Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How Iran's Nuclear Power Play Can Change Global Politics | World | AlterNet


How Iran's Nuclear Power Play Can Change Global Politics

By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times. Posted July 28, 2009.

A nuclear Iran would inevitably turbo-charge a new, emerging multipolar world; one where the U.S. won't be relied on to control Mideast oil.

HONG KONG -- Things get curiouser and curiouser in the Iranian wonderland. Imagine what happened last week during Friday prayers in Tehran, personally conducted by former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, aka "The Shark", Iran's wealthiest man, who made his fortune partly because of Irangate -- the 1980s' secret weapons contracts with Israel and the US.

As is well known, Rafsanjani is behind the Mir-Hossein Mousavi-Mohammad Khatami pragmatic conservative faction that lost the most recent battle at the top -- rather than a presidential election -- to the ultra-hardline faction of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei-Mahmud Ahmadinejad-Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps. During prayers, partisans of the hegemonic faction yelled the usual "Death to America!" -- while the pragmatic conservatives came up, for the first time, with "Death to Russia!" and "Death to China!"

Oops. Unlike the United States and Western Europe, both Russia and China almost instantly accepted the contested presidential re-election of Ahmadinejad. Could they then be portrayed as enemies of Iran? Or have pragmatic conservatives not been informed that obsessed-by-Eurasia Zbig Brzezinksi -- who has US President Barack Obama's undivided attention -- has been preaching since the 1990s that it is essential to break up the Tehran-Moscow-Beijing axis and torpedo the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)?

On top of it, don't they know that both Russia and China -- as well as Iran -- are firm proponents of the end of the dollar as global reserve currency to the benefit of a (multipolar) basket of currencies, a common currency of which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had the gall this month to present a prototype at the Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in Aquila, Italy? By the way, it's a rather neat coin. Minted in Belgium, it sports the faces of the G-8 leaders and also a motto -- "Unity in diversity".

"Unity in diversity" is not exactly what the Obama administration has in mind as far as Iran and Russia are concerned -- no matter the zillion bytes of lofty rhetoric. Let's start with the energy picture.

Iran is world number two both in terms of proven oil reserves (11.2%) and gas reserves (15.7%), according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2008.

If Iran ever opted towards a more unclenched-fist relationship with Washington, US Big Oil would feast on Iran's Caspian energy wealth. This means that whatever the rhetoric, no US administration will ever want to deal with a hyper-nationalist Iranian regime, such as the current military dictatorship of the mullahtariat.

What really scares Washington -- from George W Bush to Obama -- is the perspective of a Russia-Iran-Venezuela axis. Together, Iran and Russia hold 17.6% of the world's proven oil reserves. The Persian Gulf petro-monarchies -- de facto controlled by Washington -- hold 45%. The Moscow-Tehran-Caracas axis controls 25%. If we add Kazakhstan's 3% and Africa's 9.5%, this new axis is more than an effective counter-power to American hegemony over the Arab Middle East. The same thing applies to gas. Adding the "axis" to the Central Asian "stans", we reach 30% of world gas production. As a comparison, the whole Middle East -- including Iran -- currently produces only 12.1% of the world's needs.

All about Pipelineistan

A nuclear Iran would inevitably turbo-charge the new, emerging multipolar world. Iran and Russia are de facto showing to both China and India that it is not wise to rely on US might subjugating the bulk of oil in the Arab Middle East. All these players are very much aware that Iraq remains occupied, and that Washington's obsession remains the privatization of Iraq's enormous oil wealth.

As Chinese intellectuals are fond of emphasizing, four emerging or re-emerging powers -- Russia, China, Iran and India -- are strategic and civilizational poles, three of them sanctuaries because they are nuclear powers. A more confident and assertive Iran -- mastering the full cycle of nuclear technology -- may translate into Iran and Russia increasing their relative weight in Europe and Asia to the distress of Washington, not only in the energy sphere but also as proponents of a multipolar monetary system.

The entente is already on. Since 2008, Iranian officials have stressed that sooner or later Iran and Russia will start trading in rubles. Gazprom is willing to be paid for oil and gas in roubles -- and not dollars. And the secretariat of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has already seen the writing on the wall -- admitting for over a year now that OPEC will be trading in euros before 2020.

Not only the "axis" Moscow-Tehran-Caracas, but also Qatar and Norway, for instance, and sooner or later the Gulf Emirates, are ready to break up with the petrodollar. It goes without saying that the end of the petrodollar -- which won't happen tomorrow, of course -- means the end of the dollar as the world's reserve currency; the end of the world paying for America's massive budget deficits; and the end of an Anglo-American finance stranglehold over the world that has lasted since the second part of the 19th century.

The energy equation between Iran and Russia is much more complex: it configures them as two scorpions in a bottle. Tehran, isolated from the West, lacks foreign investment to upgrade its 1970s-era energy installations. That's why Iran cannot fully profit from exploiting its Caspian energy wealth.

Here it's a matter of Pipelineistan at its peak -- since the US, still during the 1990s, decided to hit the Caspian in full force by supporting the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tblisi-Supsa (BTS) gas pipeline.

For Gazprom, Iran is literally a goldmine. In September 2008, the Russian energy giant announced it would explore the huge Azadegan-North oilfield, as well as three others. Russia's Lukoil has increased its prospecting and Tatneft said it would be involved in the north. The George W Bush administration thought it was weakening Russia and isolating Iran in Central Asia. Wrong: it only accelerated their strategic energy cooperation.

Putin power play

In February 1995, Moscow committed to finishing construction of a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. This was a project started by that erstwhile, self-proclaimed "gendarme of the Gulf" for the US -- the shah of Iran. The shah engaged KWU from Germany in 1974, but the project was halted by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and hit hard between 1984 and 1988 by Saddam Hussein's bombs. The Russians finally entered the picture proposing to finish the project for $800 million. By December 2001, Moscow also started to sell missiles to Tehran -- a surefire way of making extra money offering protection for strategic assets such as Bushehr.

Bushehr is a source of immense controversy in Iran. It should have been finished by 2000. As Iranian officials see it, the Russians seem never to be interested in wrapping it up. There are technical reasons -- such as the Russian reactor being too big to fit inside what KWU had already built -- as well as a technology deficit on the part of Iranian nuclear engineers.

