What if Iran should achieve its objective and topple its arch foe, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein? Much of the world seems to believe this would be catastrophic, leading to an Iranian-led fundamentalist Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East.
Although these concerns are not unwarranted, they are overstated and reflect an inadequate knowledge of regional forces. The more likely consequences include:
Increased domestic political pressure on Iranian leaders for economic and political reform, which would limit their ability to engage in foreign adventurism.
Establishment of a government in Iraq more closely representative of the ethnically non-Arab, Shiite Muslim majority population.
Encouragement of Islamic reform movements in other states in the region, but little direct Iranian financial or military support for those movements.
A combination of historical trends and current political realities make these less dramatic, though no less far-reaching, consequences more likely. War serves Tehran's political interests
The one major reason the war has already dragged on for 6 years is that it serves the political interests of Iranian leaders to maintain the conflict. The war helps keep the present rulers in power, providing a kind of rough set of priorities for economic and industrial planning that might otherwise be opposed by the public.
Tehran plays the war as a drama of good and evil. The forces of Islam are portrayed as moving against the corrupt, foreign-backed troops of Saddam Hussein, who must be punished for his original attack on the Islamic Republic in 1980. The leadership cannot compromise on this without destroying its revolutionary credentials.
Tehran is playing this scenario almost exclusively for its domestic audience, which has suffered hardships because of the war. Aside from casualties, which some Mideast specialists estimate at more than a quarter-million young Iranians, food is in short supply, inflation is rampant, and economic development has suffered mightily. Tehran has used the war as justification.
Iran's ruling clerics know that when the war ends, they must hit the ground running to meet expectations of improved living conditions, or risk being toppled. Satisfying these demands will not be easy. Iran is massively overextended both militarily and economically. Iraqis wouldn't miss Hussein anyway
Although a definitive Iranian victory seems a long way off, it is unlikely there will be much mourning in Iraq if Hussein is toppled.
Hussein has been one of the most repressive leaders in the modern Middle East. He has eliminated virtually every person capable of succeeding him, guaranteeing a major shift of power should he leave the scene.
Although modern Iraq bills itself as a socialist Arab state of Sunni Muslims, only about 20 percent of the population actually fits that description. About 45 percent is Shiite Muslim, of Iranian origin, and another 35 percent is Sunni Muslim, but Kurdish in ethnic origin.
Any new Iraqi government is likely to be dominated by Shiites, Mideast observers say. But these new leaders would not be under Tehran's thumb as some analysts have claimed. Iraqi Shiites' support for Iran in the war has been disappointing for Tehran's leaders, who expected a major popular uprising at the outset of the conflict. And with much to do at home, it is unlikely that Iran woud be able to control a government in Baghdad. Gulf's own people pose greater threat than Iran
Despite fears of Iranian hegemony, Persian Gulf states are probably more at risk from their own populations than directly from Iran. Gulf leaders rule over a population of mixed Arab-Iranian-Baluchi origin. They were protected for many years by the British, and have governed uneasily since the withdrawal of British protection and military presence from the region in 1971.
A feeling among sectors of the population that they have not shared equally in political power nor in the abundant wealth from oil activity provides a basis for internal dissent. Encouragement from Iran might strengthen internal forces, but those forces would be a danger to Gulf states with or without an Iranian victory.
The Iranian revolution encouraged Islamic reformers throughout the Muslim world, from Morocco to the Philippines. The ouster of the Shah was the first instance of victory of Islamic forces over a Western-supported government. The downfall of Hussein, a secular socialist ruler, would give the revolutionaries great hope.
Rulers in most immediate danger, analysts say, are those of Egypt and Jordan, both of whom have had to defend their actions with the fundamentalists time and again. Even states such as Tunisia and Turkey, normally seen as stable, would likely see political unrest following an Iranian victory in the war.
The Islamic reform movement is over a century old, and is widespread. Its original formula combined purification and strengthening of Islamic law and values with opposition to secular Western-dominated governments. Even without the encouragement an Iranian victory would bring, there is already great pressure on secular Muslim rulers to move in an Islamic direction - or step aside. It would be wrong to attribute these events to Iran.
The situation in the Middle East is a total phenomenon rather than a collection of isolated conflicts. An Iranian victory in the war may hasten trends already under way, but it would not be their prime cause.
William O. Beeman is an associate professor of anthropology at Brown University.