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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

The upshot is that this anti-American regime, its prestige rising in proportion to its refusal to do the US’s bidding, does not seem likely to bow to the Bush administration and renounce its right, guaranteed in an international treaty to which it is party, to become a producer of nuclear fuel.3 In and out of Iran, few were surprised when the Iranians, on August 22, responded with a longwinded rejection of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on them to suspend their uranium enrichment or face the possibility of sanctions. The Iranian communiqué contained a request for clarification of the incentives that the council’s permanent members, along with Germany, had offered in return for a suspension. While ruling out the immediate suspension of enrichment that the six powers had demanded, the Iranian statement left open the prospect that a suspension might result from further negotiations.

This emboldened Russia and China, two permanent members of the Security Council, to reiterate their longstanding reluctance to impose sanctions that would threaten their commercial interests in Iran. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, started fresh talks with Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and on September 17, France’s president, Jacques Chirac, made it clear that the EU no longer regarded an Iranian suspension as a precondition for a new round of formal negotiations aimed at reaching a lasting settlement. During future negotiations, he suggested, the six powers could formally remove Iran’s nuclear dossier from the Security Council’s agenda, and the Iranians could simultaneously renew their suspension.4 On September 21, the US agreed to extend an August 31 deadline the UN Security Council had set for Iran to suspend enrichment, to allow time for Solana’s new diplomatic initiative. But by early October, even the most sanguine of the Europeans had all but given up hope that Iran would suspend enrichment, and a discussion of sanctions in the Security Council seemed inevitable.

Among American and Israeli government officials, and some of their allies, there is a fear that Iran is playing for time. Iran’s technicians still have several years’ work ahead of them before they can produce enough fuel to run a reactor and, if ordered to, build a bomb. It seems likely that Iran’s leaders have calculated that there is little appetite, even in the Security Council, for serious punitive action. Even if the US and its allies manage to impose sanctions, these will very likely be limited to the transfer of some nuclear and nonnuclear military technology, travel restrictions on senior officials, and the freezing of Iranian assets abroad—instead of the far more threatening possibility of restrictions on nonmilitary trade or an oil embargo. Iran, Ahmadinejad has said, will not give up “an iota of its nuclear rights.”

For many in the US, Europe, and Israel, Iran’s determination to produce nuclear weapons in defiance of the world’s significant powers seems clear. Some go further, suggesting that Iranian leaders who have a bomb will be temperamentally inclined to use it. One proponent of this view is Bernard Lewis, a distinguished scholar of the Middle East who was influential in winning over US public opinion to supporting the invasion of Iraq. In a recent Wall Street Journal article Lewis argued that Ahmadinejad’s millenarian beliefs should undermine any assumption that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Middle East will be protected from nuclear catastrophe by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). According to Lewis, since Ahmadinejad and his followers “clearly believe” that the time for a “cosmic struggle” and “the final victory of the forces of good over evil” is nigh, MAD has no meaning. “For people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement…”5

In fact, Ahmadinejad, and every other Iranian politician and official who speaks on the subject, takes elaborate, even ritual, care to reiterate Iran’s longstanding claim that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and that the program is exclusively peaceful. The US national intelligence director, John Negroponte, has predicted that Iran “might be in a position to have a nuclear weapon” at some time between 2010 and 2015.

2.

The verbal attacks of Iran’s leaders, Ahmadinejad in particular, on Israel and America have rightly received much attention and criticism. Equally, some Western analysts have noticed a tendency on the part of the US government and its allies to misrepresent Iran in order to generate support for tough action against the Islamic Republic. In the “ritual condemnation of Iran,” laments Ali Ansari, the author of a new book on Iran’s troubled relations with the US, “no rhetorical flourish, no level of hyperbole, seems excessive.” Iran is “not just a member of the Axis of Evil, but the founding member, the chief sponsor of state terrorism, or to use a more recent characterization, the central banker for terrorism.” Ansari is a British academic of Iranian birth who is often invited by the press to comment on contemporary Iranian affairs. He is no friend of the Islamic Republic, but he regards many of these epithets as exaggerated or undeserved.

The Iranian leaders that Ansari describes in Confronting Iran are more predictable than the Islamic zealots often portrayed by neoconservatives. As much as its Islamist ideology, Ansari finds, collective memories of hurt and humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, nationalist sentiments, and the instinct of Iranian leaders for self-preservation shape the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. As a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a prestigious British institution with close relations to the Foreign Office, Ansari was privy to sensitive information when Britain, France, and Germany tried, from 2003 onward, to dissuade Iran from carrying through its plans to produce nuclear fuel, while the US skeptically stood aside. In Ansari’s account, these efforts failed both because of opposition in Iran and the US’s failure to support negotiations when they had a chance of succeeding. When the US finally threw its weight behind the talks, Ansari writes, it offered Iran no more than “technological scraps,” for example, access to commercial aircraft parts.

