Sunday, June 25, 2006
Iran - welcomed to the world court?
In a surprising but not entirely unexpected turn of events, the United States and Iran have now seemingly reversed their belligerent positions and are apparently heading for a diplomatic face-off. Iran has won the first round of its strategy vis-à-vis the US and the West.
However, this passage does not necessarily forecast clear weather ahead. Will Iran submit to the international proposals and stop its uranium enrichment? Will Iran give up its state policy of a unified world of Islam under its own leadership toward a clash of civilisations and the coming of the Mahdi - with all the possible consequences for the West?
The answer probably lies in the nature of the Iranian regime and its imperial predecessors.
A dream of Iranian ascendance
In 1971 the Shah of Iran celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire and Cyrus the Great's coronation, to remind the world of Iran's greatness. Two years later the world oil crisis broke out. Overnight, the price of oil leaped from somewhere around 12, in constant dollars to the barrel, and passed 20.
The Arabs had declared an embargo on supplies to the West as a result of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973. The Shah did not follow, and his position as supplier of energy to the free world became essential to the West and the US. Money started pouring into the Iranian treasury. The Shah was taken over by a state of euphoria. He went on a buying spree for modern arms and factories.
A short time into this giddying process, the Shah declared that in a mere decade Iran would become a leading nation of the world, "overtaking Britain and France". The oil markets returned to normal. But the dream of becoming a world power stayed with the Shah. The Shah is gone, but his dream of Iran as a world power is intact, in a new version.
Ayatollah Khomeini, too, had a vision. He revelled in a dream of recreating the Prophet Muhammad's Umma, making the whole Muslim world a single body, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, ruled by a "Learned Islamic Jurist". The idea of Iranian nationhood, per se, was laid briefly aside. But Khomeini's fantasy was severely shaken when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. In the ensuing eight-year war, many truths about the heterogeneity of the Muslim world became apparent to those who ruled Iran after Khomeini's demise in 1989. The revolutionary fervour mitigated in favour of a more practical approach to the Islamic states and the world outside its orbit.
The hot coals of the revolution, however, were not entirely put out by the pedestrian realities. The revolutionaries wanted to root out all opposition, first in their own country. Tens of thousands of opponents, real or imagined, were executed, tens of thousands more imprisoned. The revolutionaries launched a massive terrorist operation to find and liquidate members of the old elite. The Shah's last prime minister and other leading Iranian figures of the old regime, sheltered in Europe, were murdered.
The successes of this undertaking led the regime to visualise terror as a lever of international political influence. Iran opened its doors and purse to multifarious Arab terror organisations, some plotting against their own governments. These organisations were much in need of money, training and territorial safe houses. Iran established a presence in Shi'a Lebanon with the help of the Syrian regime. The mission was to gain a covert entry into the Arab world: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and others did not share the premise that Shi'a Iran should be the dominant power in the Umma. In fact, the Arab establishment regarded Khomeini and his heirs with undisguised suspicion.
The election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has reawakened the Iranian urge for the domination of the Muslim world. Iran's pretensions, however, are, by their nature, by their concept and assumptions, questionable. Khomeini's followers believed the Umma would transcend the principle of nation states and local traditions. The religious and doctrinaire differences between Shi'a Iran and the Sunni world of Islam have not been overcome (an ample illustration is the fierce infighting between these sects in Iraq today).
A new Iran
At the time of the 1979 revolution Iran had a population of 38 million; today it approaches 70 million, half of them under the age of 25. Those who grew up in this past quarter century in the cities and in the 65,000 villages of a country three and a half times the size of France know little of the outside world and almost nothing of the country that preceded the revolution.
A new and more wizened bourgeoisie, conscious of its well being, was formed between the passing of the old Ayatollah and the coming of his thrice-removed heir. But in contrast to his predecessors Ahmadinejad is a populist, fire-breathing Islamist, who would convert the world to his faith. The prophesied salvation through militant Islam is now the new regime's party programme. The regime intends to "purify" the Iranian space in anticipation for the coming of the Mahdi, who will appear as a result of a great conflagration. Ahmadinejad fervently believes in this tenet, which goes back to the foundations of the Shi'a doctrine: that the "clash of civilisations" will enthrone Islam over the nations.
An organised opposition has yet to form against this fanaticism as a political programme. The nouveaux riches of Khomeini's revolution might even join Ahmadinejad, provided they are not dispossessed. Ahmadinejad's power and effectiveness might be shored up even more, later in the year, by the possible election of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi - a maverick cleric and a close supporter, as the new Supreme Guide by the new Assembly of (12) Experts. Mesbah-Yazdi's school of thought justifies the use of the nuclear weapon against the enemies of Islam.
In a country ruled by cunning, determined fundamentalists, an opposition might fail to form a meaningful challenge. The younger generation has shown it wants to be freer, happier, more in step with the hedonist West. There are now over two million users of the Internet. There is some defiance among the intellectuals and students, but none among the business community. Will young Iranians unite and challenge Ahmadinejad's rule? Hardly. The fear of bloody retribution to any attempt at rebellion is real - and evident.
