Exiles and children of broken homes have much in common. Some, like Iranian-American exiles, find themselves victims of a bad divorce, citizens of two of the world's most antagonistic and least popular nations.
Despite enormous differences in political structure and culture, Iran and the United States suffer from a similar malady: ideologically driven counter-elites dominate their foreign policies. The Iranian counter-elite, a mixture of radicalized clergymen and lay intellectuals steeped in the populist ideas of Ali Shariati, the charismatic sociologist and left-leaning Islamic intellectual, came to power with the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. Having rigged the Iranian Constitution to perpetuate its hold on power, the now-aged counter-elite continues to dominate Iran's highest bureaucratic and nonelective political offices, long after its legitimacy has vanished. Seven years of reform under President Mohammad Khatami has done little to shake the monopoly of this original revolutionary cabal.
The more routine circulation of elites in the US operates through elections rather than revolutions. The strange presidential election of 2000, however, offered a bucketful of surprises as a group of radical neoconservative intellectuals came to the fore. The group grew out of an intellectual movement founded by Leo Strauss, an erudite political philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and established himself at the University of Chicago. By the early 1990s the neocons had established themselves in Washington think tanks and started to draw up the utopian blueprints of a world dominated by the United States, in the context of a period that they appropriately dubbed the "new American century." American democratic tradition will not allow this group to perpetuate itself or irreversibly alter the nation's political and legal structures. However, three years of neoconservative policies have seriously degraded America's international standing, when Iranian radicals had to work for a quarter of a century to sink that low. Basking in their respective ideological certainties, both counter-elites despise the procedural routines of international law and consider international bodies irrelevant, if not incorrigibly hostile. As an example, for as long as they thought they could defeat Iraq's Baath on their own, both counter-elites saw the United Nations as little more than a nuisance.
Deep in their philosophical souls both groups nurse a deep suspicion of modernity. They consider modern relativism a blight on the certainties informing a civilization's sense of self-worth and its ability to defend itself against external enemies. Strauss, in his book Natural Right and History, and Allen Bloom, the Straussian author of The Closing of the American Mind, decried and satirized academic relativism that tends to treat the Judeo-Christian tradition as just another culture among equal cultures. Islamic apologetic literature found in Iran in the late 1960s for example the works of Ayatollah Motahari contains similar sentiments and polemics against the corrosive effects of the modern, relativizing outlook prevalent in academic circles.
Each counter-elite's combined sense of intellectual superiority to and unjust marginalization by the academy has produced comparable responses, despite vastly different contexts. In Iran, the revolutionary leadership started its forays against academe by asking students of the Office for Fostering Unity between the Seminary and the University to control Westernized professors, and ended by fomenting a "cultural revolution" in order to subjugate recalcitrant academics. In the US, the anti-academic vendetta started with Campus Watch, a website that has encouraged students to inform on unpatriotic faculty, and culminated in the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, that aims to reshape the country's Middle Eastern studies departments.
In their anti-modernist stance both ruling elites are unapologetic about their return to the language and politics of fundamentalist religion. Both have turned God into a political instrument. Religious invocations such as "In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful" in Iran and "God bless America" in the US have turned into bookends for sanctimonious political speeches. Both counter-elites have traded the secular language of political discourse for eschatological epithets like the "Great Satan" and the "Axis of Evil."
But the similarities don't end at the level of ideological propensities. As organized social entities with strong in-group sentiments, both the Iranian and American counter-elites also engage in crony capitalism. Given the 200 years of democratic and capitalist traditions separating the two countries, the parallelisms in their capitalist practices are striking. A certain well-connected right-wing Iranian politician, who is also president of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, would have no difficulty understanding a war-related business luncheon arranged last January in Marseilles and attended by Richard Perle, who was at the time chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and two Arab venture capitalists, Harb Saleh al-Zuhair and Adnan Khashoggi. Nor would the Iranian fail to appreciate the machinations behind Halliburton's no-bid contracts in Iraq.
Last but not least, the Iranian ideologues and their American colleagues are cynically manipulative. Both used the outrage of their respective nations in the wake of historically traumatic events (Iraq's invasion of Iran; the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks) as fuel for their own ambitions. The result in both cases was an ill-defined, seemingly interminable war in Iraq. I lost six friends in the Iran-Iraq war, and more recently developed a friendship with a US soldier bound for Iraq. It makes me sad to think that I may lose one more friend to another war brought about by the hubris of a revolutionary counter-elite.
Ahmad Sadri is a professor of sociology at Lake Forest College in Illinois.