Iran Seeking Superpower Status

8 february 2006

Vladimir Sazhin - Senior Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

Resume: Persistence of the followers of Imam Khomeini transforms Iran gradually into a Shiite Persian empire. Paradoxically, the Islamic revolutionaries, who overthrew the Shah and abrogated all the institutions of monarchy, are acting out the Shah’s dream of making Iran a regional superpower, the center of a great civilization, which Mohammed Reza Pahlavi wrote about.

Following Iran’s latest presidential election several months ago, which led to the victory of Islamic radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I wrote in Russia in Global Affairs (Russian-language edition): “It is scarcely worthwhile making apocalyptic forecasts. The chances for a radical change in Iran’s policy are very small. True, the screws will be turned more tightly on the Iranian people. True, there will be another surge in the campaign for strict observance of Sharia laws and norms. True, censorship in the mass media and culture will intensify and propagandistic activity will step up. No radical changes will occur in Iran’s foreign policy either. Iran does not exist in a vacuum – it is linked to the world community by thousands of ties and it depends on the world community in many ways. Naturally, the start of the normalization of relations with the U.S. may be put off. Also, there may be an increase of confrontation between Iran and Israel and a toughening of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.”

Unfortunately, I was mistaken. I was unable to predict the degree of absurdity to which the Iranian leadership would bring that rhetoric and the standoff with the entire world, especially considering there were vital negotiations taking place with the European Union on Iranian nuclear projects.

A mere four months after his inauguration, and within a period of several weeks, Ahmadinejad made several calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” for “uprooting the imperialist Zionist cancer” from the Middle East, while denying that the Holocaust occurred. The Vatican, the Palestinian National Authority and Iran’s partners, Russia and China, not to mention Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, voiced their indignation with the new President’s verbal escapades. The UN officially condemned Ahmadinejad’s shortsighted statements. A forum of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was displeased with his declarations as well. Unfortunately, the immediate international condemnation of the new president’s declarations seems to have no effect whatsoever on him. Why?

There is little doubt today that Ahmadinejad’s statements are not merely his private opinion, or propagandistic rhetoric in the context of the eternal ideological standoff between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel. They rather reflect the state’s new policy line after a 16-year conservative, or more liberal and pragmatic, rule of Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, respectively. Moreover, it is likely that the anti-Israeli charge has a provocative and initiating role in Ahmadinejad’s new course.

The question arises then: Why do the behind-the-scenes Iranian clericals, who actually ruled the country for 26 years, suddenly feel it necessary to radicalize state policy and revert to the propaganda techniques that were so popular in the first years of the Islamic Revolution?

Let us recall that revolutionary shocks, experiments with the Tawhid economy and the aftermath of the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s eventually brought the country to social and economic decay. The tough Islamic regime created by the Ayatollah Khomeini had exhausted its resources, and the country’s clerical leadership realized it only too well. A further development and strengthening of the regime called for reforms since the very survival of the Islamic Republic was at stake.

It was at that critical moment that highly pragmatic leaders – first Rafsanjani and then Khatami – were promoted to the presidential post. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who held this post from 1989 through to 1997, set conditions for Iran’s withdrawal from the Tawhid deadlock. At the same time, he introduced reforms that changed the mobilization of the military economy connected with Islamism during the Iran-Iraq war era. Next, Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997 through 2005, redoubled his efforts to modernize the regime. His weighed and cautious policy invigorated domestic conditions and broadened the spheres of democracy. On the foreign policy front, he worked toward ending the country’s self-isolation and opening up Islamic Iran to the whole world. Slowly, the nation’s image began changing in the eyes of the international community; this helped Teheran to participate in global political and economic processes and boost its national economy. In spite of certain controversies, mistakes and errors, the 16-year leadership between those two outstanding presidents was responsible for Iran’s real strengthening and evolution as a leading power in the Middle East.

It should be noted that the process of strengthening Iran’s potential in recent years has relied heavily on crude oil and natural gas. Starting from 1998, Iran’s oil export revenues have quadrupled from $11 bln to $40 bln projected for this year.1 A report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates Iran’s reserves of crude at 90 bln barrels. The report concluded that Iran is the largest exporter of heavy oil in the Middle East. Incidentally, Iran boasts bright prospects for the production and export of its hydrocarbon resources, which translates into super profits.

