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Defiant Iran

1.

At the beginning of 2002, President George W. Bush tried to punish Iran for supporting anti-Israel militants, for refusing to adopt a Western-style democracy, and for allegedly trying to produce weapons of mass destruction. He included Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, in the “axis of evil.” Among foreign diplomats and journalists in Tehran, it became fashionable to speak of the coming “implosion” of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s revolutionary state. Weakened by a power struggle between reformists and conservative hard-liners, Iran was now, or so it was said, acutely vulnerable to the sort of threat that the United States, whose forces had easily toppled the Taliban and scattered al-Qaeda, seemed to represent.

The fear of intervention by the US in Iran became more urgent among Iran’s leaders when America invaded Iraq the following year. Indeed, it later became known that, in early 2003, the Iranian Foreign Ministry quietly sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations, in which the Iranian government said it was prepared to make concessions about its nuclear program and to address concerns about its ties to groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, in return for an agreement from the White House to refrain from destabilizing the Islamic Republic and start lifting long-in-effect sanctions. The US rejected this overture out of hand. It seemed that Bush didn’t want to offer guarantees to a regime that he intended, at a later date, to try to destroy.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine the Iranian government repeating this sort of offer. Such is their apparent strength and good fortune that they take a provocatively long time to respond to diplomatic overtures, such as the proposal that the US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia offered them in June, and which they rejected. The six powers had offered a series of incentives—including nuclear technology whose peaceful application can be verified, a very modest relaxation of US sanctions, and diplomatic support for Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization—as an inducement to Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. If you ask an Iranian conservative what during the past four years has caused the upturn in Iranian confidence, he or she will probably dwell on the eclipse of the reform movement of the former president, Mohammad Khatami, and his replacement in last year’s election by a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has promised to return Iran to the state of unsullied revolutionary purity that he imagines existed during the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Ahmadinejad’s populism finds expression in dirigiste economics and nationalist rhetoric about Iran’s right to nuclear power. Last year, in a private meeting that was filmed and made public, apparently against his wishes, he intimated that he enjoys the favor of Mahdi, the twelfth Shia imam, who disappeared in the eighth century. Most Shias believe that Mahdi will return after the world has been plunged into chaos, heralding a period of divine rule followed by the end of the world. Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents accuse him privately of being a member of a shadowy group whose aims apparently include generating chaos with a view to hastening Mahdi’s return, accusations that his supporters have denied. The President’s main domestic political promises, to redistribute wealth and better the lot of normal Iranians, owe more to socialism than they do to Shia eschatology.

Ahmadinejad has incensed many people outside the country with his extreme verbal attacks on Israel and the West and his widely denounced dismissal of the veracity of the Holocaust. In October 2005, the Iranian government organized a “World Without Zionism” conference for Iranian students, in which Ahmadinejad said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” In following months, he made a series of remarks in speeches and in interviews in which he challenged Western laws against publicly denying the Holocaust. In July, during the Israel– Lebanon conflict, he compared the Israeli offensive to the actions of Hitler. And in August, Ahmadinejad reiterated that “the main solution” to the Middle East crisis is “the elimination of the Zionist Regime.”

In his contemptuous indifference to the Holocaust and its place in the collective Western conscience, and in his argument that the Holocaust has been used to justify Israeli repression, Ahmadinejad reflects the views of many Iranians, who have hardly been exposed to historical literature about the Holocaust. For all the notoriety that his comments earned him, however, it is far from certain that Iranians share his apparent obsession with the issue, which seems to serve calculated political aims. In August, in avowed retaliation against the earlier publication in European newspapers of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the government staged an exhibition of cartoons about the Holocaust. When I visited this exhibition, which featured some grotesquely anti-Semitic cartoons, a handful of Western journalists and I had the place to ourselves. More recently, in New York, when asked his opinion of the Holocaust by a Newsweek interviewer, he said “We know this was a historical event that happened…”

For all his rhetoric of social reform and making the state more Islamic, the truth is that Ahmadinejad has not changed Iran very much. It is the same inefficient, partially democratic, near theocracy that it was during Khatami’s presidency. Its economy remains, if anything, even more dependent on revenues from oil, by far the country’s most important commodity. The prominent elements of Ahmadinejad’s vague program of general “upliftment”—to spend oil revenues to help the common man and increase the state’s already considerable control over the economy—seem designed mainly to reinforce the status quo that the reformists tried to challenge.

