By contrast, while the Iranian empire -- as well as this particular Iranian regime -- may be facing severe crises, the Iranian state is more coherent than that of Saudi Arabia. Whereas Saudi Arabia is not synonymous with the Arabian Peninsula, Iran is more-or-less synonymous with the Iranian plateau, which straddles the Middle East and Central Asia as well as the two energy-producing regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Rather than an artificial contrivance of a single family, Shiite Iran -- with its relative geographic logic -- is heir to Iranian states going back to antiquity, when Persia was the world's first superpower. Iran encapsulates a rich and eclectic civilization. Even under the present regime, in Iran there is a semblance of a democratic foundation, while in Saudi Arabia there is an utter lack of any sense of democracy. Always remember that the clerical hold over the Islamic republic is not eternal, even as the West is culturally much closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia. The West should therefore be prepared in coming years for regionwide upheavals in which its alliances are rearranged.
Iran, with its nearly 76 million people, is the second-most populous country in the Middle East after Egypt, while its level of education and bureaucratic institutionalization is higher. The U.S. estrangement from Iran has already lasted over a third of a century -- a decade longer than the U.S. estrangement from "Red" China. This cannot go on forever. Washington cannot allow Iran to undermine American regional interests. But the United States should, nevertheless, attempt to create conditions favorable for a robust American-Iranian dialogue that will balance its warm relations with Saudi Arabia. The clerical regime may fall or more likely transform itself over time as a consequence.
We realize how extremely difficult this will be: Marg bar Amrika ("Death to America") is the bumper sticker of the Iranian revolution. It will be the last thing the clerical regime gives up. But whereas artificial states like Iraq, Syria and Libya are perennially threatened with implosion and Saudi Arabia's future evolution is uncertain, Iran will hopefully go on under evolving and strong central leadership.
We say "hopefully" because the Western-imposed sanctions regime could threaten to leave power in Tehran in the hands of revolutionary forces better positioned to control patronage networks within a shrinking economy. And a decentralization of power -- just at the time Iran reaches the nuclear threshold -- is potentially a greater danger than a centrally controlled, nuclear Iran. That is generally the fear of Iran specialist Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival (2006) and The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (2013).
Weakening central authority -- not the continuation of autocracy -- remains the greatest danger to the region. Keep in mind that stability in the Middle East has never been a matter of democracy. To date, Israel has only signed peace treaties with Arab autocrats, men who ran strong states and who could purge members of their own power structures who disagreed with them. It is not democracy that the United States should primarily want, but a regional balance of power that will reduce the risk of war.
Now that Iran is being weakened by the slow-motion collapse of Bashar al Assad's Alawite regime, a chaotic Syria will likely become -- even more so -- the fulcrum of a power struggle between Iran and the Sunni Arab world for years to come, preventing either side from being able to dominate the region.
Cold wars are tolerable precisely because they are cold. And a new cold war in the Middle East, assuming sectarian violence can be kept down at a reasonable level, will be something that policymakers in Washington may see as being in the American interest. A region balanced at least has the possibility to be a region at relative peace, with a Shiite bastion composed of Tehran and Baghdad facing off against a belt of Sunni revivalism stretching from Egypt to Anbar in western Iraq. It is for this reason that Barack Obama's administration should not be in favor of a zero-sum result in Syria.