But most of all there are geopolitical reasons. Former president Vladimir Putin used Bushehr as a key diplomatic peon in his double chessboard match with the West and the Iranians. It was Putin who launched the idea of enriching uranium for Iran in Russia; talk about a strategic asset in terms of managing a global nuclear crisis. Ahmadinejad -- and most of all the Supreme Leader -- gave him a flat refusal. The Russian response was even more foot-dragging, and even mild support for more US-sponsored sanctions against Tehran.

Tehran got the message -- that Putin was not an unconditional ally. Thus, in August 2006, the Russians landed a new deal for the construction and supervision of two new nuclear plants. This all means that the Iranian nuclear dossier simply cannot be solved without Russia. Simultaneously, by Putin's own framework, it's very clear in Moscow that a possible Israeli strike would make it lose a profitable nuclear client on top of a diplomatic debacle. Medvedev for his part is pursuing the same two-pronged strategy; stressing to Americans and Europeans that Russia does not want nuclear proliferation in the Middle East while stressing to Tehran that it needs Russia more than ever.

Another feature of Moscow's chessboard strategy -- never spelled out in public -- is to keep the cooperation with Tehran to prevent China from taking over the whole project, but without driving the Americans ballistic at the same time. As long as the Iranian nuclear program is not finished, Russia can always play the wise moderating role between Iran and the West.

Building up a civilian nuclear program in Iran is good business for both Iran and Russia for a number of reasons.

First of all, both are military encircled. Iran is strategically encircled by the US in Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and by US naval power in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Russia has seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gobbling up the Baltic countries and threatening to "annex" Georgia and Ukraine; NATO is at war in Afghanistan; and the US is still present, one way or another, across Central Asia.

Iran and Russia share the same strategy as far as the Caspian Sea is concerned. They are in fact opposed to the new Caspian states -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

Iran and Russia also face the threat of hardcore Sunni Islam. They have a tacit agreement; for instance, Tehran has never done anything to help the Chechens. Then there's the Armenian issue. A de facto Moscow-Tehran-Erevan axis profoundly irks the Americans.

Finally, in this decade, Iran has become the third-largest importer of Russian weapons, after China and India. This includes the anti-missile system Tor M-1, which defends Iran's nuclear installations.

What's your axis?

So thanks to Putin, the Iran-Russia alliance is carefully deployed in three fronts -- nuclear, energy and weapons.

Are there cracks in this armor? Certainly.

First, Moscow by all means does not want a weaponized Iranian nuclear program. This spells out "regional destabilization". Then, Central Asia is considered by Moscow as its backyard, so for Iran to be ascendant in the region is quite problematic. As far as the Caspian goes, Iran needs Russia for a satisfactory juridical solution (Is it a sea or a lake? How much of it belongs to each border country?)

On other hand, Iran's new military dictatorship of the mullahtariat will react savagely if it ever had Russia fully against it in the UN Security Council. That would spell a rupture in economic relations -- very bad for both sides -- but also the possibility of Tehran supporting radical Islam everywhere from the southern Caucasus to Central Asia.

Under these complex circumstances, it's not so far-fetched to imagine a sort of polite Cold War going on between Tehran and Moscow.

From Russia's point of view, it all comes back to the "axis" -- which would be in fact Moscow-Tehran-Erevan-New Delhi, a counter-power to the US-supported Ankara-Tblisi-Telaviv-Baku axis. But there's ample debate about it even inside the Russian elite. The old guard, like former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, thinks that Russia is back as a great power by cultivating its former Arab clients as well as Iran; but then the so-called "Westernizers" are convinced that Iran is more of a liability.

They may have a point. The key of this Moscow-Tehran axis is opportunism -- opposition to US hegemonic designs. Is Obama -- via his "unclenched fist" policy -- wily enough to try to turn this all upside down; or will he be forced by the Israel lobby and the industrial-military complex to finally strike a regime now universally despised all over the West?

Russia -- and Iran -- are fully committed to a multipolar world. The new military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran knows it cannot afford to be isolated; its road to the limelight may have to go through Moscow. That explains why Iran is making all sorts of diplomatic efforts to join the SCO.

As much as progressives in the West may support Iranian pragmatic conservatives -- who are far from reformists -- the crucial fact remains that Iran is a key peon for Russia to manage its relationship with the US and Europe. No matter how nasty the overtones, all evidence points to "stability" at this vital artery in the heart of the New Great Game.

How Iran's Nuclear Power Play Can Change Global Politics | World | AlterNet

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Martin Amis on the beginning of the end for Iran's ayatollahs | World news | The Guardian


Martin Amis: The end of Iran's ayatollahs?

In 1979, the return to Iran of an exiled cleric marked the start of the Islamic Republic. The death in June of Neda Soltan may herald the long-overdue fall of this moribund regime

  • Iranian protester during an opposition rally in Tehran, July 2009

An Iranian protester during an opposition rally in Tehran on 9 July 2009 Photograph: -/AFP/Getty Images

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday 20 July 2009

An essay exploring whether Iran's Islamic republic is in its death throes – referred to President Jimmy Carter's "failed Entebbe raid of April 1980" to rescue US hostages in Iran. The failed 1980 mission was Operation Eagle Claw. The rescue of airline passengers at Entebbe, Uganda, was carried out with almost complete success by the Israeli military in July 1976.

The writer Jason Elliot called his recent and resonant Iranian travelogue Mirrors of the Unseen; and I am aware of the usual dangers associated with writing about the future. But what we seem to be witnessing in Iran is the first spasm of the death agony of the Islamic Republic. In this process, which will be very long and very ugly, Mir Hossein Mousavi is likely to play a lesser role than Neda Agha Soltan, whose transformation (from youth, hope, and beauty, in a matter of seconds, to muddy death) unforgettably crystallised the core Iranian idea – the Shia tragedy and passion – of martyrdom in the face of barbaric injustice. Neda Soltan personified something else, too: the modern.

Elliot's title should again be borne in mind as we consider the June Events, which are open to two interpretations. Quite possibly, things are more or less as they appear: the results of a fraudulent election were presented to the people with indecent haste and laughable incompetence (with, in other words, implicit contempt for democracy); civil unrest was then followed by the application of state violence. Now consider. If, after the usual interval, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had soberly announced a 51% win for President Ahmadinejad, then Iran, and the world, might well have bowed its head and moved on. Just as possibly (the Islamic Republic being what it is), the landslide was rigged, and ostentatiously vaunted, to bring on the terror and the crackdown.