Why, then, do Iran’s leaders speak with new confidence about the future? One answer is that as recently as 2003, after two neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, fell to American forces, Iran’s region of the world seemed dark and foreboding. But now it is full of promise, and the reasons for this are the means the Bush White House has employed to pursue its ambition of reshaping the Middle East and, in particular, its disastrous occupation of Iraq. Bush apparently wanted to force the Islamic Republic to moderate its behavior dramatically and to weaken it internally to the point where it would collapse. On both counts, he has achieved more or less the opposite of what he intended.

Iran’s hardening attitude toward Israel illustrates this failure. Around the time of Bush’s proclamation of the “axis of evil,” some Iranian politicians, including members of the reformist Khatami government that was then in office, regarded Iran’s traditional refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as an ideological relic that, sooner or later, would have to be scrapped. Within the Iranian establishment, which consists of unelected clerics who occupy senior positions, the elected government and parliament, and the armed forces, there were intense disagreements, of which the public was only partly aware, over the value of maintaining Iran’s rejection of Israel’s legitimacy.

In 2002, Iran’s foreign minister offered guarded encouragement to Saudi proposals that Israel be offered peace in return for withdrawing to its pre-1967 borders. As recently as the beginning of 2004, Iranian officials said that Iran was on the verge of reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Egypt, whose peace deal with Israel and subsequent cooperation with it had been treated with contempt by Iranian revolutionaries. A reformist member of parliament’s foreign affairs commission predicted to me early in 2004 that the Islamic Republic would soon undergo a “strategic realignment.” It would, he said, establish closer relations with such countries as Jordan and Egypt, which have relations with Israel, to the disadvantage of Syria, its erstwhile partner in truculent opposition to a two-state solution in Palestine.

The debate in Iran was at its liveliest when the US seemed to pose a serious threat. Proponents of more pragmatic policies emphasizing diplomacy could argue that Iranian interests were being harmed by the efforts of radicals to thwart Bush. But as the ramifications of the war on terror became clear, the perceived threat to Iran receded and those radicals felt stronger. They were further strengthened by Ahmadinejad’s election victory in 2005, although Iran had already decided to resume uranium enrichment before his inauguration and foreign policy was not much discussed in the campaign.

After having temporarily rid Afghanistan of the militantly anti-Shia Taliban, the US has stood by while Shia Iran expanded its influence in that country, especially among Persian-speaking Shia Afghans. Similarly, it is clear that Iran, by cultivating extensive links with the armed militias, clergy, and traders in Shia-dominated southern Iraq, has benefited from America’s dislodging of Saddam Hussein, an oppressively anti-Shia Sunni leader. In the words of a new study of Iran’s foreign relations by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, “Iran has superseded [the US] as the most influential power in Iraq.”1

During the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the admiration of many Sunni Arabs for any government that stands up to what they see as Israel’s callous behavior allowed Iran, a non-Arab Shia state that borders neither Lebanon nor Israel, to assert it had vital interests in the conflict. From the outbreak of fighting, Iran’s conservative establishment celebrated Hezbollah’s exploits as if they were their own. During and for some weeks after the conflict, the streets of Tehran were festooned with photographs of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who studied at the Iranian seminary in Qom; newspapers reprinted photographs of him genuflecting in a gesture of subservience to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a recent trip to Tehran.

It cannot be said with confidence that Nasrallah was acting under Khamenei’s orders when Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers. There is further room for skepticism if we assume that Hezbollah was surprised by the Israeli response, which seems to have been the case. It is unlikely that Hezbollah would consult Iran on particular operations; more likely they would do so on strategy. But the transport of Iranian arms to Hezbollah, often through Turkish airspace to Damascus and then across Syria’s land border with Lebanon, has been well documented, and Western experts agree that Iranian backing has been crucial to Hezbollah’s military buildup on the northern border of Israel since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. In part thanks to these arms, Hezbollah emerged from the recent fighting with its military reputation enhanced. After the ceasefire, more than two hundred deputies in the Iranian parliament thanked Khamenei, whom they elevated to “The Guardian of the Affairs of Muslims,” for the vital moral “role” that he had played in the Hezbollah “triumph.” In an interview with a Tehran newspaper on August 3, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who, as Iran’s ambassador to Syria, helped found Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, boasted of the military experience that Hezbollah fighters gained while fighting alongside Iran during the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s. Although Iran continues to deny that it is a major supplier of Hezbollah rockets, Mohtashamipour acknowledged that Hezbollah has medium-range Zelzal-2 missiles and short-range Katyusha rockets, which are both made by Iran. He also referred to the Hezbollah militia as Khomeini’s “spiritual offspring.”2

  1. 1

    Iran, Its Neighbours and the Regional Crises, a report edited by Robert Lowe and Claire Spencer (Chatham House, 2006).

  2. 2

    Mohtashamipour interview in Sharq, August 3, 2006.

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