Friday, March 17, 2006

America's Iran Crucible: Beyond Yapping Dogs and Superpowers Made of Straw

Alex Alexiev, Center for Security Policy:
President Ahmadinejad’s recent calls for the annihilation of Israel have provided much needed clarity to a reality the West, rhetoric apart, has often refused to acknowledge let alone do something about. While his genocidal threats against a fellow-member of the United Nations should serve as a wake up call to people of good will anywhere, other less well-known tirades may tell us more about why the fanatics in Tehran feel they can spew hatred with impunity and why the terrorist regime in Iran has become a clear and present danger that could no longer be ignored by civilized nations.

Europeans are like yapping dogs, kick them once and they run away,” Ahmadinejad recently opined, while simultaneously dismissing the United States as a “superpower made of straw.” Such rants are seldom paid much attention in the Western media, which tends to treat them as unfortunate noise that is best ignored. The “yapping dogs” remark, for instance, was not made public in Europe until four months after it was actually made. This is unfortunate, because such ravings can tell us more than the reams of sober Western punditry generated on the subject of late. They should also make us think through the implications of such views both in terms of the threat this regime poses and what policies could best counter it.

It may be useful to begin with the simple proposition that, looked at from the vantage point of Iran’s Islamist regime, Ahmadinejad’s outbursts may in fact be a rational assessment of actual European and U.S. policies as opposed to their rhetoric vis a vis Tehran. READ MORE

To start with neither Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons nor Ahmadinejad’s threat to wipe out Israel are either new or unprecedented. Iran has been pursuing nuclear capabilities for many years and extremely bellicose tirades against Jews and the West have been a regular staple of the mullahs’ rhetoric since Khomeini. Just a few months after 9/11, for instance, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the number two in the Iranian regime then and now, and a man often approvingly characterized as “pragmatic” in the Western media, urged the Muslim world to annihilate Israel with nuclear weapons, assuring them that they will only suffer “some damages as a result of a nuclear exchange.

Despite such vitriol, Europe has, by and large, chosen to ignore the fact that Iran is a designated terrorist state and a key sponsor of terrorism. To this day, the Tehran controlled Lebanese Hezbollah, for instance, is not to be found on the EU list of terrorist organizations, ostensibly because it also provides “social services.” Instead, the Europeans have focused on business better than usual and today hundreds of EU companies do some $15 billion of export business with Iran that is growing at 25% per annum. Germany alone exported $5 billion worth of goods to Iran in 2005, a 30% increase from 2004. And these EU exports, which represent 44% of Iran’s total, are mostly in the strategic oil and gas, petrochemical and telecommunications sectors and cannot be easily replaced by Russian or Chinese goods. Fully 75% of the machinery and technology that keeps Iran’s economy - and oil and gas exports - going is of EU provenance. This has made business with Europe an absolutely indispensable economic prop for the regime. Moreover, much of it is done with the direct support and encouragement of European governments in the form of export credit guarantees and bilateral agreements in direct contravention of U.S. declared policy on dealing with terrorist states. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, wittingly or not, European governments are helping keep the mullah regime in power.

Which brings us to the “superpower made of straw.” Unlike the Europeans, the United States has taken the Iranian terrorist regime seriously and President Bush declared the country one of the axis of evil. Even before that, in 1996, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed tough legislation known as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) authorizing sanctions against companies and individuals doing business with the Iranian regime, especially in the oil and gas sector. Yet, despite the fact that ILSA was extended for another five years in 2001 and the countless violations of its provisions in the meantime, Washington has never imposed sanctions on any company doing business in Iran, except a few Chinese arms dealers.

Thus, at least in the regime’s view, U.S. implicit threats to Iran have to date proven to be little more than empty rhetoric. There is no reason to expect that they‘ll be taken any more seriously in the future than they have been in the past unless Washington finally decides to up the ante. And unless it does, the United States will soon face an unpredictable terrorist regime armed with nuclear weapons and a Middle East profoundly destabilized and on the verge of nuclear war.

