Friday, April 21, 2006

Iran: Tactical Success Could Lead to Strategic Disaster

Amir Taheri, Asharq Alawsat:
In recent days an old slogan of the Khomeinist Revolution has made a spectacular comeback on city walls throughout the Islamic Republic: America Cannot Do A Damn Thing!

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini launched the phrase in 1979, as he played Tom and Jerry with the clueless Jimmy Carter who, at the time, acted as President of the United States.

At the time many in the ayatollah’s entourage believed that he was being unnecessarily provocative. Khomeini, however, was dismissive. America, “he told his secretary, a mullah called Ansari Kermani, may have a lot of power but lacks the courage to use it.”

According to Kermani, who wrote a hagiographical account of Khomeini’s life in 1983, the ayatollah “always counted on America’s internal divisions” to prevent the formulation and application of any serious policy on any major issue. The ayatollah believed that the American political system was clear proof of the saying attributed to Jaafar al-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam, that “God keeps the enemies of Islam fighting among themselves!” READ MORE

Khomeini’s slogan disappeared from most walls after 1997 when the Islamic Republic decided to soften its image to negotiate a particularly rough patch on it way. It is now back because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes that the Khomeinist revolution needs “a second breath” which can only come if the Islamic Republic takes on the US and defeats it once again.

Contrary to what some people seem to believe Ahmadinejad, far from being “the mad man of Tehran”, is an astute politician. He would not have been where he is today had he been “a juvenile delinquent mouthing political slogans.”

Seen from Ahmadinejad’s angle things are going Iran’s way.

The country is awash with cash from oil, now fetching prices near historical peaks.

In March he was able to offer the nation its first “guns and butter” budget since 1974. He increased defence spending by a whopping 21 per cent while raising generous state subsidies, and offering cash handouts to the poorest families.

On the political front Ahmadinejad has forced his opponents within the establishment into an uncomfortable position. These are people, including the two mullahs Rafsanjani and Khatami who preceded Ahmadinejad as president, who consider the revolution’s messianic message as a mere metaphor but dare not say so in public for fear of losing their positions within the regime.

Ahmadinejad is forcing Khomeinists of all ilk to either practice what they preach, which includes conquering the world in the name of their brand of Islam, or shut up or join the opposition. People like Rafsanjani and Khatami cannot go on telling the West one thing in private, and the Iranians another in public. In Ahmadinejad’s Islamic Republic you cannot be half pregnant; you either are or are not.

There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad has also won much support by turning the flashlights on widespread corruption among the ruling mullahs. Hardly a week passes without another leading mullahs being exposed as a “plunderer.” He contrasts his own austere life-style with the lavish lives of the political mullahs, including is predecessors. Anyone familiar with Middle Eastern cultures would know that nothing enrages the people more than accusations of corruption and ill-gained wealth.

By forcing the world to focus only on the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad has also succeeded in diverting attention from the regime’s many weaknesses not to mention a rising level of popular discontent caused by economic hardship, violations of human rights, and the generally repressive policies of the system.

He has managed to persuade many Iranians that the “Infidel”, led by the United States, is trying to deny Iran the right to benefit from peaceful nuclear technology- a right that al other nations enjoy. This falsehood enables a regime that denounces nationalism as a form of “ paganism” to don patriotic garb and play the macho role that Third World nations cherish.

As for the anti-Khomeinist opposition, Ahmadinejad also has reason to be happy. For it remains as divided as ever with some of them still fighting the battles of the 1950s rather than focusing on the dangers that Iran faces today.

Ahmadinejad also takes comfort from what he sees abroad. The Islamic Republic’s designated arch foe, the United States, is experiencing what is little short of a political civil war. He sees that more American energy is spent on attacking President George W Bush than on exposing the Islamic Republic’s dangerous ambitions.

As for Europe, Ahmadinejad must have been amused by the reaction of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who has called Iran’s entry into the nuclear club as “unhelpful”, the weakest adjective in the diplomatic vocabulary.

Ahmadinejad also takes note of the situation in the region. It may take years before either Iraq or Afghanistan will emerge as new nation-states strong enough to stand on their own feet.

Turkey, the only country capable of rivalling Iran for regional supremacy, is looking to Europe.

The Arab states prefer to remain mum or, worse still, even defend the Islamic Republic’s right to go nuclear.

Egypt, for its part, is in a transition phase and unable to develop a long-term strategy under its present leadership.

As for Israel, Ahmadinejad must have noted the results of the last general election which revealed a fragmented nation with no clear vision for its future. In any case, a Kadima dominated government would be committed to a strategic retreat, an effective burial of the Zionist project, and the replacement of “ The Greater Israel” dream by a “ Little Israel” nightmare.

But what all that might suggest is a moot point. Ahmadinejad may prove to be a good tactician but a poor strategist.

The Middle East has seen many examples of this type of politician: leaders who do not know where and when to stop simply because their machine lacks a clutch and a reverse gear.

There was Jamal Abdul Nasser who appeared to have scored a major tactical victory on 4 June 1967 but was the victim of a strategic disaster two days later.

There was Saddam Hussein who, even on 2 August 1990 could have used a clutch and a reverse gear not to drive Iraq into a ditch but didn’t. Because he seemed to have the tactical advantage he felt he had no need of thinking about the day after tomorrow.

Then there was Khomeini who, by endorsing the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran solely to burnish his own revolutionary image, provoked an unnecessary crisis from which his regime may never recover.

A one-track policy could lead to disaster, whether at home or abroad. For there is always another train steaming ahead from the opposite direction. President Ahmadinejad would do well to remember that not all genies would, once released, agree to return to the bottle. The genie of war is one of them.