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Waiting for a Mandela Moment

August 25, 2010

Here in Bahrain, there’s a natural concern about the proximity of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. The other day, the Gulf Daily News ran a piece about Bahrain drawing up contingency plans for dealing with the consequences of an accident at the plant, which is less than 200km across the water.

 If there is any issue more subject to fear, paranoia and misinformation than Iran and its nuclear program, I struggle to find it. Is Bushehr a hazard for Bahrain and its neighbours? If there was a nuclear accident, yes, it could be catastrophic for the Guld states. The Bahrainis are sensible to make contingency plans, and the government is right to reassure us that plans are in place. Would the Israelis be foolish enough to bomb Bushehr and risk a Chernobyl-style meltdown that could pollute the whole region? I don’t think so. Of course there’s a risk of a nuclear accident, but one that the British, French, Japanese and Americans have lived with for half a century. One would hope and expect that the chances of an accident in a new plant would be lower than in aging facilities throughout the West.

And what of the wider issue of an Iranian nuclear weapons program? Many commentators see the events in Iran as disturbing a status quo. But in reality there is no such thing as a status quo in politics. There is either slow change or fast change. Just as tectonic plates grind away against each other for hundreds of years, producing the occasional unremarkable tremor and slowly building in pressure, and then suddenly the pressure resolves itself with a major earthquake.

In politics, the earthquakes are man-made. They can happen with great violence or with peaceful change. The partition of India in 1948 is an example of the former. The collapse of the Iron Curtain in the 1990’s shows that radical change need not be violent. Where the geological analogy stops is in our ability to control the outcome. We cannot predict when a geological earthquake will occur, and whether it will produce a tsunami that kills a quarter of a million people, or will be relatively harmless. Our ability to predict a political earthquake is still not perfect, but we can still see it coming. What we find difficult to predict with any accuracy is the outcome.

And when we can’t predict an outcome, the result is fear. The Chinese are afraid that the collapse of North Korea will remove a buffer between it and the West, so they prop up the regime even though they know that it’s causing millions to suffer. The Israelis are afraid that a nuclear-armed Iran threatens its existence, so it launches a preemptive strike because they believe that this is their least worst option. Other countries know that they need to change the social order, but fear that the consequences of rapid change could be armed insurrection and possibly civil war, so they try to introduce change gradually in a way they believe they can control. In Iran, Ahmadinejad is able to maintain what the West considers to be an extreme position because he can play on the “fear of the other” within the population.

Sometimes a person of exceptional qualities emerges who allays the fear and takes their country with them on a leap of faith. Nelson Mandela is one such person. Even men like Mandela do not bring about peaceful change unless there are enough people willing to follow where they lead. Khomeini would not have brought about the Islamic revolution in Iran if the conditions had not allowed him to do so. Gorbachev, more a pragmatist than a visionary, surfed the wave of decline and discontent in the Soviet Union and proved to be the human catalyst that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Step forward, our Mandela of the Middle East. We need some goodwill around here.

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