The efforts of Rafsanjani and Khatami and their associates furnished the country with an economic infrastructure that enables it to make a leap into the future. It successfully transformed enough of its financial and hydrocarbon resources to interest virtually the whole globe. However, in spite of all the social and economic benefits, the 16-year reform was considered a menace to the very foundation of the Khomeini regime – even though these two leaders were called upon to bolster it. Whether their architects wanted it or not, reform led Iran away from the guidelines of the Khomeini course.

The logic of the reform, as well as the country’s domestic and foreign policy (most importantly, Khatami’s), required a retreat from the format set by Ayatollah Khomeini. It called for a revision of some articles of the Constitution, including those stipulating the presidential powers and the role of supreme theocratic institutions. But most importantly, it called into question the Islamic Republic of Iran’s basic principle of statehood, known as the vilayet i-faqih concept. In the long term, there was a possibility for the total transformation of the regime – something that was impermissible for Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the majority of conservative clerics. To maintain their power, they needed a restoration of the Khomeinist regime and a change of the course espoused by the two presidents. To paraphrase Friedrich Schiller, “the two Moors have done their duty, let them go:” Rafsanjani and Khatami had done their job of salvaging and reinforcing the regime and were no longer needed.

In the presidential election in the summer of 2005, there was only one individual among seven candidates to defend the Khomeinist political line. That man was none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – young, loyal and faithful to the cause of the Islamic Revolution. Ahmadinejad is relatively unsophisticated in political intrigues, governable (although only the future will show how much), and formally unrelated to the clerics, whom the people had grown somewhat wary of.

It is fairly obvious that Iran’s spiritual leader and his associates selected and endorsed Ahmadinejad’s candidacy long before the election. The events of the last few months have proven that the new president has lived up to their expectations. His first steps in office testify to his firm commitment to the path blazed by Imam Khomeini. A return to the ideological and political specter of Khomeinism will naturally necessitate the removal of the sprouts of liberalism, especially in the ideological sphere. Following Khomeini’s prescriptions, Ahmadinejad banned Western music and movies promoting non-Moslem values. Another ban was aimed at movies promoting “audacious world powers” (a clear hint at the U.S.). Iran had seen it all during the Khomeini rule and it is clear that this is only the beginning of a long march. Yet more important, especially for the world community, is the sharp radicalization of Iran’s foreign policy.

Naturally, Ahmadinejad’s actions enjoy strong support of influential individuals inside the country. These are, first and foremost, radical groups of clerics, including the brethren of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the president’s spiritual instructor who heads an important theological center in Qum. Also, there are various Islamic foundations, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij Resistance Force reporting to it.

It is no accident that Ahmadinejad made his scandalous anti-Israeli statements “upon full approval of the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” Iran’s clerics are in full support of the new president as well. One of them, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the head of the Assembly of Experts that appoints Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, said on December 16, 2005, that Ahmadinejad’s recent statements were absolutely logical and reflected the opinion of all Iranians. Those statements also rallied support from the speaker of Majlis (the national parliament), Gholam Ali Haddad Adel; the chief of the Supreme Council for National Security (one of the key state institutions), Ali Larijani; IRGC commander Major-General Rahim Sawafi; Information Minister (responsible for intelligence and security) Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei; and Prosecutor General Dorri Najafabadi. Foreign Minister Manushehr Mottaki confirmed that the viewpoint declared by the president with respect to Israel reflected the policy line of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran’s ruling elite, and Ahmadinejad personally, having gained financial and economic might, as well as the role of an energy resource provider, decided that it was time to proudly declare Iran to be the center of Islamic civilization, an unbending fighter for the ideals of Islam that unites all Moslems against the perils of global Zionism and American imperialism, with the aim of positioning itself as a regional superpower.

Timing is critical for Teheran. Yesterday would have proven premature because Iran was too weak, while tomorrow may be too late because the Palestinian problem, so vital for the region, may be resolved. More importantly, the tendency toward a rapprochement between Israel, Arab and other Moslem states, which is already visible, may gain momentum, while the solution of Teheran’s nuclear problem may take a turn for the worst.

