Iran – A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma
Today, Singapore, 20/03/2007
Winston Churchill’s 1939 comment about the Soviet-Union can aptly be applied to Iran today. Is Iran irrational, pragmatic, crazy pragmatic ? Is it on the defensive with the only remaining superpower, the US, as its central adversary, wanting to create a credible deterrence against it, or is it on the offensive trying to gain regional dominance through the development of nuclear weapons?
Iran’s strategic environment has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Its main foe in the 1970ties was the Soviet Union, in the 1980ties it was Iraq with which it had a major war and now it is the United States and other Western powers. The US led intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has removed those two countries from Iran’s lists of antagonists. The Soviet-Union has been replaced by Russia, now a strategic partner helping Iran with its nuclear program and stock up on advanced weaponry in return for Iran’s acquiescence in Russia’s brutal treatment of Chechen Muslims. China, despite reservations about President Ahmadinejad, has become another strategic partner buying 20% of its oil imports from Iran, selling it military equipment and investing in its infrastructure. And the US ? According to a recent US National Security Council publication the US may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran. Not surprising then that Iran is putting major emphasis on nuclear efforts and a missile development program second to none. Recognizing that potential threats are distant, Israel having registered as a threat as well as the US, Iran is preparing capabilities that reach far. These preparations are reinforced by Iran’s recognition that presently, non-withstanding its large army, it is militarily weak. Nuclear weapons, in combination with long-range missiles are an excellent deterrent and Iran wants to make sure it will have the capability to punish any attacker. As long as Iran’s nuclear deterrent capability is not operational and its strategic weakness is apparent, Iran will likely remain in a low-risk defensive posture. Needless to say, nobody knows what will happen once a nuclear deterrent is in place.
While it is building Iran’s deterrent capability, the regime is mounting a major ideological offensive in the Islamic realm. Many leading figures in Iran are now vocal supporters of the country’s effort to lead and unify Islam and change the world system by challenging the “US dominated Security Council System” founded by the victors of WWII. Actually Iran is attempting to instigate a new Islam, one that unites Shia and Sunna and spreads a surprisingly tolerant gospel accommodating ruling minorities and different ethnic groups. President Ahmadinejad’s May 2006 trip to Jakarta was part of the effort to spread a unifying pan-Islamic message, one that reverbrated quite strongly in Indonesia judging by the jubilant welcome he received among students there. His curious journeys to visit the leftist regimes in South America, starting with Chavez in Venezuela, serve to establish Iran as a patron of all down-trodden victims of US capitalism, not only Muslims.
For Iran, religion has become an extension of politics by other means and its missionary zeal is perceived as a major threat by Sunni Arab countries deeply suspicious of any Shia efforts to lead the Islamic world. Tradition permits Shias to lie to advance objectives related to faith and Sunni countries, certainly aware of this fact, are not buying into Iran’s unifying message. Iran is now perceived as a major threat by most Arab countries and its increasing power is becoming an issue as important as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The closer the countries are to Iran the more threatened they feel – GCC countries have lately actually softened up to Israel, reckoning that Iran is a far bigger threat. Iran’s efforts to become the main supporter of the Palestinians, edging out Egypt and Jordan, and its increasing influence in Lebanon through its proxy Hizbollah, further enhance the apparent threat to established Sunni regimes. President Ahmadinead’s virulent attitude against Israel and Jewry is ideological and his Holocaust-denial serves to delegitimize the moral foundations of the State of Israel as an outcome of the Holocaust. He should not be surprised if Israel takes him by his word and relates to him and Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat.
Iran’s impact on the stability of the Middle East is disproportionate, it is economically weak and the regime in Teheran is extremely unpopular having less than 30% public support. Economic conditions progressively deteriorate through Ahmadinejad’s politics that prevent Iran from joining the globalizing world. About 70% of Iran’s declining oil revenues go towards the nuclear effort and military procurement, leaving little to prop up the economy. Iran’s internal stability is questionable – only 50% of Iranians are Persians, the other half are ethnic minorities with allegiances to brethren in neighboring countries. Nevertheless Iran is a threat because of its efforts at destabilizing other countries (e.g. Lebanon) and its involvement supporting terror activities, not only in Palestine and Iraq.
Iran is a country on the move striving for regional hegemony, a potential threat, not only perceived, to many Arab neighbors. Through its hold over the Strait of Hormuz it controls 70% of the world’s oil supply. By frontally challenging IAEA and UN resolutions trying to limit its nuclear efforts, it may bring about the collapse of the tenuous global regime of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and cause a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Its powerful and seemingly attractive ideological challenge to mainstream Islam is palpable. It will take a lot of determination and purpose to show Iran the boundaries of what the world is willing to put up with and what not. Right now it appears that the seriousness of Iran’s global challenge has not been recognized. It better be addressed with resolve before Iran will have nuclear weapons to back it up.