Is Iran the New Superpower?
- 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
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 imagea
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
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 Westand 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 Shiitescode 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 itTurkeyhas
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
sidethe Baathists in Baghdad and the Taliban in Kabulare 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 alliesand
Iran's rivalslike 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
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 Pakistana 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 withinbut 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.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
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