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Is Iran the New Superpower?

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    The real crisis isn t about nuclear weapons, but Iran s determination to reshape the Middle East in its own image A Clash of Civilizations By Amir Taheri
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 4, 2005
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      The real crisis isn't about nuclear weapons, but Iran's
      determination to reshape the Middle East in its own image


      A Clash of Civilizations
      By Amir Taheri
      Newsweek International
      MSNBC.com


      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
      determination 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
      government. 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 republic.
      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 consequences.

      2005 Newsweek, Inc.

      2005 MSNBC.com

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