With a cold dose of reality after the peace and goodwill of Christmas and the resolutions of a new year, the current crisis in Iran is suddenly top of the news agenda while the simmering dispute with North Korea over its nuclear programme has taken a potentially significant new turn.
Few can plausibly deny President Trump’s apparently successful start to the year on the domestic front with a surge of business confidence across the land in the wake of his tax and regulatory reforms. But, while he now turns his attention to immigration and his much vaunted border wall together with rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, he will also have to focus on North Korea and Iran as the two major foreign policy issues of the moment. The way he handles these crises and the outcomes that are achieved will have repercussions worldwide.
US diplomacy in recent years to try to prevent North Korea developing nuclear weapons has been largely ineffective, but it is questionable whether Mr Trump’s blustering and threatening rhetoric can help to achieve his aim of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – particularly when he resorts to crude language about his finger being on a bigger nuclear button which actually works. That seems to be pouring fuel on a smouldering fire when the North Korean leader has now suggested sending representatives to the Winter Olympics and has proposed talks with South Korea which could reduce tensions.
Important as this is, how the President reacts in the longer term to the serious unrest in Iran may become even more significant in preserving world peace. The two nations have been at loggerheads dating back to Iran’s revolution and establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979 followed by the US embassy hostage crisis and then the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by an American warship in 1988.
As the current wave of protests in Iran, precipitated by economic failure and abuse of human rights, gathers momentum, the President’s initial reaction was to condemn the Iranian government for its domestic oppression as well as its adventurism in the region as a state sponsor of terrorism. This is consistent with the US policy of standing up to dictators and supporting dissent while promoting democratic values. His willingness to react strongly contrasts with his predecessor’s muted response when thousands of Iranians took to the streets in 2009 following a rigged election.
The US has made it clear that it will not accept Iran as a nuclear power that would constitute a threat to the West and one option now is to terminate the 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions. Presumably, military intervention is also an option, but America would surely be reluctant to become embroiled in another major international conflict. As with North Korea, the preferred choice should surely be to contain Iranian influence through diplomatic means and sanctions.
The latest unrest in Iran could mean that its 40-year old fundamentalist regime is now vulnerable. Totalitarianism – whether in Russia, China or Nazi Germany during the last century -- means an all-embracing ideology and a single party with complete control over the economy, the police and the means of communication. It also involves suppression of competing ideologies and values, brutal oppression and a ban on freedom of expression and religion. But even a dictator who violently suppresses all opposition and rules through force and coercion rather than consent knows that those who are ruled obey only through fear or because doing so better serves their own interest than insurrection.
Totalitarianism finally fails when a regime is either defeated from outside, by military means as in the case of Nazi Germany, or from within when other ideas emerge (perhaps from the non-totalitarian world) and it governs so brutally and inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt : in the words of George Orwell, there is also the danger of ‘the growth of liberalism and scepticism in their own ranks’. Most totalitarian regimes have not lasted long since in due course ideas prevail so that ultimately they determine which way the police and soldiers point their guns.
Meanwhile, in considering totalitarian regimes or authoritarian governments, we are reminded of our good fortune in The Bahamas of living in a democracy with freedom of expression and movement under the rule of law. Generally, in smaller countries political leaders are well known to the people and ought to be accountable for their actions. But without the checks and balances of larger nations there is also the danger that they can gather a small group of loyalists around them in arrogating to themselves excessive power.
Thus, while watching events on the world stage unfold, we need to be on our guard constantly against any tendency towards authoritarianism here at home.