In 1997, the regime felt confident enough to sanction the surprise victory of President Muhammad Khatami, who won by the same landslide margin of 69% in a joyous election that no one disputed. Khatami, a cleric, had nonetheless far stronger liberal credentials than the technocrat Mousavi (who, during the Iran-Iraq war, was well to the right of Khamenei). Lovingly hailed as "Ayatollah Gorbachev", Khatami was soon talking about the "thoughtful dialogue" he hoped to open with America. It seemed possible that international isolation, which so parches and de-oxygenates the Iranian air, was about to be eased.

Everyone understood that this process would take time. In June 2001, Khatami was re-elected with a majority of 78%. Seven months later came George W Bush's "axis of evil" speech (one of the most destructive in American history), and the Tehran Spring was at an end. In truth, Bush was heaven-sent for the Iranian right; he blindly enhanced its regional power (with the adventurist, indeed experimental, war with Iraq), while remaining adequately "arrogant" (the most detested of all attributes in the Shia-Iranian sensorium). Now, the mullahs are aware that Barack Obama is far cannier than that. Had Mousavi won, Obama would have rewarded Iran, and in a way palpable to all Iranians. Such a "linkage" – liberalisation equals benefits – would have fatal consequences for the mullahs. The earth has already stirred beneath them, with the pro-western, anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian election in Lebanon. This, together with certain historical forces, explains the current confusion and hysteria of the armed clerisy.

For the mullahs now know that they are afloat on an ocean of illegitimacy. The great hawsers of the revolution of 1978-79 are all either snapped or fraying. Of the four foundational narratives, three are myths: the "Islamic Revolution" was not an Islamic revolution; the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), which destroyed a generation, was not the "Imposed War", as it is still called; and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was not a great man (Khomeini, as every inquisitive Iranian has long understood, was a world-historical monster). Perhaps most importantly of all, for now, the fourth narrative, or thread (anti-Americanism – "Westoxication", in the old battle cry), has been severed by the person of Obama. The Islamic Republic is also doomed by modernity (in the form of instant communications) and by demographic destiny. Persia, one of the oldest nations on earth, is getting younger and younger.

"In the history of the Iranian plateau," writes Sandra Mackey, in her stylish and magisterial classic, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation, "the sun has risen and set on nearly a million days." But before we come to the Iranian soul, and the million days, let us examine the Three Lies about the Islamic Republic.

The 1979 revolution wasn't an Islamic revolution until it was over. In its origins, it was a full-spectrum mass movement, an avalanche of demonstrations and riots, and strikes so relentless that they blacked out the Peacock's palace; the military, moreover, was sustaining a thousand defections per day. The June Events of 2009 constitute a mere whisper of demurral when set against the deafening crescendo of 1978. The noise was not made for clerical rule; the noise was made because a decadent monarchy had lost the farr – the inherent aura of kingship.

It is instructive to compare the Iranian revolution with the two Russian revolutions of 1917: the February revolution, a popular revolt, and the October revolution, a Leninist coup (with an impotent Provisional Government in the interim). Trotsky said that the Bolsheviks found power lying in the street and "picked it up like a feather". And then, of course, the really warm work began – against the Whites, against the Greens (the peasantry), against the trade unions, against the church, and so on, until every alternative centre of power (and opinion) was eradicated, down to and including any gathering of three.

On 16 January 1979, Muhammad Reza Shah flew out of Tehran – to exile in Cairo. On 1 February, Ayatollah Khomeini flew into Tehran – from exile in Paris (where one of his more regrettable neighbours, I feel obliged to mention, was Brigitte Bardot). Thus the political revolution was over; now the cultural revolution began. The Provisional Government was successively eroded by the komitehs (mosque-based militias, later the Basij), by the Revolutionary Guards (later the Pasdaran, or the Iranian army), and by the revolutionary tribunals (which dealt out rough justice to survivors of the old regime, and various other undesirables). On 4 November, a group of pious students spontaneously infiltrated the US embassy and seized the 53 hostages. Khomeini manipulated this V-sign directed at the Great Satan to such effect that in the imminent referendum on the new constitution "99.5%" of a turnout of 17 million gave their blessing to Islamic autocracy.

But there was still that "0.5" to deal with. And Khomeini faced vigorous opposition from almost every quarter – most formidably from the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Established a decade and a half earlier, in opposition to the Shah, the Mujahedin (Marxist, left-Islamic, and committed to women's rights) had half a million adherents and could field a guerrilla army of 100,000 experienced fighters. When Khomeini excluded them from the new political order as "un-Islamic", they turned to terror. In 1981, if you recall, the Mujahedin were blowing up mullahs by the dozen (74 in a single strike in Tehran); and they went on to assassinate more than a thousand government officials in the latter months of that year. What followed was terroristic civil strife. By September, Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards were executing 50 people a day for "waging war against God" (the same crime, and the same punishment, now being invoked by the clerics of 2009). Fired by a zeal both revolutionary and religious, the mullahs bloodily prevailed.

Revolutions, almost by definition, are fiercely anti-clerical. As late as 1922, to take the fiercest possible example, Lenin executed 4,500 priests and monks, plus 3,500 nuns. Contrarian Iran, however, swam upstream. By December 1982, Khomeini had more or less secured the monopoly of violence, and the Iranian people found themselves living under the world's only revolutionary theocracy. The Islamic Republic was Islamic, now, but it was no longer a republic. Iranians have since enjoyed only a shadow of popular sovereignty; and by 1982, besides, they had something else to think about – the meatgrinding confrontation with Iraq.

The Iran-Iraq war can rightly be thought of as the Imposed War, but only if we understand that the war was imposed by Khomeini. It tests the historical imagination to get a sense of the horrified dismay engendered, throughout the region, by the advent of the meshuga ayatollah. Stalin, after a while, was content with "socialism in one country". Khomeini, proclaimedly, wanted Shia theocracy in every country on earth. Throughout the course of the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini put himself about elsewhere, with bombings, assassination attempts, and armed subversion, in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, the hajj became the scene of annual agitation; in 1987, a clash between Iranian militiamen and Saudi riot police left more than 400 dead.

And Iraq? In 1979 Saddam Hussein reached out a trembling hand of friendship to the new Iran, and was clearly hoping for the continuation of the detente he had established with the Shah. Iran responded by resuming support for the separatist Kurds (suspended since 1975) and for the Shia underground; there were assassination attempts on the deputy premier and the minister of information, and the successful murder of at least 20 prominent officials in April 1980 alone. Khomeini, meanwhile, withdrew his ambassador from Baghdad; in September, Iran shelled the border cities of Khanaqin and Mandali.