Perhaps, as many hope, with the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council, the Europeans will finally prove Ahmadinejad wrong and show some bite along with the “yapping.” Unfortunately, given past experience and the large European economic interests involved, the odds of that happening are not very good. Nor is it likely that Russia and China will suddenly decide to abandon their long-standing efforts to obstruct American policy and strike their own lucrative deals with Tehran. Indeed, just days after Russia’s voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated publicly Moscow’s strong opposition to “any possible sanctions” against Iran.1

Washington’s current hopes to prevent Iran from going nuclear with the help of the UN will yet again prove illusory. This does not mean that America must face this daunting task alone, for in facing the warmongers in Tehran we have the most powerful of potential allies – the Iranian people. The first and most important step though is to realize that the status quo is simply no longer acceptable and it will not really get better until there is a regime change in Tehran.

Before getting into a discussion of how regime change could best be accomplished, however, it is important to briefly discuss the evolution of the regime in Iran into a ticking time bomb and an imminent threat to world peace.

From Totalitarian Theocracy to Messianic Islamofascism

From its very beginning, Khomeini’s revolution was based on the essentially totalitarian concept of vilayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), which simply meant absolute political power for a “supreme leader” and a small clique of top clerics. Though claiming to derive its legitimacy from Islam and having a version of Islamic fanaticism as its ideological banner, this system had much more in common with the Nazi Fuehrer prinzip and the Bolshevik “vanguard party” concept than with anything found in the Quran or the Twelver Shia doctrine. Indeed, it followed the organizational and operational modus operandi of its totalitarian confreres to the letter, complete with a “cult of personality” of the leader and brutal suppression of the rule of law, dissent, freedom of speech and basic human rights by means of a typical totalitarian security services network and extrajudicial violence. It also followed closely the totalitarian economic model in its socialist version, with 70% of the economy controlled by the state, central planning, five-year plans etc.

Overtime, the system became progressively ossified and corrupt and failed to perform economically. Timid half-baked reform experiments under President Khatami predictably came to nothing, yet, despite being tightly controlled, threatened the absolute power and economic privilege of the clerics. The ruling oligarchy responded by putting an end to even the pretense of reform and toleration of reformists and opted out for a new wave of wholesale repression, euphemistically dubbed the “Second Islamic Revolution.” All the while, the regime continued to blame the Great Satan and evil Zionists for its own failures with the time-tested “externalization of evil” propaganda tactic of totalitarians.

The result has been the near complete stifling of dissent in Iran. Reformists have been prevented from contesting elections, most reformists publications have been banned and many hundreds of journalists, bloggers and non-conformists have been jailed on trumped up charges and often tortured. Since the arrival of Ahmadinejad on the scene, this process has been accelerated and led to the thorough purge of suspected reformists from all levels of government and their replacement with hard-line zealots.

The growing tendency of the regime to seek greater ideological conformity and use repression as a first resort in its efforts to deal with the palpable discontent of Iranian society, has dramatically enhanced the political clout of the most reactionary parts of the regime’s support structures in the security, intelligence and paramilitary vigilante baseej forces and their hardline Islamist mentors. It is these circles that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged from and represents.

While this group of extremists is a zealous defender of the Islamist regime, their views are even more radical than those of most regime clerics in virtually all aspects and they see themselves as the true representatives and guardians of Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy. In this respect, they implicitly and sometimes quite explicitly, criticize the clerical establishment for not being radical enough in pursuing the goals of the Islamic revolution as they see them.

Two areas of particular relevance for our discussion here are their attitudes toward the West and the messianic nature of their beliefs.

Guided by the teachings of their ideological godfather – the ultra-hardline Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi and the “Westoxication” conspiracy theories of Ahmad Fardid, a third-rate Persian follower of Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, these zealots exhibit a pathological hatred of the West and its civilization and a firm belief in the inevitability of an apocalyptic struggle between Islam and the West that will usher in the final triumph of Islam worldwide. By itself, this fervent fantasy is hardly new, but its current interpretation by Ahmadinejad and the extremists now in power in Tehran is novel and highly disturbing. For they have combined it with the messianic Shiite belief in the reappearance of the Hidden Imam and appear to believe that the final violent confrontation with the enemies of Islam is not only close at hand, but that it could be speeded up and that it is the religious obligation of the Iranian people to do that through the “art of martyrdom.” And martyrdom in Ahmadinejad’s fantasy world is no longer just about individuals but about the whole nation. A nation with martyrdom knows no captivity,” he exalts and warns that those who undermine this “principle … undermine the foundation of our eternity.” The way to avoid this great misfortune is simple in his view and he urges the Iranians to follow those who are “doing their best to pave the way for the urgent reappearance of the Hidden Imam.” How long that will take is also no secret and Ahmadinejad is on record saying that he expects the Imam to appear in two short years. What exactly “paving the way” for the Messiah’s appearance involves is not clear from the ravings of these lunatics, but for the civilized world to assume that these fantasies are totally unrelated to Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons would be folly. Recently, a religious scholar and disciple of Ahmadinejad’s mentor Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi, better known to Iranians as “Professor Crocodile,” publicly justified the use of nuclear weapons against the enemies of Islam in what regime opponents saw as a new effort by the hardliners to “prepare the religious grounds for the use of these weapons.”2

