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.