After all,” Ansari writes, “Iran, unlike Iraq, had not invaded anyone, nor had it been defeated in war.” Many in the West saw Iran’s refusal to continue to allow intensive spot inspections as evidence that the Iranians were hiding a nuclear weapons program; Ansari understands it primarily as part of Iran’s struggle to evade Western dominance, a struggle it has been waging since the end of the nineteenth century. Ansari does not ascribe Iran’s opposition to the now-defunct Middle East peace process solely to ideology; “an underlying motive for Iran’s…obstructionism,” he writes, “was the fact that it had not been invited to the table.”

In Ansari’s analysis, Iran’s pugnacious behavior is partly designed to underscore its claims to be a regional power that could, if treated respectfully, use its influence benignly. For example, in diplomatic meetings with the Europeans and others, Iranian officials have repeatedly suggested that they could use their influence over Hezbollah to secure peace between Palestinians and Israel. Iran has reportedly offered to help arrange prisoner swaps between Hezbollah and Israel.6

Ansari’s belief that Iran’s behavior can be understood by studying national ambition and self-interest, rather than the ideological proclamations of Ahmadinejad, is shared by another expert on Iran, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in Washington, D.C. In his new book, Hidden Iran, Takeyh writes that three elements, “Islamic ideology, national interests and factional politics,” contribute to Iran’s national policies; but even now, in the Ahmadinejad era, he believes that calculation and self-interest are more important than the religious fervor that was a driving force for Iran during its war with Iraq in the 1980s. As an example of Iranian pragmatism, he cites Iran’s silence in the face of Russian atrocities against Chechen Muslims. In return for this surprisingly accommodating Iranian attitude, and for Iran’s acquiescence in Russia’s dominance over much of Central Asia, the Russians provide the Islamic Republic with diplomatic support, conventional arms, and nuclear know-how. (Russia has built Iran’s sole, and still unused, nuclear reactor at Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf coast.)

As for Iran’s nuclear program, which he believes is designed to produce weapons, Takeyh writes:

The Islamic Republic is not an irrational rogue state seeking such weaponry as an instrument of an aggressive, revolutionary foreign policy designed to project its power abroad…for Iran this is a weapon of deterrence, and the relevant question is whether its possession will serve its practical interests.

According to Takeyh, “the unpredictable nature of developments in Iraq has intensified Iran’s anxieties and further enhanced the utility of the nuclear option.” Looking east, he says, Iran sees “a nuclear-armed Pakistan with its own strain of anti-Shiism.” Most important of all, in my opinion, Iran, he says, may be able to “play the nuclear card to renegotiate a more rational relationship” with the United States.

3.

Underlying both authors’ analyses of Iran’s internal politics, and their relatively calm appraisals of its regional ambitions and abilities, is their sense of Iran’s complicated power structure and Ahmadinejad’s place in it. Some American commentators refer to Ahmadinejad as if he were synonymous with the Islamic Republic and its policies. In the US, where the president can veto laws and order invasions, that would be natural enough; in Iran, where he can be challenged and overruled by elected institutions such as the parliament as well as by unelected officials gathered around the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is misleading. As head of the government, Ahmadinejad has broad control of the country’s finances and many domestic policies. His influence can be seen, for instance, in the government’s decision to set up a large fund to help needy Iranians, and in continuing the gradual purge of secular-minded professors from the nation’s universities—itself a disturbing development.

In matters of internal security and public order, however, Ahmadinejad’s authority is restricted by several supervisory bodies, the most important of which are dominated by representatives of the supreme leader. There is also the unofficial veto power of the senior clergy, theologically conservative grand ayatollahs who do not hold political office. They recently forced Ahmadinejad to back down on his pledge to allow women to attend soccer matches. Ahmadinejad officially presides over the powerful Supreme National Security Council; but here again Khamenei’s word is final.

On major decisions concerning foreign and military policy, we can assume that Ahmadinejad’s views are no more than advisory. He does not set the Islamic Republic’s policy toward Israel any more than he would decide whether to use nuclear weapons should Iran eventually acquire them. Strategic and important tactical decisions are taken by the supreme leader and his advisers, who include Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and senior officers in the Revolutionary Guard.

Despite Ahmadinejad’s threatening anti-Israeli rhetoric, Iran’s role in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has long been defined by what Takeyh calls its “unwillingness to commit forces to the actual struggle against the Jewish state.” That has not changed. Before the recent conflict in south Lebanon, Iran supplied rockets and other weapons to Hezbollah; but the Iranians conspicuously failed to dispatch to the front the “suicide battalions” that they had organized, with much fanfare, earlier this year. The batallions come under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, and were officially established for “defense”—a defense that one volunteer told me could mean the defense of Islam—i.e., Palestine or Lebanon if need be. The battalions were much covered in the Iranian press, but are generally regarded as an empty gesture—fat boys giggling for the cameras.