There are many in the West that are already dismissing these ominous threats as empty bluster and yet again urging dialog and calling for more tolerance of the intolerant. For them, it may be instructive to see how some prominent Iranians who are far from being friends of the West or enemies of the Islamic republic perceive these trends. Abdul- Karim Soroush, the most prominent Iranian philosopher still living in the country, for instance, sees a “hidden fascism” on the march and believes that the current Tehran rulers are going “even further than the Taliban,” while, in the words of former president Khatami, they aspire “to imitate Bin Laden” and “compete with the Taliban in calling for violence and in carrying out extremist crimes.”

Toward a Strategy for Regime Change

If the analysis above has any merit, the West is now facing an imminent and acute threat from a terrorist regime armed with a culture of death and a messianic belief in the virtue of apocalyptic violence. And soon to be armed with nuclear weapons. While there is some benefit in getting international and United Nations acknowledgment of this reality, to wait for a highly unlikely solution of the problem by them would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty. It will either not happen or will be dragged out to the point of becoming meaningless. What needs to be done immediately is for the United States to formulate and begin executing a comprehensive strategy that aims to prevent or delay as long as possible the acquisition of a nuclear capability by Iran as the first step and effect regime change in Tehran as the ultimate objective.

As any sound integrated strategy it should consist of a military contingency plan and coordinated but independent plans for economic and political warfare against the Tehran regime.

The Military Option - A discussion of the military dimension of such a strategy is beyond the scope of this essay and the competence of its author, except for pointing out that regardless of the technical feasibility of a strictly military solution, it should not be taken off the table as an option and a political lever. It is also imperative for any military option to include plans to surgically decapitate the regime and its key supporters with as little collateral damage as possible. At the very least, targets should include the top leadership and the regime’s key support structures and instruments of political oppression such as Republican Guard, Baseej and intelligence headquarters and essential installations.

The Economic Option- The economic dimension of such a strategy is essential and clear cut. Iran is a terrorist state and anybody that contributes to its economic and therefore political well-being ought to be subject to sanctions under existing American law. An effective sanctions regime that will bring an end to European strategic exports may by itself critically undermine the regime’s economic viability and seriously affect its political stability as well. An effective economic strategy to undermine the regime need not be just a government affair. Many if not most of the large European companies that currently prop Tehran economically, both do a large amount of business in the United States and have billions of dollars invested in their stock by American funds and individuals. This is especially true of the 100 largest U.S. pension funds to say nothing of the hundreds of American mutual funds and a grass roots campaign to divest from these companies will in short order force them to choose between the American market and doing business with terrorists. 3 It will not be a difficult choice to make. In fact, such a campaign already exists but it needs much greater public support to be effective.

The Political Warfare Option

The greatest promise for regime change in a democratic direction lies in a well-designed campaign of political warfare toward that end. The nearly complete absence of willingness on the part of the U.S. administration to engage in a systematic political warfare effort is our greatest policy failure to date in Iran and, indeed, in the war on terror as a whole. In fact, the very term political warfare has disappeared from our lexicon, except when used to describe campaigns against domestic political opponents. Yet, political warfare is and has always been an indispensable instrument of national power in times of serious international conflict and the United States has traditionally engaged in it, more often than not with considerable success, as in the Cold War. It is of particular relevance in conflicts of ideological nature like the current one that cannot be won by military means alone. Instead, what we claim to be doing or are at least interested in doing is something called “public diplomacy” an ill-conceived and futile exercise in political correctness unlikely to provide any meaningful contributions to U.S. foreignpolitical desiderata.4

Unlike public diplomacy, which seems to pursue the objective of convincing our enemies that we are decent and well-meaning people or provide answers to questions such as “why they hate us,” political warfare is about identifying an enemy’s internal weaknesses, analyzing them carefully and developing an integrated strategy to exploit them through the various instruments at the nation’s disposal. It is a strategy that holds especial promise in dealing with opponents that run politically oppressive and economically failing regimes that lack legitimacy and the support of large parts of the population. In Iran’s case, the regime’s vulnerabilities are numerous and glaring. It is a country where a significant segment of society has no illusion as to the reactionary nature of the regime and would support the democratization of the country. It is also a country with a large, well-educated and, for the most part, democratically-oriented diaspora in the West which could serve as the catalyst in a democratization effort.