In The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988, Efraim Karsh lists in his chronology eight Iraqi offers of ceasefires, the first on 5 October 1980, 12 days after the war began, the last on 13 July 1988, five weeks before it ended. Khomeini's war aim was the theocratisation, or de-Satanisation, of Iraq; thus the war became a (failed) test of Islam, and devolved, in Mackey's words, into "a daily enactment of Shia themes of sacrifice, dispossession, and mourning". So: 12-year-olds were attacking Iraqi machine gun emplacements on bicycles, and 750,000 Iranians filled the multi-acre cemeteries, and perhaps twice that number were left crippled in body or mind. Eleven months later, Khomeini himself joined the fallen in the land of the dead.

What remains, then, you might wonder, as you deplane at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport, and enter a city where no cab-driver will stop for a cleric – what remains of the legacy bequeathed by the Father of the Revolution, or alternatively by "that fucking asshole", as he is reflexively called, in English, by the youth of the cities of Iran? Khomeini's notion of the Velayat-e Faqih, or rule by the vice-regent of God (ie, the top mullah, ie, Khomeini), was so unhistorical that many of its angriest opponents came from the clergy. Political participation, in Shia theology, is seen as a contaminant. And with good reason: that power corrupts is not a metaphor; and absolute power, combined with absolute self-righteousness, defined the insane nightmare of Khomeini's rule.

His moral imbecilities provide a rich field. I will confine myself to two examples. After President Carter's "fiasco in the desert", the failed Entebbe raid of April 1980, Khomeini announced that God had personally thrown sand into the helicopters' engines, to protect the nation of Islam. To hear this kind of talk from an eight-year-old is one thing; to hear it from a bellicose head of state, on public radio, is another. The second example comes from Mackey (the time is 1981):

A film run on government-controlled television showed a mother denouncing her son as a Marxist. The son, sobbing and grabbing for his mother's hand, desperately tries to convince her that he has given up Marxist politics. The mother rejects his pleas saying, "You must repent in front of God and you will be executed." The picture fades to Ayatollah Khomeini telling the people of Iran, "I want to see more mothers turning in their children with such courage without shedding a tear. This is what Islam is."

Well, it may or may not be what Islam is. But it is not what Iranians are.

* * *

Iran is one of the most venerable civilisations on earth: it makes China look like an adolescent, and America look like a stripling. And its 2,500-year history is sliced almost exactly in two by the rise of Islam. Accordingly, the Iranian heart is bipolar, divided between Xerxes and Muhammad, between Persepolis and Qom, between the imperially sensuous (with its luxury and poetry) and the unsmilingly pious. You will, I think, acknowledge that dividedness when I tell you that the author of this quietly beautiful quatrain –

I am a supplicant for a goblet of wine

From the hand of a sweetheart.

In whom can I confide this secret of mine,

Where can I take this sorrow?

– is the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Not Ferdowsi, not Rumi, not Hafez, not Omar Khayyam: Khomeini. It is perhaps the most beguiling single feature of Iranian life that its people go on pilgrimages, not only to the shrines of their martyrs and imams, but also to the shrines of their poets. The Iranian-Persian soul resembles the goddess Proserpina in Ted Hughes's masterly Tales from Ovid –

Proserpina, who divides her year

Between her husband in hell, among spectres,

And her mother on earth, among flowers.

Her nature, too, is divided. One moment

Gloomy as hell's king, but the next

Bright as the sun's mass, bursting from clouds.

In 1935, Iranians found themselves living in a different country – not Persia but Iran, the specifically pre-Islamic "land of the Arians". This was the work of Reza Shah (the army strongman who seized the throne in 1925). Reza Shah was a modernist and seculariser – Iran's Ataturk or Nasser. He was also a friend of Nazi Germany (and was deposed by the Allies in 1941). In 1976, Iranians found themselves living in a different millennium, not 1355 (dated from the time of the Prophet) but 2535 (dated from the time of Cyrus the Great). This was the work of Reza Shah's son. Installed by the coup of 1953 (the west's very grave historical crime, whose disastrous consequences are still with us), Muhammad Reza Shah was a "miserable wretch", as Khomeini rightly called him; but he was quite closely attuned to Iran's divided self. Reza Shah beat women who wore the veil; Khomeini beat women who didn't; Muhammad Reza Shah beat neither.

After 1979, Iran was subjected to militant and breakneck re-Islamisation. The Zoroastrian era was declared to be jahiliyyah, a benighted slum of ignorance and idolatry, and a dire embarrassment to all good Muslims. In the mid-1990s, for example, the historian Jahangir Tafazoli was put to death simply because he was the best-known specialist on ancient Iran. We would call this "killing the messenger", and we would call the entire tendency "delusional denial". The 30-year suppression of the mixed Iranian soul – which says yes to freedom and tolerance, yes to love and life and art, yes to Islam, and yes to modernity – provided the energy and courage of the June Events, and entrained the hideous murder of Neda Soltan.

* * *

So now we have another four years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be more purple-gummed with insecurity than ever, and another four years of troubled dreams about the Iranian bomb. I find that the one thing Ahmadinejad mandates, with full legitimacy, is a tone of ridicule – because it is impossible to write solemnly about the man who, among other absurdities, clinched the 2005 election by the simple feat of not having a Jacuzzi. And you needn't reread that sentence: the "Jacuzzi moment", or the no-Jacuzzi moment, when the candidate revealed that yes, he had no Jacuzzi, was widely credited with securing his majority. This was enough, apparently, to make him shine out in the smog of pelf and hypocrisy that passes for the Islamic Republic.

The American politician whom Ahmadinejad most closely resembles – in one vital respect – is Ronald Reagan. General similarities, I agree, are hard to spot. Ahmadinejad doesn't live on a ranch with a former starlet. Reagan didn't have a degree in traffic control. Ahmadinejad doesn't use Grecian 2000 (as his rapidly greying hair triumphantly attests). Reagan, as a young man, wasn't involved in the murder of political adversaries. And so on. But what they have in common is this: both figures are denizens of that stormlit plain where end-time theology meets nuclear weapons.

Now we can return, for a while, to dissimilarities. Ahmadinejad is not checked and balanced by democratic institutions. Reagan did not actually spend public money on civic preparations for the Second Coming, and was not the product of a culture saturated in ecstatic fantasies of morbid torment. Ahmadinejad does not have a temperament in which "simple-minded idealism" (in Eric Hobsbawm's formulation) might lead him to recognise "the sinister absurdity" of the arms race. And Reagan was not answerable to some millenarian vicar in the holy city of, say, Baltimore. Finally, whereas Reagan wielded enough firepower to kill everyone on earth several times over, Ahmadinejad does not yet have his Button.