The question that goes begging is: will the new administration, in their fiery dedication to Khomeini, and their belief in the coming of the Mahdi as international policy, ignore the advice of time-wizened theocrats, and maintain their bellicose pursuit of unattainable goals? Will Ahmadinejad spread his wings? Will Ahmadinejad's assiduity in implementing Khomeini's doctrine in foreign affairs hold? In other words, as no serious reaction is indicated from the interior or from abroad, Ahmadinejad's rule might stand the test of time. The historical examples that come to mind are many and well known.
Nuclear weapons as foreign policy
The goal of reaching nuclear technology is not new for Iran. This country possesses a tenth of the world's oil reserves and 15 per cent of its gas. The late Shah began building the Bushehr complex with the idea that oil is finite and should eventually be used not to produce energy but to be a source of valuable chemicals. His goal was 20 or more atomic energy complexes. The Islamic government has taken over this idea but, its denials notwithstanding, has expanded it to include the production of atomic weapons to further its Islamic aspirations.
Everything said so far pales in the face of an Iranian atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a government of fanatic visionaries who believe in their power to lure the Mahdi out of his hiding to Tehran - would represent a tragic turn of events. The Islamic government has played an astute game of hide-and-seek with the International Atomic Energy Commission.
At present this tactic is used in response to the new attempts at pacification by the West. This game has gone on for years, leaving no doubt in serious minds as to Iran's real objectives. Iran will use any means, overt or covert, to attain nuclear weapons. And once nuclear capability is reached, Iran will not be persuaded to desist.
As the State of Israel is so clearly singled out by the Iranian President in his ploy to attain support in the Arab world, it would be the first to be held to ransom, but certainly not the only one. The danger of proliferation - and atomic bombs in the hands of terrorists - will become a reality. Ahmadinejad's threats must not be taken lightly or brushed aside. He would probably hesitate to drop the bomb on Tel-Aviv, but he would possess the potential to do so. Iran will then be a much more formidable adversary than today. The ounce of prevention may soon be a memory, as time rapidly slips through our fingers. Ahmadinejad's Iran has become a storm petrel of a tragic chain of events that might embroil the world.
The American predominance in Iran - 1953/1979 - ended in a debacle after the revolution and was followed by tragic blunders and miscalculations. The years that elapsed after the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1980 have seen a widening of the rift between the two countries. The ingrown anger at American condescension before and after Khomeini's revolution has motivated this yearning for redress and acceptance.
The 26 years of conflict with the US might explain Iran's combative attitude. The confrontation with the US is probably the biggest challenge for Ahmadinejad. The Iranian President and his radical followers wish to gain recognition by the power they still call "the Great Satan," the US. At the same time, they are attempting to create a gap between the US and its allies in Europe.
While the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon are clear to most, the West is also wary of Iran's other potential threats, including the use of the oil weapon. Iran supplies nearly three million barrels of oil a day to the world markets, and might close the tap if put under extreme pressure. In 1953 prime minister Mossadeq nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and had to suffer an embargo, eventually succumbed - but became a national hero. Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz and prevent the flow of oil from the Gulf countries, thus causing a world economic crisis. Such a development might even anticipate the Iranian nuclear weapon.
Ahmadinejad has been also trying to single out Israel - with the intention of winning the hearts of the Arab extremists. This manoeuvre goes against the traditions of Iranian-Israeli relations. There has not been a conflict of interests between the two in past. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Iran was a rival of the Ottomans and their heirs, of the Russians and of the Arabs. Israel, since 1950, faced the same antagonists. The raw nationalism of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his influence among the Arabs, the revolutions in Iraq and other Arab countries threatened Iran's positions. An unsigned alliance with Israel became a reality under the Shah, who understood Iran's strategic isolation and the inherent dangers in the Middle East.
Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust is a cheap present to the Arabs and the anti-Semites; the talk of "wiping Israel off the map" a wilful and a crafty provocation of the West, and a clear attempt to shore up Iranian dreams of supremacy. Ahmadinejad's government faces, in its foreign affairs, a challenge far beyond the question of a confrontation with Israel.
Our eyesight and experience, past history and common sense all tell us that Iran is playing for time and wishes. Ahmadinejad wishes to outwit the Americans, wait out President Bush till the end of his term, and secretly strive to obtain a nuclear weapon in the meantime. And, while the West has been defied with impunity, problems remain with the Muslim world. At this point in time the leadership of the Muslims seems unattainable. The idea of Islamic unity, with its larger implications of conflicting sovereignties and a clear difference of religious doctrine, has already brought Iran into confrontation with the Arab governments. The present Iranian tactics, with all their bravado, will not open up the gates to the Mahdi.
And the prognosis?
Iran has everything to gain from a change of heart vis-à-vis the West and much to lose in its present course. The new generation of Iranians has much to make up for after the years of isolation and limitations on freedoms. It would be very much in the interest of Iran to have its divergences with the West sorted out. However, this task would need great forbearing and statesmanship.
On the other hand, if resolved, it might undermine the raison d'être of the Iranian fundamentalist President and his extremist supporters. For the Iranian leader has set strategic goals: to reap the benefit of his defiance of the US and the West and achieve the leadership of the Muslims under the Iranian standard.
He will have to resolve this contradiction in the coming months.
Mr Levin is a former Israeli ambassador to Russia