Given these existing conditions, in order to be effective, a political warfare campaign would have to be in sync with the quintessential interests and aspirations of the Iranians themselves and help them understand that while the mullah regime presents a problem for the West it presents an existential threat to the socio-economic future and the physical security of its people. A sophisticated political warfare campaign would necessitate a detailed study of the regime vulnerabilities and formulating a set of key messages to be delivered with the appropriate instruments. This is clearly beyond the scope of this essay, but the few examples below should provide a sample of what possibilities exist.

The nature of the conflict – It is of the utmost importance for the U.S. working with democratic opposition groups in and outside of Iran to explain to the Iranian people the nature of the current conflict with the Tehran regime. First and foremost, it must be made abundantly clear that neither Washington nor anybody else in the West has any objections against the peaceful use of nuclear energy by Iran. This is a key point because the regime has had some success in convincing public opinion in Iran that the opposite is true. Secondly, it needs to be constantly reiterated that the regime’s nuclear weapons ambitions coupled with its messianic warmongering present a real danger of nuclear conflagration of which the Iranian people will be the real victim. Finally, a clear message, should also be relayed that in any potential conflict it is the reactionary mullah regime and the regime alone that is the enemy and main target.

Islam or Islamist ideology – Iran is an Islamic republic with a government ostensibly based on shari’a and Twelver Shia precepts as a source of its ideological legitimacy. While this is the theory, the reality is a theocratic, totalitarian regime based on the absolute supremacy of the clerics under Khomeini’s invention of the vilayat-e faqih, or the dictatorship of a supreme Islamic leader and a small mafia around him made up of corrupt clerics and a pervasive secret service and paramilitary vigilante groups. It is every bit as totalitarian as the Nazi and Soviet models except that it uses religion rather than secular ideology as a source of legitimacy. But it is at great odds with the Shia religion and that is a significant vulnerability that should be exploited for the purposes of delegitimizing the regime.

It is a historical fact that in Twelver Shia Islam direct involvement in politics by the Islamic establishment has historically been frowned upon. Thus the vilayat-e faqih model and its various nostrums directly contradict age-old Shia traditions. Many Iranian theologians and ayatollahs, such as Ayatollah Montazeri, have openly spoken about this and publicly urged the separation of religion and state, as have other prominent Shia clerics like grand ayatollahs Ali Sistani and Al-Fayad in Iraq. This key fault-line needs to be analyzed and a campaign to exploit it organized with the help of prominent Shia scholars.

The economics of poverty – Iran is currently enjoying windfall profits from its oil exports campaign already exists and has scored some success but much greater public support could and should be mobilized in order to make it truly effective.5 because of exorbitant prices, but take away the oil (which accounts for 90% of exports) and you have a failed state economically that compares very unfavorably in terms of economic development to Shah’s period. Even with the oil windfall, there has been no reduction in poverty, which afflicts 40% of the population and unemployment among the young averages 35%. Things are especially dire under shari’a for young women who are easily the best educated in the Middle East, yet are openly discriminated against and have an unemployment rate of 50%. The prospects of the massive youth cohort are anything but bright - a reality the 70% of the population under 30 know only too well. Moreover, with half a million youths, many of them college educated, joining the ranks of the unemployed each year, things are set to get worse.

Iran is also stymied by the continued practice of ossified Marxist economic dogmas in the form of central planning and five-year plans that a recent study called a “costly exercise in futility.” And like in the Soviet economy of yesteryear, the large number (over 40%) of state-owned firms that operate in the red year in year out drag the whole economy down and suffocate the private sector. Overall, it would not be very difficult to make the case that, like everywhere else it has been imposed, the Islamist regime has already proven an economic failure with all this implies for the socio-economic prospects of the Iranian people. While official statistics are far from reliable, a recent parliamentary research report indicated the percentage of people living under the poverty line at 50% of the rural population and 20% among city dwellers. As in other states that have succumbed to extremism and despite its huge oil wealth, poverty seems to be the only certain product of Islamism in Iran. This is a particularly pertinent message for the large number of poor people in the country that have placed their faith for a better life in Ahmedinajad.