Khamenei is an inscrutable politician; his rhetoric can be extreme, but Iran has greatly moderated its foreign policy since he succeeded Khomeini in 1989. Iran’s policies toward Israel remain opaque, somewhere, perhaps, between Ahmadinejad’s most venomous anti-Israel comments and his assurance on August 27 that “Iran is not a threat to anybody, not even to the Zionist regime.”

The deterioration of the US position in Iraq, and Hezbollah’s ability to withstand Israel, have done much to free Iran’s leaders from their old fear of Bush. They have also encouraged Ahmadinejad to develop his quixotic, pseudophilosophical worldview. Ahmadinejad is opinionated but not intellectually inquisitive, quite unlike his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, whose presidency was symbolized by his call for a “dialogue among civilizations,” and by his winning, gallant manners. Ahmadinejad has an ideologue’s disdain for competing or alternative views. He defines his job in language that refers to the divine and the revelatory. On his provincial tours he touches sick children with a rapt look that is reminiscent of a religious healer. He sends discursive letters to the leaders of other countries on what is wrong with the world. These seem expressions of his belief in his own destiny and divine mission. He does not see himself as an ordinary president, and he is determined that his presidency should not be judged by mundane standards.

In the revealing long letter that he sent to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, in July, Ahmadinejad suggests that the Germans, a proud people who have contributed much to”knowledge, philosophy, literature, art and politics,” are being prevented from achieving their potential by efforts on the part of countries that defeated them in World War II to keep “a black cloud of humiliation and shame” hanging over their heads, and to ascribe to them responsibility for the “sins of their forefathers.” In this letter, Ahmadinejad avoids questioning whether the Holocaust happened, but he positions Germany today in opposition to the powers that defeated it in the war, and to Israel, “the greatest enemy of humanity.”

From here, Ahmadinejad leaps—as he has done in speeches in the past—to question the conditions in which Israel was established, and to ask why Britain and other supporters of Zionism, “if they felt responsibility towards the survivors of the Holocaust, did not give sanctuary to them in their own countries.” He criticizes the control that the US and the UK, along with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, continue to exercise over the affairs of the world. This, he says, has contributed to the spread of oppression, injustice, and weapons of mass destruction. Ahmadinejad goes on to propose a partnership between Iran and Germany, founded on shared “exalted visions” and aimed at instituting divinely sanctioned justice and ending “the distortions that are present in the world.”

In directly addressing Western leaders and asking them to change their ways, Ahmadinejad is following a familiar Islamic path. In his letter to Merkel, and an earlier (also unanswered) letter to Bush, in which he berated the American president for his policies and for betraying the principles of Jesus Christ, Iranians are reminded of Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous invitation to Mikhail Gorbachev to study Islam, itself an echo of the letters that the Prophet Muhammad during his mission in the seventh century sent to three contemporary rulers, urging them to become Muslims.

If we assume that the Iranian president knows very little about Europe and the West, he must nonetheless have been advised that his letter, and its confiding, complicit tone, would shock the representative of a people that is, more than sixty years after the event, still trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. For more than a month after it was sent, Ahmadinejad’s letter to Merkel was not made public in either country. The President’s decision to release it, at the end of August, suggests that he was addressing it not only to Merkel but also to Iranian citizens. The day after the letter appeared in the Iranian press, Ahmadinejad announced that he was inviting George Bush to debate with him the best way to run the world. “The time has come,” he told journalists, “for us to respect the intelligence and opinions of the peoples of the world.”

There is little in Ahmadinejad’s letter to Merkel to suggest that his political positions are based on his millenarian beliefs; rather, his attention seems fixed on changes that he believes should be made to the existing world order. Ahmadinejad does not seem to have a clear or coherent idea of what these changes should be, or how they might be brought about. Even if he did, the Islamic Republic has not given him the means to attempt the transformation that he proposes so vaguely. This explains why Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements often have an illusionary, theatrical quality, and why most of them pass unnoticed in the West.

Ahmadinejad has been described to me by an experienced observer of Iranian politics as a man who “thrives in a crisis,” often of his own making. Although many Iranians sympathize broadly with his anti-Israel feeling and his defense of the nuclear program, they are increasingly unhappy that, so far, they have received little of the oil revenues that he promised to distribute to them. Meanwhile, he seems to derive pleasure from the appalled bewilderment he elicits in the West. In a recent interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, he reiterated at length his doubts about the Holocaust. In the words of Hubert Kleinert, a German political scientist and former member of the Bundestag, whose comment accompanied the interview, this conversation was “without precedent: a living Iranian president—not some neo-Nazi or obscure fringe theorist—expounding in a lengthy interview about the alleged uncertainty of the Holocaust…. It’s as if Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to position himself as a worldwide symbol of the neo-Nazi movement.”7

It is likely that Ahmadinejad has different aspirations. He seems to covet a position of leadership among Islamists everywhere and, to achieve this, he is prepared to say what few other Muslim leaders, especially those who have relations with the US, dare to say. For Ahmadinejad, saying outrageous things wins him the admiration of Israel-haters everywhere, while concealing the fact that little of his fuzzy program of “upliftment,” for Iran and the world, can be realized.