Jesus Christ, according to both presidents, is due very shortly, but in Ahmadinejad's vision the Nazarene will merely form a part of the entourage of a much grander personage – the Hidden Imam. Who is the Hidden Imam? In the year 873, the bloodline of the Prophet came to an end when Hasan al-Askari (in Shiism, the 11th legitimate imam) died without an heir. At this point, among the believers, a classic circularity took hold. It was assumed that there must be an heir; there was no record of his existence, they reasoned, because extraordinary efforts had been made to conceal it; and extraordinary efforts had been made because this little boy was an extraordinary imam – the Mahdi, in fact, or the Lord of Time.

In Shia eschatology the Mahdi will return during a period of great tribulation (during, say, a nuclear war), will deliver the faithful from injustice and oppression, and will then supervise the Day of Judgment. Not only Ahmadinejad but members of his cabinet have been giving the Hidden Imam "about four years" – well within the president's second term. And where has the Hidden Imam dwelt since the ninth century? In "occultation", wherever that may be. The Hidden Imam is at least intelligibly called the Lord of Time: he is 1,100 years old.

Rule number one: no theocracy can ever deploy nuclear arms. And Iran, we respectfully suggest, is not yet ready for the force that drives the sun. We all know what Ahmadinejad thinks of Israel (and we remember his Islamists' conference, or his goons' rodeo, in Tehran, on the historicity of the Holocaust). Yet this is what Ali Rafsanjani thinks of Israel – Rafsanjani, the old, much-jailed revolutionary chancer, a pragmatist and reformer, hugely worldly, hugely venal: "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything", whereas a counterstrike on Iran will merely "harm" the Islamic world; "it is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality". Indeed, given the Shia commitment to martyrdom, mutual assured destruction, as one Israeli official put it, "is not a deterrent. It's an incentive."

Nuclear weapons, it seems, were sent down here to furnish mankind with a succession of excruciating dilemmas. Until recently the mullahs' quest for the H-bomb seemed partly containable: the nuclear powers could give face to Tehran, and begin to scale back their arsenals towards the zero option. But now those powers include North Korea (already the land of the living dead); and the Islamic Republic, in any case, no longer seems appeasable. Equipped with weapons of fission or fusion, the supreme leader may delegate first use to Hezbollah, or to the Call of Islam, or to the Legion of the Pure. Or he may himself become the first suicide bomber to be gauged in megatons.

* * *

Meanwhile, the memory of the June Events, and of Neda Soltan, will do its work, and add weight to the mass of unendurable humiliations meted out to the Iranian people. Meanwhile, too, the senescent regime (I again warily predict) will reach beyond crackdownism for the supposedly unifying effects of war. Not a war against someone its own size, or someone bigger. Tiny Bahrain, which is 60% Shia, looks about right.

As for apocalyptic Islamism, in all its forms, I cannot improve on the great Norman Cohn. This is from the 1995 foreword to Warrant for Genocide (1967), where the subject is the Tsarist fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and what Jewry calls the Shoa, or the Wind of Death:

"There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics [notably the lower clergy] for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history."

Martin Amis's novel The Pregnant Widow will be published by Cape next February

Martin Amis on the beginning of the end for Iran's ayatollahs | World news | The Guardian

Op-Ed Columnist - Iran’s Tragic Joke -


Iran’s Tragic Joke


Published: July 20, 2009

NEW YORK — Allow me to quote the British novelist Martin Amis, writing about Persia in The Guardian: “Iran is one of the most venerable civilizations on earth: it makes China look like an adolescent, and America look like a stripling.”

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Roger Cohen

Iranians, aware of that history, are a proud people. They do not take kindly to being played around with, nor to seeing their country turned into a laughingstock. They do not like the memory of an election campaign that now seems like pure theater, the expression of the sadistic whim of some puppeteer.

So the line I take away from the important Friday sermon of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the two-time former president who believes that the Islamic Republic’s future lies in compromise rather than endless confrontation, is this one: “We shouldn’t let our enemies laugh at us because we’ve imprisoned our own people.”

There’s been tragedy aplenty since June 12 — dozens of killings, thousands of arrests, countless beatings of the innocent — and I hope I belittle none of it when I say there’s also been something laughable.

What president would celebrate a “victory” by two-thirds of the vote with a clampdown resembling a putsch? What self-respecting nation would attribute the appearance in the streets of three million protesters convinced their votes were stolen to Zionists, “evil” media and British agents?

(The former British ambassador to Iran told me with a smile last January that Tehran was an interesting place to serve “because it’s one of the very few places left on earth where people still believe we have some influence!”)

What sort of country invites hundreds of journalists to witness an election only to throw them all out? What kind of revolutionary authority invokes “ethics” and “religious democracy” as it allows plain-clothes thugs to beat women?

What is to be thought of a supreme leader who calls an election result divine, then says there are some questions that need resolution by an oversight council, and then tells that council what the result of its recount is before it’s over?

Iran is not some banana republic. The events since the night of June 12 have been a shameful interlude. Iranians have not digested this grotesquery.

No, Iran is not a banana republic. It’s a sophisticated nation of 75 million people. It pretends to a significant role in the affairs of the world. It’s a land of poets who knew how to marry the sacred and the sensuous and always laughed at the idea of a truth so absolute it would not accommodate contradiction.

It’s an Islamic Republic and, as Rafsanjani said, “If the Islamic and Republican sides of the revolution are not preserved, it means that we have forgotten the principles of the revolution.”

Respecting that duality — the clerical and the republican — means that the price Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to pay for his lifelong authority is the quadrennial holding of presidential elections that cannot remove him from office but must inform his actions.

Because Khamenei trampled on this principle, ignoring the will of the people, he created the “crisis” of which Rafsanjani spoke.

It will not abate quickly. Iranians believe the puppeteer must pay a price for such clumsy theater. Within the revolutionary establishment and within society, fissures have become chasms. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now the most divisive figure in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history.

As Rafsanjani said: “We could have taken our best step in the history of the Islamic Revolution had the election not faced problems.”

The campaign was of an exemplary openness. Supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mir Hussein Moussavi, the reformist candidate, took to the streets without incident. Moussavi, with his impeccable revolutionary credentials, was the very emblem of unthreatening change.

But a hardline faction around Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards felt threatened — in their power, wealth and world view.

