Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Bungling on Iran

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
HAVING crossed another false crescendo, the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions seems to be calming down somewhat. The U.N. Security Council has danced its way away from the issue - at least for the time being. And the United States, having subcontracted its Iran policy to the European Union trio, shows no sign of wanting to keep the issue under the limelight.

The assumption in both Tehran and Washington is that nothing much be done at least until June, when the G-8 summit is held in Moscow. The idea is that Russia, as the host of the G-8, won't provoke a split with the United States and European Union over Iran during the Moscow summit.

There may be yet another reason why all parties to this bizarre dispute may want to cool things down - at least for a few months. Iran will be holding elections for the Assembly of Experts, the clergy-dominated organ that selects the "Supreme Guide," later this year - and there is speculation that the majority that backed the incumbent, Ali Khamenei, may be on the way out.

If that happens, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be able to control the assembly and promote his spiritual guru, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, as the new "Supreme Leader."

Such a development would, in turn, dash all hopes that a more pragmatic wing of the Khomeinist establishment might return to power and prevent the "Clash of Civilizations" that Ahmadinejad has promised to provoke.

But the United States also holds elections this year.

If Democrats gain control of Congress, President Bush would lose virtually all possibility of pushing Iran's back to the wall. He may then decide to leave the problem for his successor rather than try to fight both the Islamic Republic and a hostile Congress. Alternately, if Bush keeps control of both the House and Senate, he may well be encouraged to take the Islamic Republic head on, exploiting its current dissensions, diplomatic isolation and economic difficulties.

It is against such a background that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw talks of an "incremental" approach, promising that if and when the United Nations decides to tighten the screws on Iran, it will not do so in such a way as to crush any bones in Tehran.

All this, however, may well be hiding a paradox. By doing nothing against the Islamic Republic in the medium term, the Europeans and Americans may be strengthening the position of the more radical, Ahmadinejad-led wing of the Khomeinist establishment.

The failure of the Security Council to agree even on a statement on the nuclear dispute has already enabled Ahmadinejad to claim victory. Receiving Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shiraa in Tehran the other day, Ahmadinejad declared with well-rehearsed hauteur that the Islamic Republic had not only won the latest round against the "Zionist-Crusader" powers, but was confident of establishing the rule of Islam throughout the world. He ordered the Syrian to return home and prepare for "Islam's victory feast."

The fact that Ahmadinejad's policy of deliberate provocation has been cost-free so far has made it impossible for the more pragmatic elements of the Khomeinist regime to develop an alternative to his quest for a "clash of civilizations." Most Iranians, including those opposed to the Khomeinist regime as a whole, don't see why Iran should change any aspect of its nuclear program when there is no risk in pursuing it.

No one quite knows where the idea of slow-motion diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic originated. But its principal defender over the past three years has been Jack Straw - also the father, as already mentioned, of the phrase "incremental measures."

Before Ahmadinejad's election, Straw's approach to Iran appeared promising. The British, and the European Union in general, had established close ties with a number of Tehran mullahs including then-President Muhammad Khatami, the all-round wheeler-dealer Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani, who conducted the nuclear negotiations on behalf of the Islamic Republic. At one point the British were even quietly promoting Rouhani as a successor to Khatami as president.

There is no doubt that the British still maintain close contacts with sections of the Tehran establishment, and Rafsanjani has managed to retain part of his former influence while Khatami could still be used as a thorn in Ahmadinejad's side. But the idea that a pro-British faction might win power in Tehran anytime soon is fanciful, to say the least. Mullahs like Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani have no popular base of their own and, once isolated within the establishment, would be in no position to offer the kind of concessions that Straw hopes for.

Thus incrementalism a la Straw can only encourage Ahmadinejad in his defiance and convince the Iranian people that their new radical leadership is right in dismissing the Western powers as part of a "sunset civilization" (ofuli).

Meanwhile, the U.S. decision to hold talks with Iran in deciding the future of Iraq has also enhanced Ahmadinejad's prestige, even among opponents of the regime.

One sign that Tehran believes that the storm has already blown over came last week: Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki committed the Islamic Republic to a "no compromise" policy on the nuclear issue. "There is absolutely nothing more that we could offer," he insisted. Another sign came in the sudden hardening of the positions of both Russia and China - which do not see why they should pick a quarrel with Iran when the Americans and Europeans don't appear to be prepared to stand up to Tehran.

There can always be a strong argument in favor of doing nothing when all other options imagine seem to be dangerous or counterproductive. But it is important to remember that doing nothing is in itself a form of doing something. Right now, the "something" that the Western powers are doing amounts to a clear encouragement of the most radical factions in Tehran. And that means that when the "clash" (regarded by many as inevitable) comes, it will be that much harder for both sides.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.
A must read.