4.

A recent opinion poll found that Ahmadinejad is the third-most-admired politician among Egyptians, after Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshaal. Among Lebanon’s Shias, the prestige of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose photograph is often displayed in Hezbollah-dominated areas, is higher than ever. This has led some commentators, including Vali Nasr, in his new book, The Shia Revival,8 to observe that Iran’s leaders seek “great-power status.”

If they achieved that, it would upset the conventional view that Iran, as a Shia country dominated by ethnic Persians, cannot realistically aspire to lead a region that is, on the whole, run by Sunni Arabs. That seemed to be a lesson from the 1980s, when Khomeini’s revolutionary government failed in its repeated attempts to foment revolutions elsewhere. But among the Shias of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s influence is strong and seems bound to grow. Many ordinary Sunnis, especially those living under pro-American governments, admire Iran for standing up to the common enemy. By supporting the beleaguered Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority, the Iranians have won thanks from the Sunni Palestinians who voted for it.

Iran’s ability to retain the goodwill it has gained rests on its staying above the sectarian violence that is tearing Iraq apart. Shia groups supported and perhaps armed by Iran, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), are thought to be behind many sectarian killings. But Iran has not been directly implicated; and it has given no sign that it approves these murders. Iran’s press, both government-run and independent, avoids inciting anti-Sunni feeling whenever there is a massacre of Shias in Iraq; it dwells instead on American neglect or perfidy. Iran may be reluctant to be perceived as being involved in Iraqi sectarian strife because of the effect that it might have on some of its own troubled peripheral provinces, some of which have large Sunni populations.

Even if Iran manages to avoid sectarian conflict, it is unlikely to become a “great power,” for the same reasons that have prevented it from doing so in the past. If tensions between Israel and the Palestinians eventually diminish, and more voices are heard in favor of resuming the peace process, regional support for Iran’s hard-line position will drop; and traditional divisions—between Persians and Arabs, and between Shias and Sunnis—will start to seem more important.

Right now, though, the Iranian government feels more confident than at any time since it was placed in the “axis of evil.” The Iranian leaders calculate that Hezbollah’s success in resisting Israel’s attacks, assuming that it continues to be in a position to threaten Israel, may diminish the likelihood that America or Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, as some commentators have suggested they intend to.9 Iranian officials have made it clear that if there are strikes, they will respond by attacking American interests in the region. American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious targets, though Iranian civilian and military leaders have also threatened to disrupt world oil supplies passing through the Straits of Hormuz.

By engaging itself militarily, politically, and morally across the Middle East, George Bush’s America has become vulnerable. In the face of an overstretched competitor, Iran is less likely than ever to relinquish its nuclear program unless it gets something it wants in return. It is still far from clear that America’s weakness will force it to accept Iran’s demands, particularly the demand that the US relax its sanctions and end its efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic. If the US does not, it is hard to imagine today’s Iran suspending its enrichment program for very long.

—October 5, 2006

  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.

  3. 3

    Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran and other signer countries are permitted to become producers of nuclear fuel, provided they do not use the technology for military ends. Countries skeptical of Iran’s claims to be running a purely civilian program, many of which are governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, say that Iran has forfeited this right by concealing sensitive elements of its program and procuring nuclear technology clandestinely.

  4. 4

    According to a European diplomat with wide Middle East experience, behind Chirac’s conciliatory words lie his fears for the security of the French troops that are being deployed in south Lebanon, and French apprehensions that they are hostages to Hezbollah’s and Iran’s goodwill.

  5. 5

    See “August 22,” The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2006.

  6. 6

    See “Iran Urges Prisoner Swap Negotiations,” The Jerusalem Post, August 22, 2006.

  7. 7

    See Der Spiegel, May 30, 2006.

  8. 8

    Norton, 2006.

  9. 9

    There has been considerable speculation that the United States may be preparing an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. See Seymour Hersh, “Last Stand: The Military’s Problem with the President’s Iran Policy,” The New Yorker, July 10, 2006, and Sam Gardiner, “The End of the ‘Summer of Diplomacy,’” The Century Foundation, September 19, 2006. Lawrence F. Kaplan, in The New Republic, October 2, 2006, writes, “Bush has also vowed privately not to leave office with Iran’s nuclear program intact.”

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