They do not believe, as Rafsanjani believes, in a China option for Iran: the possibility of normalizing relations with the U.S. and preserving the system.

While Rafsanjani spoke, Ahmadinejad was speaking in Mashad. “As soon as the new government is formed, it will enter the global sphere with a power that is 10 times greater than that of the West and overthrow the West from its hegemonic position,” he said.

I heard the president say the same thing, again and again and again, over the course of a three-hour press conference two days after the election. He is suffering from a pathology. Rafsanjani is not alone in believing it is dangerous.

A succession struggle of sorts has begun in Iran. Rafsanjani, 74, is challenging Khamenei, 70. So is Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president who called Sunday for a referendum on the legitimacy of the election. They are saying Iran is a great and proud nation: open the prisons, free the press, allow debate, do not make a laughingstock of our institutions. That, they insist, is the only form of loyalty to the Revolution.

It’s also the only action worthy of a millennial nation. The joke has been too foul to stand.

Op-Ed Columnist - Iran’s Tragic Joke -

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Foreign Policy In Focus | Iran: Code Orange?


Iran: Code Orange?

Yelena Biberman | June 30, 2009

Editor: John Feffer



Foreign Policy In Focus

"Iran is now on the verge of an Orange-style Revolution." This statement is likely to elicit enthusiasm from those working tirelessly to promote democracy in Iran.

However, the term "Orange Revolution" has become a misnomer. Yes, the Ukrainian uprising was "Orange." But it was not a revolution. Ultimately, it brought no fundamental change to Ukrainian politics and bred further corruption. Today, less than five years later, the vast majority of those who participated in the protests no longer support their leader. If Victor Yushchenko ran for president again, he would have no real chance of winning the election.

With Iran now closer to change than it has been over the past 20 years, a Ukrainian-style transformation should not be the goal of those who seek democracy in Iran. An incomplete revolution would be worse than a full one. As the Ukrainian case has shown, such a half step would discredit and dishearten those who believe that fundamental change is possible and very likely bring about a political relapse.

Parallels with Ukraine

As in the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, the current political disarray in Iran was sparked by allegations of electoral fraud and is characterized by the major role of young people. Like the dramatic events that took place in Ukraine, it's also a result of years of pent-up frustration, helplessness, and hope, especially among members of the young post-revolutionary generation. It's also a product of serious organizational capacity, though significantly lower in Iran that it was in Ukraine due to the more oppressive nature of the regime. And in Iran, it's not yet clear who is doing the organizing.

The key ingredient in both episodes has been youth. Iran is a young country. The majority of the country's population is under the age of 30, with the median age now being 27. In fact, Iran's current youth population (between 15 and 30 years old) is the largest it has ever been in the history of the country.

The Iranian state has failed to meet young people's growing demand for economic opportunities, moral guidance, and even basic needs. A record number of young Iranians are consequently emigrating, marrying later in life, and turning to drugs. As one Iranian émigré has recently shared with me, there has also been a wave of conversion to other religions as a sign of protest against the clerical regime.

Young people played an important role in the landslide victory of reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997, but soon became disappointed with Khatami's inability to deliver the promised reforms. Student protests were common in the early 2000s, but died down by the time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office.

On March 17, 2009, when Khatami withdrew his candidacy for the country's June 12 election and announced that he would support fellow reformist Mousavi, few doubted that Mousavi would spark the imagination of the young. At the same time, experts cautioned that Mousavi's victory, like the victories of Khatami in 1997 and 2001, would be no guarantee of major change in Iran due to the Islamic Republic's power structure.

Khamenei's Blunder

If it wanted to prevent fundamental change, Iran's ruling elite made a brilliant blunder by engineering Mousavi's defeat. The defeat of Mousavi acted to mobilize the population (of Tehran) and raised its expectations of fundamental change, should Mousavi come to power. As the regime cracked down on the protesters, it inadvertently transformed the issue of contention from election fraud to the legitimacy of the clerical rule.

However, like Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, Mousavi would not have brought revolutionary change. He has challenged the outcome of a presidential election, but he hasn't truly challenged the country's political structure and institutions. Without such a challenge, a modern revolution cannot succeed in Iran.

The Iranian government's second blunder was the arrest of members of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani's family. Rafsanjani heads both the powerful Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts, which has the authority to monitor and remove the supreme leader. He's also the founder of the Islamic Azad University, a mega university with over a million students. In other words, angering Rafsanjani will no doubt further fuel the fire of Iranian youth discontent.

The Iranian ruling elite has learned nothing from the Orange popular uprising in Ukraine. In Ukraine, the slip-up was Russian President Vladimir Putin's premature congratulation of Viktor Yanukovych's victory. As Yanukovych appeared to have been handpicked by the Kremlin, so did Ahmadinejad seem handpicked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In both cases the people didn't have any say, but clearly had something very important to tell their government.

The most important lesson for the Iranian opposition to take away from the Orange uprising is the realization that bringing Mousavi to power won't be enough. Yushchenko, victor of the "Orange Revolution," now enjoys a 2% popularity rating. He has no chance of being re-elected in the next presidential election, scheduled to take place in January 2010. In fact, Ukrainian voters may pick Yanukovich. For those inside Iran and those outside, putting all of one's faith in Mousavi as Iran's best chance for democracy is misguided.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Yelena Biberman is currently serving as an IREX U.S. Embassy Policy Specialist in Kiev, Ukraine. She is also a doctoral candidate at Brown University (The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government agency or organization to which she is affiliated.).

Foreign Policy In Focus | Iran: Code Orange?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Political Cortex: CIA Chronicles: Destroying Democracy in Iran for British Petroleum


CIA Chronicles: Destroying Democracy in Iran for British Petroleum Email Print

By Bill Hare
06/03/2009 05:05:04 PM EST

We read and hear every day what a trouble spot Iran is to America and the world.  "If only they would understand us" is one pet saying delivered with the shake of a head and a loud accompanying sigh.

A search through history, in this and other instances, reveals why Iran took the steps it did to bring it to its current chapter where the mainstream media engages in perpetual hand wringing over what is perceived as the policies of "crazies."

To those who have not studied the history of post-World War Two in Iran the idea of Iranians having their own functioning democracy existing under an elected popular leader can expect to be greeted with a dismaying stare and a comment of "Couldn't be!  We're not talking about the same country.  Not in Iran."

Understandably the mainstream media along with corporate giants, particularly in the global oil sphere, are not eager for the real history of Iran to be revealed.  It becomes embarrassing and downright disconcerting.