Presently, oil and gas prices are favorable to Iran. Hence, Teheran decided to declare its plans for turning Iran into a superpower of the Middle East within a much wider region. In this context, a document entitled An Outlook for the Next Twenty Years, recently released in Teheran, is of considerable interest. Mohsen Rezai, the Secretary of the Iranian Expediency Council, told a conference in Teheran December 13, 2005, that, in keeping with this blueprint, his country must become a highly developed nation and a strong regional power within 20 years. Rezai, himself a former commander of the IRGC and the chairman of the committee that drafted the 20-year plan, said the document set the benchmarks for society and for the country’s leadership in planning and governing the economic, political and cultural processes in Iran.

Rezai said the document stipulates that within the next two decades, Iran must become a developed nation and take the top position in the region in terms of economic, scientific and cultural development. One passage in the document is particularly noteworthy: “Iran will become a force of inspiration for the Islamic world and a civilization-forming state with a revolutionary national identity, targeted at fruitful and efficient cooperation in international affairs.” As follows from this document, the Iranian authorities have intensified activities under the main guideline of Khomeini’s clerical regime, which includes the creation of an umma, a global Moslem community, under Iran’s aegis. This is a long-term goal outlined in Article 11 of the Iranian Constitution. (In terms of the remoteness of its implementation, it may be likened to the goal of building a global Communist society.)

This task was set during Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule, but its intermediate and final goals remained little more than slogans. Today’s Iran, strengthened by liberal reforms and guided by Islamic radicals, has launched practical steps to implement this program.

Given its main strategic goals, it is possible to single out three major levels of long-term objectives of Iran’s policy into which the new Iranian leaders have channeled their energies.

The first stage presupposes turning Iran into a pan-Islamic center of power. This objective must be viewed within the framework of a very distant future (even if one ignores the predictably frantic reaction of most Sunni Moslems to such a plan), since putting it on the agenda is largely senseless until Iran is established as a general regional center of power in the Middle East.

It is the second stage that envisions Iran’s transformation into such a center. For this to succeed, Iranian policy-makers are seeking ideological, political, economic and military leadership in the region.

The third stage is fully centered on national territory, i.e. its priorities are focused on internal tasks of Iranian policy, in part, on guaranteeing the country’s military, political, and ideological stability, creating an independent economy and advanced civilian and defense industry, and finally, building strong Armed Forces.
Teheran’s refurbished old policy line has internal and external elements.

As Imam Khomeini taught in his time, the elimination of Israel remains the political and ideological backbone of the country’s Islamic regime, and that is why Ahmadinejad is fully aware that no one in Iran would dare to object to it. Besides, such a strategy will attract not only religious radicals, but also impoverished and illiterate sections of the population. As the head of executive power, a president elected by 36.5 percent of Iranians, Ahmadinejad makes bold statements in a bid to consolidate scattered groups of radicals and conservatives into his corner.

The toughness and persistence in Iran’s nuclear policy, together with the standoff against the two Shaitans (devils) – the U.S. and Israel and their European allies – gives the resolute president lots of points. All sections of Iranian society would like to see their country acquire nuclear status.

It is Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric that provokes the greatest response from the international community. Presently, a painstaking process of restoring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, popularly known as the Road Map, is underway in the Middle East, while Russia is a co-sponsor of Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. As Mikhail Margelov, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Russian Federation Council, said recently, “One gets an impression that Iran has embarked on a job of fanning the Middle East conflict, thus playing into the hands of extremist forces of all sorts.”

Indeed, the logic of Iran’s military doctrine perceives peaceful dialog between Israelis and Palestinians as a disaster for the ideological and political system of the ruling regime in Teheran. That is why the Iranian radicals seek to prevent that dialog from happening. Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli statements are the equivalent to a terrorist mine planted along the road toward peace, mapped out by Russia, the UN, the European Union and the U.S.

The Iranian president’s anti-Semitic proclamations fuel hatred against all non-Moslems, attract the proponents of radical Islam into extremist activities, and promote international terrorism.

