Saturday, January 14, 2006

Rightly or Wrongly, Iran Feels a Glow of Immunity

The Economist: Special Report-Iran's Psychology
As the snow falls in Tehran, the surreal shape of Iran's public diplomacy shows through the gloom. Unfazed by the determination of some European countries to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear fuel cycle, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, hopes those same countries may invest in the project.

Between expressions of hope that Ariel Sharon, Israel's incapacitated prime minister, will die soon, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, has offered to dispatch officials to help EU countries solve their human-rights problems. As is often the case with obscure signals in a blizzard, the world pays little attention.

Do Iran's leaders underestimate the determination of America and its allies to punish them for persisting in their nuclear plans? READ MORE

In public, Mr Khamenei nonchalantly recalls that past sanctions against Iran—which peaked when he was president in the 1980s, during a crippling war against Iraq—actually helped to generate self-reliance. But Mr Khamenei has built a reputation for canny politics on the implicit understanding that Iranians are no longer the privation-seeking revolutionaries they once were. Doveish citizens pin their hopes on his well-documented tendency to pull back from the brink of major confrontation. For all that, he does not like to be outmanoeuvred by hawks, and Mr Ahmadinejad is being serially provocative.

The president probably had little say in the decision to restart research at Natanz. All the same, his repeated rhetorical excesses and the anger they have provoked make it hard for any Iranian leader—least of all one, such as Mr Khamenei, who has a small natural constituency among Iranians—to climb down without being accused of betrayal. Some Iranian analysts contend that Mr Ahmadinejad's bellicosity serves Mr Khamenei's purpose, because it reminds Israel and America that any military action against Iran will not go unanswered.

The Iranians believe that America's parlous position in neighbouring Iraq, and Israel's vulnerability to the rockets of Hizbullah, a militant group based in southern Lebanon and backed by Iran, militate strongly against an attack. But it is the high price of oil that most bolsters a sense of immunity in Tehran. In the 1990s, Iran made do with oil-export revenues worth an average of around billion a year; by contrast, projected revenues for the current Iranian year are a whopping billion. While energy prices remain high, Iran's leaders believe, and all Iranians hope, that the world will not dare boycott Iranian oil.

The nuclear issue is given less coverage in Iran's media than you might expect; recently, editors have allotted more space to arcane disputes over the nature of clerical rule. And for the authorities the country's sensitive circumstances are an excellent excuse to delay relaxing pressure on pro-democracy forces.

When they are asked, many Iranians profess to support the government's pursuit of nuclear technology. Some liken the West's attitude to Britain's and America's unhappiness at the nationalisation of Iran's oil industry in the 1950s. (The prime minister who did the nationalising was subsequently unseated in a CIA coup.) Others hope that their leaders are indeed in pursuit of a nuclear weapon; several neighbours have them, including Israel and Pakistan. But it is unlikely that many would willingly endure a reprise of the economic isolation of the 1980s. For all the pyrotechnics of his president, Mr Khamenei's path is a narrow one.