Iran had a popular prime minister named Mohammed Mossadegh.  There were no controversies surrounding his election as there were the two elections of America's oil cartel and New World Order favorite George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.  

Mossadegh, a man looking after the economic interests of the people who voted him into power, did not like the fact that outside powers controlled the oil that flowed within Iran.  He decided to nationalize Iran's plentiful oil supply.

A plan was hatched to use of the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency that had been created under President Harry Truman as the successor of the Office of Strategic Services that was the government's international intelligence instrument during the World War Two period.

The most popular politician in the nation, Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1951.  His major election plank was nationalization of the only oil company operating in the nation at the time, British Petroleum, a measure implemented into law by unanimous passage by the Iranian Parliament.

As Mark Zepezauer stated in "The CIA's Greatest Hits", "Though Mossadegh offered BP considerable compensation, his days were numbered from that point on.  The British coordinated an international economic embargo of Iran, throwing its economy into chaos.  And the CIA, at the request of the British, began spending millions of dollars on ways to get rid of Mossadegh."

Archie Roosevelt, the grandson of former president Theodore, late in his life confessed his involvement in the overthrow of a leader holding the support of the majority of the Iranian people and his replacement by the reliable young Shah of Iran, Reha Pahlavi.  

In 1953, with the CIA supplying needed clout, Mossadegh was removed from office.  When demonstrators filled the streets supporting Mossadegh, the Shah fled for Rome.  

The CIA sought to restore control on the side of British Petroleum and the oil global order by providing pro-Shah demonstrators.  Some of them seized a radio station, proclaiming that Mossadegh had been deposed and that the Shah would be shortly returning.

A nine hour tank battle erupted in the streets of Tehran in a successful effort to remove Iran's popularly elected leader.  The Shah returned from Italy while Mossadegh was compelled to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

SAVAK, the CIA-trained security police of the Shah, by 1976 was cited by Amnesty International for possessing the worst human rights record in the world.  The savage torture techniques SAVAK employed are reminiscent of what have been more recently employed by U.S. government functionaries at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Meanwhile a radical Islamic cleric living in exile in Paris awaited the right moment.  When unpopularity of the Shah and his vicious SAVAK agents reached its peak a revolution occurred and the formerly exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran to take control.

So what is the complaint against Iran today? -- That it has a radical Islamic fundamentalist government.

How many analysts transport us back to the roots of change that occurred after a popularly installed leader was removed from office in a CIA-orchestrated coup?  Could there just possibly be a correlation between events of then and now?

Does the mainstream media wish to do a documentary on the CIA, British Petroleum, and the link between those events of the early fifties and what transpired in the better than two generations that transpired in Iran?      

KEYWORDS: CIA Coup in Iran, Archie Roosevelt, Shah of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, Ayatollah Khomeini

Political Cortex: CIA Chronicles: Destroying Democracy in Iran for British Petroleum

Report Ties Dubious Iran Nuclear Docs to Israel by Gareth Porter --


Report Ties Dubious Iran Nuclear Docs to Israel

by Gareth Porter, June 04, 2009

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A report on Iran’s nuclear program issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month generated news stories publicizing an incendiary charge that U.S. intelligence is underestimating Iran’s progress in designing a "nuclear warhead" before the halt in nuclear weapons-related research in 2003.

That false and misleading charge from an intelligence official of a foreign country, who was not identified but was clearly Israeli, reinforces two of Israel’s key propaganda themes on Iran – that the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is wrong, and that Tehran is poised to build nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
But it also provides new evidence that Israeli intelligence was the source of the collection of intelligence documents which have been used to accuse Iran of hiding nuclear weapons research.
The Committee report, dated May 4, cited unnamed "foreign analysts" as claiming intelligence that Iran ended its nuclear weapons-related work in 2003 because it had mastered the design and tested components of a nuclear weapon and thus didn’t need to work on it further until it had produced enough sufficient material.
That conclusion, which implies that Iran has already decided to build nuclear weapons, contradicts both the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, and current intelligence analysis. The NIE concluded that Iran had ended nuclear weapons-related work in 2003 because of increased international scrutiny, and that it was "less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005."
The report included what appears to be a spectacular revelation from "a senior allied intelligence official" that a collection of intelligence documents supposedly obtained by U.S. intelligence in 2004 from an Iranian laptop computer includes "blueprints for a nuclear warhead."
It quotes the unnamed official as saying that the blueprints "precisely matched" similar blueprints the official’s own agency "had obtained from other sources inside Iran."
No U.S. or IAEA official has ever claimed that the so-called laptop documents included designs for a "nuclear warhead." The detailed list in a May 26, 2008 IAEA report of the contents of what have been called the "alleged studies" – intelligence documents on alleged Iranian nuclear weapons work — made no mention of any such blueprints.
In using the phrase "blueprints for a nuclear warhead," the unnamed official was evidently seeking to conflate blueprints for the reentry vehicle of the Iranian Shehab missile, which were among the alleged Iranian documents, with blueprints for nuclear weapons.
When New York Times reporters William J. Broad and David E. Sanger used the term "nuclear warhead" to refer to a reentry vehicle in a Nov. 13, 2005 story on the intelligence documents on the Iranian nuclear program, it brought sharp criticism from David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
"This distinction is not minor," Albright observed, "and Broad should understand the differences between the two objects, particularly when the information does not contain any words such as nuclear or nuclear warhead."
The Senate report does not identify the country for which the analyst in question works, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff refused to respond to questions about the report from IPS, including the reason why the report concealed the identity of the country for which the unidentified "senior allied intelligence official" works.
Reached later in May, the author of the report, Douglas Frantz, told IPS he is under strict instructions not to speak with the news media.
After a briefing on the report for selected news media immediately after its release, however, the Associated Press reported May 6 that interviews were conducted in Israel. Frantz was apparently forbidden by Israeli officials from revealing their national affiliation as a condition for the interviews.
Frantz, a former journalist for the Los Angeles Times, had extensive contacts with high-ranking Israeli military, intelligence and foreign ministry officials before joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. He and co-author Catherine Collins conducted interviews with those Israeli officials for The Nuclear Jihadist, published in 2007. The interviews were all conducted under rules prohibiting disclosure of their identities, according to the book.
The unnamed Israeli intelligence officer’s statement that the "blueprints for a nuclear warhead" — meaning specifications for a missile reentry vehicle - were identical to "designs his agency had obtained from other sources in Iran" suggests that the documents collection which the IAEA has called "alleged studies" actually originated in Israel.
A U.S.-based nuclear weapons analyst who has followed the "alleged studies" intelligence documents closely says he understands that the documents obtained by U.S. intelligence in 2004 were not originally stored on the laptop on which they were located when they were brought in by an unidentified Iranian source, as U.S. officials have claimed to U.S. journalists.
The analyst, who insists on not being identified, says the documents were collected by an intelligence network and then assembled on a single laptop.
The anonymous Israeli intelligence official’s claim, cited in the Committee report, that the "blueprints" in the "alleged studies" collection matched documents his agency had gotten from its own source seems to confirm the analyst’s finding that Israeli intelligence assembled the documents.
German officials have said that the Mujahedin-e-Khalq or MEK, the Iranian resistance organization, brought the laptop documents collection to the attention of U.S. intelligence, as reported by IPS in February 2008. Israeli ties with the political arm of the MEK, the National Committee of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), go back to the early 1990s and include assistance to the organization in broadcasting into Iran from Paris.
The NCRI publicly revealed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in August 2002. However, that and other intelligence apparently came from Israeli intelligence. The Israeli co-authors of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, Yossi Melman and Meir Javeanfar, revealed that "Western" intelligence was "laundered" to hide its actual provenance by providing it to Iranian opposition groups, especially NCRI, in order to get it to the IAEA.
They cite U.S., British and Israeli officials as sources for the revelation.
New Yorker writer Connie Bruck wrote in a March 2006 article that an Israeli diplomat confirmed to her that Israel had found the MEK "useful" but declined to elaborate.
Israeli intelligence is also known to have been actively seeking to use alleged Iranian documents to prove that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program just at the time the intelligence documents which eventually surfaced in 2004 would have been put together.
The most revealing glimpse of Israeli use of such documents to influence international opinion on Iran’s nuclear program comes from the book by Frantz and Collins. They report that Israel’s international intelligence agency Mossad created a special unit in the summer of 2003 to carry out a campaign to provide secret briefings on the Iranian nuclear program, which sometimes included "documents from inside Iran and elsewhere."
The "alleged studies" collection of documents has never been verified as genuine by either the IAEA or by intelligence analysts. The Senate report said senior United Nations officials and foreign intelligence officials who had seen "many of the documents" in the collection of alleged Iranian military documents had told committee staff "it is impossible to rule out an elaborate intelligence ruse."

