Ahmadinejad on the warpathAs the Iranian revolution enters its 28th year this month, the Islamic Republic stands at the most critical stage of its history. While power is being transferred to second-generation revolutionaries, the country is on a collision course with the United States over its controversial nuclear program.
At the center of this unfolding drama is the perplexing figure of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has managed to isolate, enrage and frighten important domestic and external constituencies in the space of only six months.
Left to their own devices, Ahmadinejad and the second-generation revolutionaries who stand behind him are likely to change the Islamic Republic beyond recognition in the years ahead. But the complicating factor in all this is the increasing possibility of some form of military confrontation between Iran and the United States within two years. The key question is whether Ahmadinejad and his inner circle believe that military confrontation serves their long-term political and socio-economic agenda.
A controversial president
Ahmadinejad's first six months as president have had a mixed reaction. Domestically, he has tried to buttress his position among his core constituency, namely the urban poor and the lower classes who rallied around his calls for the revival of the Iranian revolution's egalitarian message.
While it is clearly too early to judge his performance as a champion of a more egalitarian society, it is important to point out that the Ahmadinejad government has not undertaken a single serious policy that would reverse the country's widening wealth gap. That said, there has been no let-up in the populist rhetoric and sloganeering that marked his election campaign.
Lack of progress on the economic and social-justice front notwithstanding, Ahmadinejad has introduced massive changes to the face and operations of the executive branch. Virtually all provincial governors have been replaced by Ahmadinejad loyalists, who tend to be young and hail from the Islamic Republic's security establishment, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC - or the Sepah-e-Pasdaran).
Moreover, Ahmadinejad has replaced most senior bankers and other important figures in charge of the country's finances. Furthermore, many of the country's most experienced diplomats have been recalled from abroad and replaced by less experienced figures, with backgrounds in the Sepah-e-Pasdaran and other security outfits.
At a superficial level it appears that the Ahmadinejad government is preparing for conflict and is reordering the entire machinery of government accordingly. But the changes introduced since August have a deeper meaning; they signify the coming of age of so-called "second-generation" revolutionaries who were propelled into a position of leadership by Ahmadinejad's surprise election victory last June.
The most important feature of the second-generation revolutionaries is that they developed their political consciousness in the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and not in the revolutionary struggle against the Pahlavi regime. While they are intensely loyal to the memory of the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the leader of the Iranian revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic), the second-generation revolutionaries have tenuous ties (at best) to the conservative clerical establishment that controls the key centers of political and economic power.
Contrary to Western reporting, Ahmadinejad's performance has generated more controversy and ill-feeling within the corridors of power in Tehran than in the crucible of Western public opinion. Arguably, the most surprising development in the past six months is the extent of Ahmadinejad's independence and freedom of action.
Originally dismissed as the lackey of the clerical establishment, Ahmadinejad has proved time and again that the only agenda that drives him is his own. In the space of a few months the former IRGC commander has emerged as certainly the most independent and arguably the most powerful president in the republic's 27-year history. Even the Islamic Republic's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not seem to have any appreciable influence over Ahmadinejad and his inner circle.
While liberals and reformists are, broadly speaking, in opposition to the Ahmadinejad government, it is the conservative establishment that has emerged as the second-generation revolutionaries' most formidable adversary. This is not surprising, given that the latter aspire to reorder fundamentally the socio-economic system in the Islamic Republic, changes that would fatally weaken the conservatives.
The conservative establishment hoped to delay the coming of age of the second-generation revolutionaries by positioning Hashemi Rafsanjani in the presidency. But Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad, and he has since played the part of a bad loser. Indeed, the most vociferous opposition to the changes of the past six months has been made by Rafsanjani in his unofficial capacity as the public head of the conservative establishment.
Consequences of war
While Iranian-US relations have reached an all-time low, it is important to note that not even the most committed anti-American elements in Iran see war as a foregone conclusion. Near-universal public support for the country's nuclear program notwithstanding, Iranians are acutely aware of the consequences of military confrontation with the US. Insofar as Iran's standing in the region and the wider world is concerned, the stakes could not be higher.
Reformists and conservatives alike are desperate to avoid war, for diametrically opposed reasons. For the former, aggression by the US would spell the end (at least for another generation) of the country's emerging grassroots democracy movement. Reformists fear that war would entrench the conservatives domestically and enable radical elements to seize control of the country's foreign policy and reverse the gains of the past 16 years. Ironically, conservatives fear war more than the reformists, even though they are confident of being entrenched politically, at least in the short term.
What the conservatives fear losing (as a result of war and its concomitant extreme international isolation) is their economic and commercial privileges. Contrary to Western reporting, the conservative establishment is not held together by ideology, but by vast (and impossibly complex) networks of patronage and economic/commercial monopolies. These networks thrive in a wider context of socio-economic stability; stability that would be blasted away by conflict and its repercussions.
The central question is how the second-generation revolutionaries led by Ahmadinejad view potential conflict with the US. The answer to this question lies in a better understanding of the second-generation revolutionaries' background, ideology and socio-economic agenda.
The key personalities in this vast network are former IRGC commanders; this includes Ahmadinejad and nearly all members of his inner circle. This military-ideological background is accentuated by a strong sense of Iranian nationalism and Shi'ite supremacism. Some influential second-generation revolutionaries (including Ahmadinejad himself) even harbor millenarian beliefs.
While they do not welcome conflict, they see it as an opportunity for a full-scale catharsis. To men like Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic is unconquerable; with its ability to project power well beyond its size and resources, rooted in its "undeterrable" nature.
On a more practical level, the second-generation revolutionaries may see conflict as an opportunity for entrenchment and a context-generator for their long-term socio-economic policies. They would certainly see it as an opportunity to reverse Westernization and bring Iran more in line with developments in the wider Muslim world (where anti-Western feelings proliferate and Islamic movements are increasingly on the rise).
While a US assault on Iran would probably engender all the above, it also runs the risk of unleashing dynamics that will elude the control of the Islamic Republic. First and foremost, conflict will almost certainly strengthen militant Islam in Iran, but of the kind that even the most hardline elements in the regime would not countenance.
There are already many small networks of Shi'ite extremists in the country, but they are kept in check by the country's stability and an effective security establishment. Any weakening of the state will enable these networks to widen and deepen their influence exponentially.
More worrying, conflict would significantly strengthen Sunni militancy on the country's fringes, particularly in the near-lawless Sistan va Balochistan province (bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan). A US assault on Iran would run the very real risk of enabling al-Qaeda to gain a foothold in the country.
While Ahmadinejad and his supporters are correct in their belief that war would not fatally undermine the Islamic Republic, it is not at all clear whether they have properly thought through the potential consequences.
At a time when the Americans are giving every indication of preparing for a long-term containment strategy over the controversial Iranian nuclear program (likely characterized by periodic bombings followed by long spells of tense standoff - eerily reminiscent of the containment strategy employed against Iraq from 1991-2003), Iranians of all political persuasions ought to be thinking of avoiding this scenario, at unacceptable costs if necessary.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.