A Clash of Civilizations
The real crisis isn't about nuclear weapons, but Iran's determination
to reshape the Middle East in its own image.
By Amir Taheri
Sept. 5, 2005 issue - Eight years ago a pirated translation of Samuel
Huntington's celebrated essay "The Clash of Civilizations and the
Remaking of the World Order" appeared in Tehran. The publisher
received an order for 1,000 copies, half the print run. "We wondered
who wanted them," recalls Mustafa Tunkaboni, who marketed the book.
The answer came when a military truck belonging to the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps arrived to pick up the books. Among the
officers who received a copy was Yahya Safavi, now a general and
commander in chief of the Guards. Another went to one Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, a former Reserve officer in the Guards who is now
president of the Islamic republic.
Iran is grossly misunderstood in the West. Given headlines in Europe
and America, you would think that the crisis in relations is about
nuclear weapons. But the real cause is far broader: Iran's determina-
tion to reshape the Middle East in its own image-a deliberate "clash
of civilizations" with the United States. This is bound up with a
second misconception about Iran, the idea that the regime is divided
between "conservatives" who oppose accommodation with America and the
West, and "moderates" more inclined to return their country to the
community of nations. The real power in Iran, punctuated by the ascent
of Ahmadinejad as president, is now the Revolutionary Guards. During
the past few years, the Guards have in many ways become the govern-
Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a former IRGC officer, says this new military-
political elite has staged a creeping coup d'etat. While former
president Mohammad Khatami traveled the world trying to impress
Western audiences with quotes from Hobbes and Hegel, the Guards
built an impressive grass-roots network throughout Iran and created
two political-front organizations: the Usulgara(fundamentalists) and
the Itharis (self-sacrificers), each attracting a younger generation
of military officers, civil servants, managers and intellectuals.
In 2002, the network captured the Tehran city council and elevated
Ahmadinejad as mayor. Two years later he emerged as the Guards'
presidential candidate, besting former president Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, a midranking mullah-cum-businessman who represented the
fading old-guard mullahs.
Ahmadinejad's victory is the beginning of the end of the clerics'
dominance. He is the first non-mullah to become president since 1981.
The holder of a Ph.D., he is also the best educated of the six Islamic
presidents so far. His humble background and populist discourse have
won him a genuine base, especially among the poor who feel let down
by corrupt religious leaders. That's the good news. The bad news is
that, if anything, he can be expected to be a far more formidable
enemy of the West-and of America in particular. A month ago General
Safavi declared before an audience of senior naval officers that
Tehran's mission was to create "a multipolar world in which -Iran
plays a leadership role" for Islam. Recently Ahmadinejad announced
one of the most ambitious government mission statements in decades,
declaring that the ultimate goal of Iran's foreign policy is nothing
less than "a government for the whole world" under the leadership of
the Mahdi, the Absent Imam of the Shiites-code for the export of
radical Islam. As for the only power capable of challenging this
vision, the United States is in its "last throes," an ofuli (sunset)
power destined to be superceded by the toluee (sunrise) of the Islamic
Geopolitical dominance in the Middle East, the tract unequivocally
stated, is "the incontestable right of the Iranian nation."
Westerners might be tempted to dismiss this as rhetorical saber
rattling. It is not. Iran has always played a leading role in Islamic
history. It is one of only two Muslim nations never colonized by the
Western empires. It occupies a central position in the "Islamic arc"
stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
It has the largest economy and the strongest military in the Muslim
world; it sits atop vast pools of rapidly appreciating oil wealth.
The only other Muslim country capable of rivaling it-Turkey-has
decided to abandon the Muslim world and join the European Union.
The stage is thus set for a confrontation with the United States.
Iran is confident it can win, and history hasn't given it much reason
to fear otherwise. Student radicals like Ahmadinejad watched in 1980
as the United States did nothing but issue feeble diplomatic protests
over the seizure of its embassy. They saw Ronald Reagan fulfill
Ayatollah Khomeini's notorious dictum-"America cannot do a damned
thing!"-when Lebanese suicide bombers recruited by Tehran killed 241
Marines near Beirut in 1982. Bill Clinton talked sanctions but then
apologized for unspecified "past wrongs."
Even George W. Bush's war on terror, which initially worried the
mullahs, has turned to their strategic advantage. Enemies on either
side-the Baathists in Baghdad and the Taliban in Kabul-are now gone.
The expulsion of Syria from Lebanon under U.S. pressure has left Iran
as the major foreign influence in the country. Bush's advocacy of
democracy has undermined Washington's traditional allies-and Iran's
rivals-like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "The Americans have their so-
called Greater Middle East plan," Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei
said in a speech recently. "We, too, have our plan for the region."
Now comes the nuclear issue. The EU recently broke off negotiations
after Tehran resumed its uranium-conversion program, even as the
International Atomic Energy Agency last week released a report
concluding that traces of uranium found in Iran two years ago came
from contaminated equipment supplied by Pakistan-a finding that will
figure large when the U.N. General Assembly takes up the issue in
September. Meanwhile, America has yet to develop a coherent policy
on Iran, aside from standing aside or criticizing others attempting
to cope with the fast-emerging threat.
The prospects for resolving the nuclear standoff are not good. The
new Iranian elite feel free to speak openly because they are convinced
America will soon depart the region. Iran's strategy will most likely
be to wait Bush out, stalling on the negotiations while bleeding
America to the maximum in Iraq and Afghanistan, working to prevent
a settlement in Palestine and sabotaging U.S. hopes for a democratic
Middle East. Iranian-sponsored surrogates could try to seize power
not only in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Azerbaijan
and some Persian Gulf states. As for Washington, neocons may dream
of regime change from within-but the chances of that happening,
particularly with the Guards' hold on the military and security
forces, are almost nil.
The situation is not hopeless. Deft diplomacy could produce a measure
of detente. That would not grow out of some "grand bargain" of the
sort Clinton hoped for, whereby Iran would forswear its nuclear
program or sponsorship of terrorism in exchange for better relations
and a security guarantee from the United States. Instead, it would
be more a mini-bargain over issues on which Washington and Tehran
can hurt each other. Such a course was not workable before, chiefly
because Iran's religious leadership was divided among factions that
sabotaged each other's policies. But with the Guards in command, a
dialogue may be possible.
The problem is that Tehran feels no pressure. Thanks to rising oil
prices, Iran is earning almost $200 million a day and can now throw
lots of money at social and economic problems. More important, the
2008 U.S. presidential campaign will soon heat up, diverting attention
from problems abroad that American voters (and policymakers) would
prefer to ignore. In the meantime, Iran will either have, or would
be close to having, its first atom bombs. The next American president
may find himself in the un-enviable position of either offering Iran
an even grander "bargain" or facing a much bigger war against a much
larger adversary than either Afghanistan or Iraq. Professor
Huntington, meanwhile, might want to ponder the law of unintended