Monday, December 19, 2005

Ahmadinejad's Challenge to the World

Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath and Georg Mascolo, Spiegel Online:
Iran's new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just won't stop. Every week, it seems, he provokes Israel and the West a little more. But what can be done? Many are hoping that the Iranian mullah's will solve the problem themselves.

The "paradise of Sahra" is southeast of Tehran on the main road to Ghom. High walls surround the vast site, almost as if to protect it from the surrounding poverty. This paradise is meant to remain well-removed from any evidence of human suffering. It's a world unto itself. A world of death.

"Behesht-a Sahra" is probably the Islamic world's largest martyr cemetery. About 30,000 Iranians who gave their lives for the revolution and the theocracy are buried here. The dead range from pale boys who were sent into mine fields during the Iran-Iraq war to powerful clerics assassinated by opponents to the regime. Each grave is a lament, but also a declaration of faith in Islam, the Iranian theocracy and the revolution.

The martyrs are buried here in the shadow of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose Islamic revolution brought down the Shah and whose nearby mausoleum is visible from a great distance. The Ayatollah himself had ordered that he be buried not far from the neighborhoods of the poor, in a last gesture of deference for the "barefoot soldiers" of his revolution who, more than a quarter century after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, are still waiting for the promise of worldly blessings. While the mullah aristocracy in the affluent northern section of the capital has managed to enrich itself ever since the Iranian revolution in the winter of 1979, the country's poor have been left with little more than hope for a better life after death.

But, almost as if they hadn't had enough of revolution and war, it's precisely the losers and the desperate, the victims of war and Iranian society's permanent under-classes who invoke the spirit of the imam with every flower laid on a martyr's shrine and every prayer voiced in the Ayatollah's mausoleum. It was also the poor and dispossessed who, in an expression of their faith in revolution, helped vote a man into office as Iran's president who sees himself as Khomeini's true heir: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Street cleaner of the people"

Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, is more of a religious fanatic than any other president since the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. One of his campaign promises was to close the stock exchange, because, as he claimed, it violates the Islamic prohibition on gambling. In an effort to capture votes, Ahmadinejad promised day laborers on the country's pistachio plantations land reform in the name of Islamic justice and impoverished city dwellers part ownership in state companies. READ MORE

He offered the most devout Shiites visions of a return of the dead twelfth imam, even drawing, with his own hand, a map depicting the route this messiah would take when returning to the Shiite faithful. And during his speech before the United Nations in September, in which he raged against what he called America's policy of "nuclear apartheid" and demanded that his country be entitled to its own full-fledged nuclear program, he even laid claim to enlightenment. Ahmadinejad's said he was surrounded by a light while speaking at the UN and the world leaders stared at him "as if paralyzed."

Indeed, Ahmadinejad's behavior has caused the entire world to raise its eyebrows. Even his supporters in Tehran are shaking their heads. And yet, as loony as he may seem, it would be a grave mistake not to take him seriously.

Ahmadinejad, the conservative, self-proclaimed "street cleaner of the people," has vowed to use an iron broom to sweep everything impure from his society, and has worked up an unprecedented level of hatred for Israel. His rhetoric has become so inflamed that -- even in a country where condemnation of the Jewish state, and death wishes for the USA, have become routine -- it seems excessive.

In a speech televised on state-owned television last week, Iran's fanatical new president contested -- for the third time now -- Israel's right to exist. The Holocaust, said Ahmadinejad, is a "myth" that the West "invented" so that it could establish the Jewish state "in the heart of the Islamic world."

What to do?

Earlier, at a conference entitled "The World Without Zionism," Ahmadinejad, quoting his model Khomeini, demanded that Israel be "wiped off the map." Then, at a conference in Mecca, he proposed that the Palestine problem be solved by moving the state of Israel to Germany or Austria.

Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli tirades set off a powerful and unanimous storm of indignation. French President Jacques Chirac and all of his European counterparts were outraged, as were the normally cautious United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Pope Benedict XVI. The Iranian president's rhetoric also prompted US President George W. Bush to revisit his characterization of the mullah state as part of his "Axis of Evil." Indeed, if the administration in Washington has its way, the incidents will also encourage their European allies to follow America's lead and quickly impose sanctions on Iran.

The question, though, remains what kind of sanctions. After all, anything other than an oil embargo would likely be ineffective. "We need a credible threat," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during an official visit to Washington.

But an oil embargo is the last thing the United States needs. China and Japan, two of Tehran's biggest customers, would be unlikely to play along, and the resulting sharp increase in oil prices would also hurt the US economy. Besides, the Iranians, during earlier negotiations with the Europeans, hinted that an escalation of the conflict could quickly become very dangerous for the West. Iran has an arsenal of more than 2,000 sea mines, with which Tehran's navy could easily shut down the crucial Strait of Hormuz. "That would drive the global economy into the cellar," warns Michael Mazarr of the Washington-based National War College.

European Parliament member Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Greens, suggested that Iran be excluded from the soccer World Cup. Thomas de Maizière, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, surprisingly called Cohn-Bendit's proposal an "interesting idea," but one that should be up to the sporting world to decide. In a piece in Welt am Sonntag, Maizière announced that the German government intends to explore "measures (against Iran) at the United Nations level." In taking this step, the Germans hope to encourage the European Union to launch a joint initiative.

