An Iranian 'Sputnik' and the new world order

Posted in United States , Iran | 25-Feb-09 | Author: Dmitry Shlapentokh| Source: Asia Times

An Iranian Safir Omid rocket shown in August 2008.

The announcement from Tehran that Iran had launched a "Sputnik" - a satellite named Omid (Hope) - to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution led to angry responses from much of the West, where media portrayed the move as another step toward Iran's transformation into a nuclear power.

Some observers have pointed out that the launching missiles could potentially carry not just peaceful satellites - but nuclear warheads.

Still, such claims of Iran's high-tech warmongering are entirely disconnected from the image of Iran commonly held in the West, especially the United States. Many in the West see Iran as a dark, totalitarian country where Medieval-minded mullahs stifle free thought and individuality.

It's not an entirely false conception: reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita or a woman showing her legs may lead to serious punishment in today's theocratic Iran.

In such an etiolating environment, it would seem likely that creativity would be stifled and scientific progress slow. Based on the accomplishments of certain repressive societies, however, a direct correlation between the stifling of creativity and significant technological advancement is revealed.

Enter Sputnik - the unexpected and much-heralded satellite launched by the former Soviet Union in October, 1954. Consider this stunning accomplishment from an equally restrictive state, and Iran's Omid makes a bit more sense - at least to critics and non-believers in the West.

After all, it was the Stalinist Soviet Union and not the free-wheeling US that launched Sputnik. And Iran, for its part, has demonstrated sophisticated weaponry that might not even be readily available in more "advanced" nations.

The production and application of knowledge is intimately connected with society and, most important, economy. A comparison between the economies of the Soviet Union, Iran and present-day America is appropriate in explaining the birth of the Russian and Iranian satellites.

Behind the wheel
Those who assume that an economy is only about the production of useful goods and services are as naive as the captains of American economy who presented the world with its present financial crisis; they would insist that production is less important than selling.

During the last US congressional hearings on the bailout of the auto industry, one conservative opponent pointed out that for some 35 years, Detroit had failed to do anything to improve the actual quality of its automobiles.

Still, industry leaders had not been idle; they had spent decades cultivating an image of activity and improvement. Through endless promotions and advertisements, the public was convinced they were receiving the absolute best among all possible vehicles. The actual production of these cars was the last thing on the consumers' minds.

Consequently, hiring systems were tailored to suit the needs of executive boardrooms and union officials. The most important employees were "team players" or "good citizens". Those who worked to improve the product or production were inevitably fired for upsetting the gravy train.

Apply the same formula to America's academics, think-tanks and laboratories and the picture outcome is essentially the same.

Red pragmatism
The equation in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes is based on different principles - and at times yields greater results. Joseph Stalin, for example, needed not a "bubble" economy but a real economy that related to the military-industrial potential of the Soviet Union. To develop this, the Stalinist state worked with ruthless efficiency in the development of science.

It is a sad fact that Soviet scientists and scholars who were seen as useless or dangerous to the state often disappeared into the jaws of the Gulag. However, those whose work was seen as useful were elevated to the top of the state's academic hierarchy.

There were no concerns with personal relationships. Certain factors that determine success in the West - group intrigue, prevailing trends and bureaucratic conformity - had no role in the Soviet production juggernaut. Results were what mattered.

Equipped with this pragmatism, the Soviet Union's technological and military progress became truly remarkable. By the time of World War II - barely a decade after modernization - Soviet tanks were a good match for those of the Germans and Soviet rockets, the Katiushas, were superior.

And just four years after the collateral devastation of World War II, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, much to the surprise of the United States. In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, Sputnik was launched and the Americans were stunned once more.

The success story is not unique. Red China, under Mao Zedong's totalitarian rule, produced a nuclear bomb and sent up a satellite during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Today's North Korea is another example of a hardline, repressive regime with unexpected technological clout.

As history shows, authoritarian or totalitarian regimes often promote - rather than impede - technological and economic progress.

Geopolitical aging
Those who believe the US will eventually be replaced as the world's only superpower often fail to mention that most of the contenders to supplant the US are either semi-totalitarian or authoritarian states that reject the social-economic equation of Western capitalist democracies.

America clearly has some work to do. In fact, its dwindling resources, mounting debt and continuously diminishing industrial and scientific capabilities require a strong injection of corporate authoritarianism.

Such a change would affect all segments of American society and for this reason is avoided by the administration of President Barack Obama. Ultimately, Obama's economic policy is not much different from that of his predecessor George W Bush. Both administrations - despite their alleged ideological differences - have not made any structural changes in fundamental economic arrangements.

The only difference is that while Bush saw salvation in tax cuts, Obama sees the same panacea in cash injections. There is not even much difference in that; for the corporate bailout was launched in the twilight of the Bush era.

All of this implies that Obama's US will most likely follow the road of economic and ultimately geopolitical, decline which long ago. This process might actually escalate, regardless of the administration's attempts to reverse it by proclaiming change.

The US elite must face up to America's economic and geopolitical aging. They are presented with a choice: share the global pie with new and rising authoritarian and semi-totalitarian nations such as Iran, or pretend that the US is still young and vigorous and "fundamentally healthy".

In the worst scenario, Washington will engage in a new round of "pre-emptive" adventures. In such a case, all bets are on the table.

Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.