Tom Porteous is a freelance writer and analyst who has worked for the BBC and the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He recently returned from Iran.
Why is Iran 's new president going out of his way to provoke the United State s, Israel and Europe with his brinkmanship overIran 's nuclear program and repeated denial of the Holocaust?
Many commentators have put the intern ational posturing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad down to inexperience and incompetence. But it would be foolish to underrate a man who has survived the hurly-burly of Iran's Islamic revolution and one of the bloodiest conflicts of the past quarter century (the Iran-Iraq war, where Ahmadinejad served as a Revolutionary Guard commander) to emerge in his 40s as post-revolutionary Iran's first non-clerical president.
The signs are that Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, both on Iran 's civil nuclear program (which the West fears is a cover for plans to produce nuclear weapons) and onIsrael, is deliberate and calculated. Like much of his political maneuvering since he unexpectedly won last year's presidential elections, Ahmadinejad's intern ational gestures are probably designed with one principle aim in mind: to ensure political survival in the power struggle that is now underway at the heart ofIran 's fragmented power structure.
It is a power struggle that Ahmadinejad is by no means certain to win. The Iranian presidency is the most important elected office inIran. But it is only one of several centers of power and not the most powerful one, as Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor in the president's office, Mohammad Khatami, discovered to his cost. The oligarchs who control the unelected institutions of the state and much ofIran 's formal and informal economy blocked Khatami's reformist agenda because it threatened their vested interests, and they are likely to block Ahmadinejad's radical Islamist and populist agenda.
Ahmadinejad knows what he is up against and that's why he is pulling out all the stops to secure his position, with populist promises ranging from wealth redistribution and an end to corruption, to the creation of conditions for the return of the Mahdi, Shi'a Islam's last imam who disappeared a little over a thousand years ago and whose return, many Iranians believe, will herald an age of universal justice.
In the power struggle now being played out in Iran, Ahmadinejad may well see intern ational economic sanctions and even military confrontation between Iran and the West as opportunities to consolidate his position withinIran. Given the chance, he would use a showdown with the West to take on the role ofIran 's defender against foreign aggression, to wrest control of the economy from the oligarchs, and to undermine rival centers of power in the security forces under the cover of a general military mobilization.
If this is indeed Ahmadinejad's strategy, it is not without risks. But the political calculations that underpin it indicate an astute understanding on the part of Iran 's president of the new political realities in the region in the aftermath of 9/11 and the U.S. military adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia.
With the U.S. and Britain already in trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the West's options for dealing withIran are limited. Economic sanctions onIran would do little to damage the Iranian government—indeed they could widen the scope for profiteering among the political elite. As for military action, it is doubtful that the U.S. is capable of launching, let alone winning, the full scale war againstIran that would be necessary to effect regime change. But any military action that stopped short of regime change could well result in the consolidation of the power of the fundamentalists around the Iranian president, and would set back the prospects of political reform inIran for years.
Another indication that Iran's president is not the political novice he is made out to be by his enemies is that Ahmadinejad has cleverly chosen to pick his fight with the west over two highly emotive issues that not only unite the otherwise fragmented regime, but are also more or less bound to provoke the kind of knee-jerk Western reaction that will play into his hands.
If theU.S. and its allies were not so obsessed about the nexus of "rogue states," terrorism and WMDs, and if their Middle East policies incorporated a more balanced approach towards Israel (the region's unofficially acknowledged nuclear hegemon), then a more sensible and safer Western strategy towardsIran could take shape.
Such a strategy would first accept the inevitability that sooner or later Iran will, if it wishes, acquire nuclear weapons, and secondly work diplomatically and politically to ensure that by the time Iran does acquire such capability the country is led by a reforming government that neither feels threatened by nor threatens its neighbors.
If Iran were left alone, the checks and balances of Iranian politics—Iran is no dictatorship—would probably lead to the marginalization of Ahmadinejad's brand of revolutionary revivalism and a resurgence of the now blocked political reformism of the Khatami era.
As things stand, however, the countdown to confrontation between the West andIran has already started. And such a confrontation may well backfire on the West, assisting the consolidation of radical Islamist politics in Iran and providing Tehran with incentives not only to develop nukes, but to use them.
Copyright © 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global