Israel worried

The Israeli government has been comparatively quiet on the matter, triggering speculation that Israel's reticence is a sign that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is secretly planning a preventive attack against Iran.

Israel has long been convinced that the mullah state is vigorously pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, and that it should just as vigorously be prevented from doing so. In an effort to heighten international condemnation of Iran's alleged nuclear program, Israel recently began using its intelligence sources to funnel information about Tehran's nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, even providing the agency's inspectors with images of suspicious nuclear facilities taken by Israeli surveillance satellites. Until recently Israel, a nuclear power but not an IAEA member, viewed IAEA head and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei as being too soft on Tehran. In a reversal of its position, Jerusalem suddenly sees ElBaradei as being a potential ally.

In a speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, last Tuesday, Israeli general chief of staff Dan Hanuz warned that Iran will be capable of enriching enough weapons-grade uranium within the next three months to build state-of-the-art nuclear bombs. However, experts believe that Tehran still faces "significant obstacles" before it will be in a position to develop its first deployable nuclear weapon.

Until now, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's conservative opponent, has been the only major Israeli politician to publicly call for "considering a preventive military strike." The prime minister himself has not commented on any planned attacks, only going so far as to say last week that "Israel's military is in a position to prevent a second final solution."

But an attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities would be highly risky. In 1981, Israeli fighter jets managed to set back then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions by several years when, in a single bold strike, they destroyed the nuclear reactor at the Iraqis' Tuweitha research facility near Baghdad.

A successful strike against at least a dozen targets would be necessary to achieve a similar effect in Iran. The administration in Tehran has spread its nuclear production throughout the entire country, placing key facilities in well-protected underground locations.

Mordechai Kedar, Professor of Arab Studies at Ramat Gan, takes Tehran's rhetoric very seriously. He sees Ahmadinejad's provocations as the expression of a "nuclear theism" currently prevailing in Tehran. According to Kedar, an understanding of the concept of Welayat-e Fakih -- the supremacy of religious scholars -- is key to grasping the power of the mullahs. Under this concept, says Kedar, the power of a government of the devout is an expression of the will of God, making the regime "isma" -- infallible.

Israel's concerns stem primarily from the conviction that the hate speech being spouted by the political leader of about 70 million Iranians is more than just talk. Many see Ahmadinejad's withdrawal of some 40 Iranian diplomats from various Western capitals -- diplomats he believed were too half-hearted when it came to his radical agenda -- as proof that he may act on his apparent convictions.

Even the mullahs are worried

Observers in the West are gradually beginning to fear that sanctions or even military strikes may not be enough in dealing with a fanatic like Ahmadinejad. Confronting the infidels in an unconditional fight -- all the better should it end with a martyr's death -- is a major part of the pious president's life. More than almost any other leader since Khomeini, Ahmadinejad embodies the Shiite world view of achieving redemption through suffering. For fanatics like Ahmadinejad, those prepared to make sacrifices -- even if it involves sacrificing one's own life -- can expect to be rewarded with the greatest possible closeness to God.

As a devoted Khomeini follower, Ahmadinejad quickly managed to transform himself from someone with a modest background into a rising star -- first with the Pasdaran, Iran's revolutionary guards, and later with the Bassij, a feared hard-line paramilitary militia. After earning a doctorate in transportation planning, Ahmadinejad entered politics when he founded the "Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution," a melting pot for ultra-orthodox Khomeini supporters. Ultimately they turned into Ahmadinejad supporters, first electing him mayor of Tehran and later, together with large numbers of former and current members of the Pasdaran and the Bassij, to the post of president.

Whether Iran's clerics are powerful enough to use the power of this popular fanatic to further their own ends is questionable. The country's highest-ranking religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has already warned his protégé that he was "elected to solve the country's social problems, not to go to war with Israel." At the same time, Khamenei upgraded the powers of the Expediency Council, which is charged with oversight over the government.

Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, widely believed to be the country's second most-powerful man, controls this council. After losing against Ahmadinejad in a run-off election, Rafsanjani is now jumping at every opportunity to humiliate his adversary. "We have no problem with the Jews," Rafsanjani said last week in an attempt to lessen global outrage over Ahmadinejad's remarks. In fact, Iran has more than 30,000 Jewish citizens of its own, who live in the country largely undisturbed, attend their own synagogues and are even represented in Iran's parliament.

Even the conservative majority in the parliament is making life difficult for Ahmadinejad, forcing him to submit four candidates for the post of oil minister before providing their stamp of approval -- clearly in a reflection of their aversion to turning over control of the country's oil revenues to a loyal follower of Ahmadinejad.

There are even rumors floating around in Tehran that Ahmadinejad's days could be numbered, and that pragmatic forces within the regime are preparing for a coup. Apparently, Iran's political elite wants to prevent this president from turning the country into even more of a pariah on the international stage.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
The article concludes with the hope that Ahamdinejad will be forced out by the clerics. But while these clerics at times make statements that appear to contradict Ahmadinejad, in reality he merely reflects their own teachings. Removing Ahamdinejad will merely create false hope in the west and buy the regime needed time to complete its nuclear program.