Report Ties Dubious Iran Nuclear Docs to Israel by Gareth Porter --

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Report Takes Fresh Look at Iranian Regime, Challenges U.S. Assumptions -


Report Questions Conventional Wisdom About Iranian Regime

An Iranian soldier stands guard as other troops in camouflage march during an Army Day ceremony outside Tehran.

An Iranian soldier stands guard as other troops in camouflage march during an Army Day ceremony outside Tehran. (By Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)

By Walter Pincus

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Tehran feels vulnerable, both from outside and from within."

That is just one of a handful of intriguing findings in a study released by the Rand Corp. last week that challenges conventional American thinking about the Iranian regime.

The U.S. Air Force Directorate of Operational Plans and Joint Matters sponsored the study, given Iran's apparent drive to develop nuclear weapons and the likelihood that the United States would use air power as a "first resort" military response to meet that threat.

Faced with that situation, the report's authors decided to take a fresh look at what could be expected from Iran over the next decade, measured against not only the country's military and economic strengths and religious influence but also its "serious liabilities and limitations."

U.S. policies over the past nine years eliminated the most serious threat to Iran, Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, and an American-led coalition has been fighting against the Taliban, another potential enemy of Iran. Still, there remains "a myriad of threats and vulnerabilities that challenge Iran in the current strategic environment," according to the Rand report.

"We found significant barriers and buffers to Iran's strategic reach rooted in both the regional geo-politics it is trying to influence and in its limited conventional military capacity, diplomatic isolation, and past strategic missteps," the report says.

The study calls attention to sectarian violence and Sunni-inspired terrorism in two key Iranian provinces, Khuzestan and Baluchistan, where opposition exists against the Shiite regime in Tehran. In addition, the report says that Tehran's religious hierarchy is worried about theological and political challenges emerging from Shiite seminaries in Iraq.

"The Shiite learning centers of Najaf and Karbala [in Iraq] long dominated Shiite discourse before being suppressed by Baathist regimes," according to the study. They are reemerging and have the potential to overshadow their Iranian counterparts in Qom, the seat of Shiite scholarship. The study notes that many Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, "look to the seminaries in Najaf, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, instead of the Iranian Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] for spiritual and political guidance."


And although Iran has supported Shiite militant groups in Iraq, the report says, "Iranian funds and military assistance are not essential to the survival of major Shiite political factions." Instead, some of the groups receiving aid from Tehran are "promoting an image of Iraqi nationalism for domestic support and thus prefer to maintain a degree of separation from Tehran."

Iran has long provided financial and military aid to Islamist groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The study, however, raises doubts that in the event of a U.S. attack against Iran, "the willingness of these groups to retaliate purely in the service of Tehran should not be assumed as automatic." The report's authors conclude that "it is best to conceive of Iran as exerting influence over its Shiite allies, but not control."

The study also questions conventional wisdom about Iran's military capabilities. Iranian leaders have created a multilayered military, in part because of a relatively weak army "mired down in conventional doctrine because of bureaucratic inertia in procurement and frequent infighting." Its equipment is aging and poorly maintained.

Iran's overlapping security structure "is beset with factionalism," according to the study. Decision making requires consensus among competing groups that consist of the office and associates of Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the military and intelligence communities, and finally the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Revolutionary Guard provides much of the support to Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant groups outside Iran. It also has major missile weaponry and a network of businesses, making it a player in foreign policy and domestic politics.

But there is frequent squabbling between the Revolutionary Guard and conventional forces, according to the study. Beyond these groups are the bonyads, charitable trusts that control almost 40 percent of Iran's wealth and support Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard; the bazaari business community; and the religious sector. The factionalism of this system leads to inconsistencies in the approach toward the United States but at the same time makes it difficult for Iran to change course rapidly, the study says.

Despite Iran's rhetoric, the study concludes that Tehran does not seek to enlarge its territory or force its brand of Islamic revolution on its neighbors. Instead, the report cautions that "the ideology and bravado of Iran's President Ahmadinejad and its religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei mask a preference for opportunism and realpolitik -- the qualities that define 'normal' state behavior."

Report Takes Fresh Look at Iranian Regime, Challenges U.S. Assumptions -