Saturday, September 24, 2005

Iran Walking Into a Trap?

Amir Taheri, Arab News:
As the drumbeat of war gets louder in Tehran it is, perhaps, time to wonder whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new administration is not walking into a trap partly of its own making.

Over the past week or so Iranian officials at various levels have made a number of statements that could harm Iran’s interests at a difficult time.

Many had hoped that Ahmadinejad would use the opportunity provided by his presence at the UN General Assembly in New York to offer a way out of the diplomatic impasse over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.

But that didn’t happen.

Ahmadinejad’s speeches and interviews represented an improvement over his predecessor Muhammad Khatami, a mulla, who amused UN audiences by trying to show off his knowledge of Hobbes and Hegel. Unlike Khatami, Ahmadinejad did not pretend to be what he is not, that is to say a liberal democrat. Instead, he spoke as a radical Islamist revolutionary representing a radical Islamist revolutionary regime.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad committed a mistake by making no distinction between rhetoric and real politics.

Before Ahmadinejad arrived in New York many in the UN saw Iran as a poor developing nation being bullied by big powers on spurious grounds. Ahmadinejad replaced that image with one of a cocky midsized power trying to punch above its weight regardless of the consequences.

That impression was subsequently strengthened by sermons in Tehran by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi.

Meanwhile, various officials have been acting as loose cannons.

Ali Larijani, the new secretary-general of the High Council of National Defense, has threatened that Iran might withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) rather than continue the diplomatic wrangle with it. (That threat, however, was withdrawn by Ghulamreza Aqazadeh, Ahmadinejad’s assistant for nuclear affairs, hours later.)

Next it was the turn of Islamic Majlis Speaker Ghulam-Ali Haddad-Adel, to issue a threat that Iran might withdraw from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). (Since Ahmadinejad has not succeeded in appointing an oil minister it is not clear who speaks on the subject.)

That the administration was out of sync was further illustrated by Manuchehr Mottaki, the new foreign minister, who told European Union colleagues that Ahmadinejad’s tough speech at the UN should be taken with a pinch of salt. A similar message was relayed by the Islamic Republic’s ambassadors at the UN, and in London, Paris and Berlin.

Ahmadinejad’s braggadocio has also inspired editorial writers in Tehran who, now that the radical faction is in control, are trying to renew their revolutionary credentials. One way of doing so is to call for the withdrawal of the Islamic Republic not only from the NPT and OPEC but also from the United Nations.

At the same time, mullas working for the government have seized Ahmadinejad’s warlike language to heat up the situation further. In a speech in Qom last week, one such mulla, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, claimed that it was Iran’s mission to lead a global revolution and “liberate” the world in the name of the “Hidden Imam” whose birthday was celebrated on Sept. 21.

To add to the confusion, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has been touring the region at the head of a 30-man delegation that included two former foreign ministers, a former minister of intelligence and security, and several political mullas. Rafsanjani, who heads something called The Expediency Council, behaved as if he, and not Ahmadinejad, were the president of the Islamic Republic, and tried to engage his embarrassed hosts on issues outside the remit of his current job.

Rafsanjani is not alone in this game of make-believe.

Khatami, who also appears to have difficulty in getting used to the idea of Ahmadinejad as president, has spent the past few weeks touring the provinces to address small anti-Ahmadinejad crowds as if engaged in a presidential election campaign.

Part of this bizarre situation may be due to Ahmadinejad’s inexperience in politics at national and international levels.

It is obvious that he has not yet mastered the details of such complicated dossiers as the nuclear program. Also, Ahmadinejad has little direct knowledge of the outside world and the workings of the global system. His only previous visit to the West was in 1989 when he spent a week in Vienna as part of an official team from Tehran negotiating with Kurdish dissidents in exile. (The episode ended in a shoot-out in which three Kurdish leaders were killed by a hit squad from Tehran. Ahmadinejad, apparently not informed about the plot, was injured.)

Ahmadinejad’s lack of experience in international affairs is compounded by the fact that the Islamic Republic’s media and foreign policy establishments are filled with members or at least sympathizers of the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction.

The Islamic Republic’s diplomatic service has never been politically neutral, partly because few of its members are career diplomats. Politicians and mullas could become ambassadors, or even foreign minister, while ambassadors could resign their diplomatic positions to stand for election in local or national contests. A mulla who has served as ambassador could leave diplomacy to become Friday prayer leader in a province.

Ahmadinejad knows that the diplomatic service, together with the rest of the administration, is filled with foes who regard him as an intruder if not a usurper. But he would need time to place his own men in key positions.

By pushing Ahmadinejad, and with him the Islamic Republic, into a major international crisis, the defeated faction pursues a number of objectives. READ MORE

First, a government preoccupied with a diplomatic crisis would have little time to act on Ahmadinejad’s campaign promise of auditing the last 16 years to “ bring to book those who have robbed the nation and wrecked its economy.”

Secondly, the new administration could be weakened by a crisis that it manifestly cannot handle at this stage. That would give Ahmadinejad’s opponents an opportunity for chipping away at his authority by raising the profile of the organs they still control. (As noted above Rafsanjani is already doing that through his so-called Expediency Council.)

Thirdly, a weakened administration would be unable to implement the reforms that Ahmadinejad has promised. These include a pledge to restore state control over the oil industry that has been transformed into a banquet table for some 40 private companies that, according to Ahmadinejad, have acted as “rapacious vultures.”

Finally, Ahmadinejad’s failure could ensure his faction’s defeat in the parliamentary elections in two years’ time, enabling the “rapacious vultures” to stage a comeback.

The negative impact of the war noises made in Tehran is already felt in the economic domain with a fall in the value of the rial, Iran’s currency. This is all the more surprising because, thanks to record high oil prices, Iran is earning over $200 million a day in foreign exchange. Many business contracts have been frozen while even small companies and private citizens are transferring as much of their capital as they can to foreign banks and offshore funds.

A nation’s foreign policy is a continuation of its domestic politics; and the Islamic Republic is no exception. While the Islamic Republic’s foreign enemies wish to force it into isolation, Ahmadinejad’s domestic foes are cheering him on his way into a diplomatic trap. Ahmadinejad seems to believe that he can take on the Western powers, led by the United States, in a limited conflict, and defeat them thus becoming a national hero and a pan-Islamic knight riding the steed of history in triumph. That is a juvenile illusion that could wreck Ahmadinejad’s presidency before it finds its cruising speed.