Sunday, May 22, 2005

Eye of the Storm: The Buzz in Teheran

Amir Taheri, The Jerusalem Post:
While the world is focused on Iran's alleged efforts to build a nuclear arsenal, the more immediate debate about its regional strategy may have been sidelined. This, at least, is the opinion of Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the mullahs and politicians who have registered to become candidates in Iran's presidential election next month.

In speeches in Teheran this week Asgharzadeh warned that a coalition of military commanders and mullahs is in the making with the aim of provoking "a direct confrontation" between the Islamic Republic and the United States in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan and Iraq.

"If these schemes go through the nation will be led into dangerous waters," Asgharzadeh warned. "There are people who want to push Iran into a war against the rest of the world, especially the United States." READ MORE

Asgharzadeh is no run-of-the-mill power-seeker in the Khomeinist republic. He was one of the leaders of the "students" who raided the United States Embassy in Teheran in 1979 and held its 55 diplomats hostage for 444 days. After his hostage-taking experience he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, took part in the liquidation of the regime's opponents, fought in the war against Iraq in the 1980s, and held ministerial posts before becoming chairman of the Teheran Municipal Council. He has also been a key adviser to President Muhammad Khatami whose second, and final, four-year term ends next month.
To be sure, Asgharzadeh has no chance of winning the presidency and may not even be allowed to become a candidate. The buzz in Teheran is that the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the effective ruler of the country with virtually limitless powers, plans to promote one of his acolytes to the presidency, thus flushing the pro-reform coalition out of their last slot within the regime.

Because no one quite knows how decisions are made in the Khomeinist system, in which formal government wields little power, it is not easy to independently verify Asgharzadeh's claim. But a careful reading of statements made by senior clerical and military leaders, including Khamenei himself, shows that a debate is taking place within the establishment.

IN A number of speeches during the past few weeks Khamenei has claimed that the Middle East and the Muslim world at large were now faced with a choice between "American-imposed" democracy and "revolutionary Islam" offered by Iran.

In one speech he told government officials to prepare for "the mighty battles" ahead as "the Imperialist-Zionist axis" tries to promote its notion of human rights in the Muslim world.

All this, of course, may be dismissed as the usual rhetorical fare that the Khomeinists have spouted for more than a quarter of a century. Nevertheless, there are several indications that the regime may be bracing itself for moving onto the offensive.

One sign came last month when Iran informed King Abdullah II of Jordan that plans that had been discussed last winter for him to act as an intermediary between Teheran and Washington were "no longer on the table."

The Jordanians believe that Iran changed its mind because it succeeded in driving a wedge between the US and its European Union allies. "The mullahs in Teheran could relax," says a senior adviser to the king. "They knew that, with the EU playing their game, they will get off the hook."

Another sign that Teheran may be moving onto the offensive came in a speech last week by Defense Minister Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani. He said his ministry had "comprehensive plans" to make "life like hell" for the US and its allies throughout the region.

"Wherever they [i.e. the Americans] are, we are also," he said. "And wherever they can hit us we can hit them, and harder."

Asgharzadeh's analysis is backed by other analysts and observers in Teheran, including Saeed Hajjarian, another former regime insider.

These analysts believe that Khamenei is increasingly relying on the military who are, in turn, demanding a bigger share in decision-making.

Several Revolutionary Guard commanders including Rahim Safavi, Muhammad-Baqer Zolqadr and Yadallah Javani have broken the long-established tradition under which the Iranian military never comment on political issues. To highlight their claim to a share in political decision-making the guard commanders have fielded one of their own, Brig. Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a former police chief, as candidate in next month's presidential election.

The guard commanders believe that President George W. Bush's campaign for democracy in the Muslim world is primarily aimed at Iran and should be thwarted by engaging the US in low-intensity warfare wherever possible. The idea is that Bush is an aberration and that once his term ends the US would revert to the defensive posture it had maintained in the Middle East since the Carter administration in the 1970s.

"The Americans do not have the stomach for a long fight," says Brig. Javani, one of the rising stars of the military in Teheran.

Most observers, including Asgharzadeh, agree that the debate over whether to take on the US on all fronts in the region has not yet been finalized.

Much depends on what happens in Iraq within the next few months. But pressure for the Islamic Republic to go on the offensive against the US is growing. And the military, who appear to be developing political ambitions, are already increasing their assets in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf region, Iraq and Lebanon, in preparation for low-intensity and prolonged showdowns with the US. Next month's presidential election would offer some indication about the future course of the debate within the regime.