoundly reactionary. (Nothing, however, will stop our media from referring to him, and to people like him, as "radical.") His call for the abolition of Israel is of what one might call a routine nature—as is his ardent wish for the advent of the Mahdi—but what's of more immediate interest is his railing against the "cancerous tumors" of Sunni Islam, especially as represented by Iran's Arab neighbors in the Gulf.
Nor is this a new noise, or something to be explained away by mere crowd-pleasing demagogy. It isn't very long since the quasiofficial Tehran newspaper Kayhan declared that the nearby island state of Bahrain was in reality a province of Iran, a position more or less openly held by several members of the hard-line wing of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime. It is true that a large proportion of Bahrain's population is ethnically Persian or Shiite, or both. But it is also true that a large proportion of Iran's Kurdish population is Sunni and by definition not Persian.
These warlike statements from the ultra-right in Tehran, then, invite a possible carnival of sectarian warfare, instigated by Iran both at home and beyond its borders. One might dismiss it as raving, were it not for the fact that any future Iranian government—and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced that he expects his successors will be "10 times more revolutionary"—will have possession and control of nuclear weapons and of the means to deliver them.
Almost all comments about this appalling outcome, which we seem to have sleep-walked our way into half-accepting, are focused on the "existential" threat to Israel. Not to discount this, or the anti-Jewish paranoia and Holocaust denial that goes along with it, but there are three insurances possessed by Israel that are not possessed by, say, Bahrain or Lebanon or the United Arab Emirates (the latter also the object of territorial claims by Iran, arising from three disputed islands that it already occupies). The most obvious is Israel's own nuclear arsenal. The second most obvious, but very seldom emphasized, is the existence of the Palestinians. It will not be possible for the Iranian mullahs to devise a weapon of mass destruction that kills only Jews but that spares, for example, the Al-Aqsa mosque. It might be possible for them to devise a fatwa that licenses the mass slaughter of Sunni Arab Muslims—the Palestinian majority—and leaves it to Allah to welcome his own to paradise, but this seems far-fetched even in Kharrazi's terms. (Conclusion: The sooner there is a Palestinian state with a share of Jerusalem as its capital, the safer Israel will be.)
To come to the third assurance, then, the United States is committed to fight in defense of Israel. But are we sure that this would be equally true of Bahrain and the UAE? Suppose that the Iranian armed forces storm the smaller statelets of the Gulf and then say, Want to guess how many nukes we have? It would be as if Saddam Hussein had not made the calamitous mistake of invading Kuwait before his reactors and missiles were ready.
It seems to me obvious that the Iranian mullahs do not desire to immolate their profitable system of corruption and exploitation in a last-ditch fight with states that can actually obliterate them. There may be some Mahdi-fanciers who dream of this apocalypse, and they should not be completely discounted. But what could be clearer in the medium run than that Tehran wants the bomb in order to exert nuclear blackmail against other Muslims?
When the day comes that Tehran can announce its nuclear capability, every shred of international law will have been discarded. The mullahs have publicly sworn—to the United Nations and the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency—that they are not cheating. As they unmask their batteries, they will be jeering at the very idea of an "international community." How strange it is that those who usually fetishize the United Nations and its inspectors do not feel this shame more keenly. In the meantime, the very force in Iran that holds the keys to the secret nuclear sites is also the force that rapes its prisoners, humiliates its womenfolk, represses its "voters," empties its universities, and murders its national minorities. The urgent task of statecraft is to evolve a policy that can synchronize the disarmament demand with the idea that all Iranians, Kurdish and Azeri as well as Persian and Armenian and Jewish, can have a say in their own "internal affairs." No sign of any such statecraft exists. Welcome, then, to a world in which we will have to be fawningly polite to men like Ayatollah Kharrazi.
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