Regime Corruption – Pervasive systemic corruption at all levels of government may be the single greatest vulnerability of the clerical regime today. This is so because not only is the wide-spread corruption a much discussed public knowledge, but because it is associated with the ruling clerical establishment in the mind of the public. This explains, at least partly, the victory of Ahmadinejad, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform against Rafsanjani, who was widely seen as a poster child of high clerical corruption.

The problem, in short, is that after 26 years in power, the ruling Islamist establishment has built a vast system of economic spoils designed to benefit them directly. It is a parasitic system that functions in ways remarkably similar to the Soviet nomenklatura and like it is immune to reform because reform would threaten the collapse of the regime that underpins it. This is one reason, why nothing will change under Ahmadinejab, despite his promises.

Just two examples would suffice to indicate the magnitude of the problem. Following the overthrow of the Shah, the royal family’s vast holdings were incorporated into semigovernment foundations designed ostensibly to promote public welfare and philanthropy. With 30% to 40% of the entire economy’s assets under their control, these “bonyads” have been transformed into huge holding companies that dominate most of the manufacturing and trade sectors and operate by rules of their own to avoid taxation, competition and regulations to which private companies are subjected. Not surprisingly, virtually all of the bonyads are indirectly owned by the top clerical nomenklatura. This explains why despite hundreds of court cases of flagrant embezzlement and corruption, few have resulted in any convictions since invariably the defendants turn out to be related to the high and mighty.

A similar corrupt scheme is at work in the lucrative oil and gas sector where hundreds of nominally private companies owned by the clerics have positioned themselves as the compulsory partners of foreign investors in the sector and the beneficiaries of huge commissions, a practice identical to the one perfected by the royal family in Saudi Arabia.

There are also numerous other real and potential fault-lines and specific target audiences that could and should be addressed in an integrated political warfare campaign. These include ethnic issues, women, students and youth, private business, the poor etc. To take just the first of these, it has become increasingly evident that the regime’s brutal treatment and discrimination of sizable ethnic and religious minorities such as the Iranian Kurds, the Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan, Baluchis, Turkmen and others has given rise to the kind of ethno-religious alienation that could easily lead to the breakup of the multiethnic country in which the dominant Farsi make up only half of the population. It should be made clear to the Iranian people, that only the replacement of the current dictatorship by a democratic regime acceptable to all could prevent these dangerous centrifugal tendencies.

To effectively reach the intended audience, a campaign of this kind would need to develop appropriate communication instruments and strategies but this should not be difficult. Open societies enjoy an unbeatable advantage over closed, dictatorial ones in this respect as the Cold War struggle proved conclusively. It is also the case that technological progress in the form of the Internet and satellite television and radio have made communications virtually impervious to jamming and totalitarians that are trying to keep information out are fighting a losing battle. In just one example, it is now believed that there are over 100,000 active blogs in Iran with the vast majority of them antiregime, prompting an irate ayatollah to call blogging “a Trojan horse with enemy soldiers in its belly.”

To sum up, Iran and its warmongering Islamofascist regime present a clear and present danger to the West and to its own people. It is a danger that must and could be dealt effectively with an integrated military, economic and political warfare strategy by the US and allies that is long overdue. A successful outcome would dramatically improve the prospects of the democratic project in the Middle East and beyond; the failure to do that will likely bring us to the threshold of nuclear conflagration and signal a seminal defeat for the Free World in the war on terror.

1 Interfax News Agency, Moscow, Feb. 15, 2005

2, Feb. 16, 2006 as translated in Memri Special Dispatch #1096, Feb. 17, 2006,

3 A recent study has found out that the top 87 US pension funds have invested a staggering $188 billion in foreign companies that do business in terrorist states. See Christopher Holton, Stop Investing in Terror, in
Frank Gaffney, War Footing, Naval Institute Press, 2005,pp.59-74.

4 For details on the failures of “public diplomacy” see Michael Waller et al., Chapter 8, “Wage Political Warfare” in Frank Gaffney, War Footing, Naval Institute Press, 2005

5 See
An excellent read.