Iran is the source of much discussion and dismay in the West. Yet it is reportedly becoming quite popular in the world of Islam. What is the reason for this ostensibly split vision of Western governments and Muslims at large regarding Iran?
The simple answer is that the country's decision to defy the United States, the lone superpower and a leader of the "West", But the reason is more complex than that. To be sure, no one in the Muslim world wants Iran to become a nuclear power. In fact, Iran itself continues to insist that it has no such intentions.
However, the Bush administration is equally convinced that Iran nurtures aspirations to become the next nuclear power. For Muslims, who are craving some semblance of leadership from their region, Iran's defiance of the US is gathering enormous support, and a lot of kudos and cheers for the role of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Since its creation after the revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States have been mostly hostile toward one anther. The best phrase to reflect that reality was coined by an Iranian specialist, Professor Rouhollah Ramazani, who depicted that attitude as "mutual Satanization".
A popular depiction of America in Iran is the "Great Satan", while the US regularly calls Iran a state that sponsors terrorism. It was once described as a "rogue state". Then, under President George W Bush, the White House phrasemakers lumped Iran under a new dark phrase - "axis of evil", along with Iraq and North Korea. Most recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was swept away by her desire to come up with another loathsome phrase when she called Iran "one of the outposts of tyranny".
|Iran back at the UN |
The US, France, Britain, Russia and China - the five permanent UN Security Council members - plus Germany on Wednesday agreed in Paris to send Iran before the United Nations Security Council for possible punishment.
Tehran has refused to say whether it agrees to terms to begin negotiations on a package of economic and energy incentives in exchange for at least a short-term end to its program to enrich uranium.
Expressing "profound disappointment", the nations said, "We have no choice but to return to the United Nations Security Council and resume a course of possible punishment or coercion."
Any real move to punish Iran at the Security Council is a long way off, but the group said it would seek an initial resolution requiring Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment. Debate could begin as soon as next week.
It is hard to be objective on the subject of US-Iran relations (or the lack thereof), since the friends and foes of the US and Iran are keen on questioning the objectivity of any author on the issue. However, it is fair to state that in this exercise of mutual Satanization, neither side is free from blame.
The US never got over the humiliation that its diplomats encountered during the hostage crisis in the immediate aftermath of the revolution of 1979. In fact, that very emotion drove the Ronald Reagan administration to take sides against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from September 1980 to August 1988. It was because of the American intervention in that conflict that Iraq emerged as a "victor". Saddam Hussein decided to pay for the American and Arab support of his aggression against Iran (since Iraq started the war) by invading Kuwait in July 1990.
The Islamic Republic, in turn, continued its own policies of anti-Americanism throughout its existence. It was allegedly involved in the Western hostage-taking binge of Beirut in the 1980s, a charge that Tehran has denied. It never accepted the peaceful negotiations between the Arabs and Israelis as a way to resolve that conflict, and emerged as a major supporter of the Hezbollah Party of Lebanon, which the US depicted as a terrorist organization.
From time to time during the 1980s and 1990s, there were rumors of a potential rapprochement between Washington and Tehran; however, this never happened. When the US decided to invade Afghanistan to dismantle the Taliban regime in 2001, according to some reports, Iran cooperated with the US by informing its officials "of major Afghan fault lines and helped them target Taliban sites for bombing missions". Expectations rose then that there might be some sort of warming between the two countries. However, Bush put a damper on that by labeling Iran as part of "axis of evil" in his state of union speech in January 2002.
Iran was initially ambivalent about the US invasion of Iraq. It was happy to see the end of the dictatorship of Saddam, who was one of the most hated international figures in Iran. However, the leaders of Iran remained wary of the potential long-term US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, their country's eastern and western flanks.
The US's continued presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has to be understood from the Iranian perspective. When it sees the world's most powerful country staying in those countries with the intention of making them its client states - America's denials notwithstanding - Iran is of the view that it has to take countermeasures. Those are primarily based on asymmetric warfare.
Two important aspects of this are low-level support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and constant endeavors to promote instability in Iraq. However, in both instances, Iran has purposely kept its involvement so muddled and murky that the US has a tough time proving it to the international community.
This is an important point when one examines the explicit depiction of the Bush administration of Iran as a major threat. The leaders in Tehran know that they remain quite vulnerable to the potential implementation of the Bush's much-hated and equally feared "regime change". However, not taking any countermeasures has never been an option for Iran. They know that the Bush administration dismantled the regime of Saddam, despite the fact that it was not an aggressor. The Iranian leaders have no intention of repeating Saddam's policy of inaction.
Ideally speaking, it would like to develop nuclear weapons. However, it knows that its indigenous knowledge has not reached that stage yet. At the same time, Iran is aware that the Bush administration would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The timing of developing nuclear weapons is not right, even if Iran had the native ability to do so.
