Coronavirus and the tragedy of Iran

Imagine the geopolitical clout a stable Iranian constitutional monarchy would have today. Iran would enjoy strategic cooperation with Israel and stable, nonconfrontational relations with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world. Iran is economically, culturally and demographically suited to be at the crossroads of Central Asia: Only its relative backwardness and extreme religiosity prevent the secular, vodka-drinking leaders of former Soviet republics from being more attracted to it.

Instead, Iran is a pauperized and lonely nation. Its only allies in the Greater Middle East are the murderous proxy militias it supports and Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not Iran, now have de facto security relationships with Israel, though the Persians have had better relations with the Jews for millennia.

At the same time, the clerical regime has worked to obscure the memory of historic Persia, which preceded Islam by more than a thousand years, reducing a rich civilization to a bleak lumpen proletariat. Theocracy has promoted cynicism about religion. Mosque attendance has been down for years. As the French political scientist Olivier Roy puts it, “the political victory of Islamism is the end of true devotion.” Instead, crowds gather in Shiraz at the tomb of Hafez, the 14th-century poet of wine and romance. Many an Iranian bookshelf holds a volume of his sensuous verse, a quiet symbol of defiance against the Islamic authorities.