Thus, Iran has decided to play the US depiction of its alleged nuclear ambition to the hilt. It wishes to employ all its diplomatic power to engage the US and other major powers to extract ironclad guarantees from the Bush administration that it will forthwith cease all activities related to regime change.
Second, Iran wants to receive from the West an elaborate package of economic assistance and transfer of cutting-edge technology in the realm of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, oil-related technology and technology in the field of civilian avionics.
Third, it wants the Bush administration to stop its diplomatic maneuvers aimed at excluding Iran from future international oil pipeline agreements.
As can be imagined, Iran, despite the wide prevalent asymmetry between its and the US military power, has other options.
First, China and Russia are determined to shelter it from any stringent United Nations economic sanctions, although they have agreed to refer the case back to the UN (See side panel).
Second, it has an elaborate network of agents in Iraq who are ready to keep US security forces engaged for a long time. How bloody or intractable that engagement becomes depends on how threatened Iran feels about the US presence in Iraq.
Third, despite the fact that al-Qaeda maintains harsh theological perspectives toward Shi'ites, Iran has demonstrated a remarkable capability of engaging that organization purely on the basis of pragmatism. In the aftermath of the dismantlement of the Taliban regime, Iran reportedly wanted to relinquish some high-valued al-Qaeda functionaries - including Osama bin Laden's son, Saad, and al-Qaeda's chief of operations, Saif al-Adel - in exchange for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an organization that Saddam was using to terrorize Iran.
However when the Bush administration did not show any interest in that exchange, Iran lost interest. Finally, Iran has proved itself to be of an enormously deft global player of balance-of-power politics.
Iran's decision to make the US and other powers wait until August for its response to their elaborate economic package and their offer to conduct further negotiations regarding its nuclear enrichment program is the outcome of its maneuver to drive a wedge between the Group of Eight (G8) countries.
These countries wanted an Iranian response by July 5, so that they could use their summit in St Petersburg (July 15-17) to formulate a coordinated reaction. Iran knew that an earlier response had the potential to unify the G8 countries.
However, by making them wait until after the meeting, it makes it logistically difficult for them to get together and come up with any agreement on sanctions against Iran. The leaders in Iran are also cognizant of the fact that the G8 had already failed to agree on how to respond if it did not reply by July 5.
From the Muslim point of view, the Iranian maneuvers are not that relevant. What is pertinent, however, is the fact that a Muslim country is standing up to the US. There is an enormous amount of ill-will building toward America as a result of its sustained occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and regarding the enduring sufferings of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The international community received a glimpse of the popularity of Ahmadinejad among Muslims when he visited Indonesia. It should be recalled that he visited that country in the immediate aftermath of writing his famous letter of May 8 to Bush. Even though Washington dismissed it as not worthy of response, it received huge publicity and captured a lot of attention in the world of Islam. That was just another reason why Ahmadinejad was greeted with so much euphoria in Indonesia. Large crowds showed up to hear him.
In an era when the Muslim world is starving for heroes and leaders, Ahmadinejad is certainly being perceived in that role by young Muslims. He is young, feisty and is willing to confront the US, when all other Muslim leaders opt for cooperation and quiet diplomacy, whose modalities remain secret as a matter of tradition.
A retired Indonesian official probably spoke for millions of Muslims when he observed about the Iranian president, "He should be the role model for other Muslim leaders in the world."
The Iranian president also knows how to couch his country's present conflict with the US over the nuclear issue in a language with which millions of Muslims all over the world not only directly relate to, but also wholeheartedly agree.
He has asked Bush, "Why is it that any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East regions is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime? Is not scientific R&D [research and development] one of the basic rights of nations?"
And, according to Guardian of London, "Mr Ahmadinejad's rising political fortunes run counter to American attempts to isolate Iran, which it brands a rogue state. US officials have described the Iranian president as a threat to world peace and claim that he faces a popular insurrection at home."
The same dispatch also quoted an Iranian observer saying, "Certainly his popularity is increasing. People like what he says. It's not so much because he stands up to the West but because he's not corrupt. This is very important."
What are the implications of the preceding for Iran? Students of "hard power" may not be very much impressed by Iran's penchant for defying the United States, or Iran's decision to make the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq gory, or by its sustained endeavors to drive a wedge between the G8 countries for its own advantage.
However, there is little doubt that Iran's activities in all these realms are enabling it to become a major actor in the calculation of world powers. As such, it may yet extract most from the US through negotiations, including security guarantees against regime change, and a sizeable economic package that would also include transfer of the world-class technology that it direly needs.
In this entire intricate process, Iran is also winning the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world, an issue on which the Bush administration remains increasingly hapless, maladroit and, indeed, clumsy. In the final analysis, Iran is gaining a lot of advantages from this ostensible split vision of it in the West and in the world of Islam.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.