It was no accident that Khaled Mashal, the leader of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, made a visit to Teheran at the height of such activities. He met with both Ahmadinejad and Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The interlocutors came to the conclusion that the “resistance groups must continue jihad.”

Iranian activity on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, is not confined to Hamas. Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades all have Teheran’s blessing in their attempt to prevent the Palestinians from meeting Israel halfway. Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and Khaled Mashal, the head of Hamas, said at a meeting in Beirut that resistance to Israel was the only way of liberating the whole of Palestine.

International mass media put Hezbollah’s manpower at 3,000 to 3,500, including up to 150 servicemen of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, while other sources put the organization’s strength at around 20,000. Observers also say its elitist units number somewhere between 500 to 1,000 militants. All other units are auxiliary or instructional. Those Islamic radicals are armed with artillery weapons, mortars, missile launchers, AT-3 Sagger and AT-4 Spigot antitank missiles, recoilless guns, portable air defense missile systems, and anti-aircraft guns. Hezbollah also has radar surveillance systems for tracking Israeli ships and gunboats. Currently, it is setting up units of marine commandoes that are now trained in Iran, Hezbollah’s closest ally since the moment the latter was formed. Iran provides versatile aid to the organization in the form of finance, diplomatic and political support, ideological and military training, weapons, defense equipment and humanitarian aid.

When Iran’s foreign policy course underwent a certain correction during Khatami’s presidency, annual financial aid to Hezbollah fell from $60-100 million to $30 million. The correction did not last long, though. Egyptian news agency MENL carried a report on the virtual rehabilitation of a financial channel, through which Iran pumps money to Fatah paramilitary units operating in Judea, Samaria and Gaza Strip. The operation was steered by Fouad Balbisi, an activist of the PLO branch in Jordan that reports to PLO Political Bureau member Faruq Al-Qaddumi. MENL also said Balbisi organized financing of the Tanzim squad by Hezbollah’s Shiite organization.

Iranian subsidies to Hezbollah recently hit a record $200 million. This increase is explained by the significance Teheran attaches to consolidating the organization’s positions amidst the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which would run counter to Teheran’s interests should it be successful.

The dramatic radicalization of the Iranian clerical regime, the fanning of anti-Semitism and the overt struggle against the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in defiance of the whole world creates a discouraging backdrop for the problem of Iranian nuclear endeavors.

It is worth noting that negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which a trio of European mediators – Britain, Germany, and France – held with Teheran for several years, were driven to a standstill following Ahmadinejad’s inauguration to the presidential office.

At this point, the Iranians are reluctant to consider compromise proposals and insist on the creation of infrastructure in Iran for full-cycle nuclear fuel production (making it possible to enrich uranium to a level of 5 percent, or even 95 percent which is a weapon-grade level). Add to this the ongoing construction of a heavy-water reactor, which could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Russia and some of the European Union countries, in particular Germany, believe that Iran has not yet made the final decision to build nuclear weapons, but the Iranians seem unanimous in the desire to create a research basis they might rapidly streamline to the production of nuclear weapons. Opinions of this sort are widespread in Iran and, most importantly, they enjoy support from all sections of society. The desire to possess nuclear weapons has turned into a national priority.
To sum up, a multilevel strategic doctrine that emerged along with the rise of an ideology-driven state, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is now striving to translate Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideas into life, has again become the corner-stone of Iranian policies, albeit at a new stage of development. Iran’s combined potential is big enough to be transformed into a real power. The question arises again and again, however: Why is Iran so obsessed about hegemony? This seems to be a result of several predominant factors that add energy to Teheran’s ambitions.

The geopolitical factor. The Islamic Republic of Iran really plays a crucial role in Western Asia, a vital region of the globe embracing the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia. And of course Iran plays a significant role as a source of hydrocarbon raw materials and passageway for the transit of oil and gas products. One must also consider its population of 70 million people and the Armed Forces of over 900,000 men – among the biggest in the world. Regardless of the internal or external political layout, this country is a tangible factor for regional and global policymaking.

The military and political factor. Iran is surrounded by what it views as actual or potential enemies. The major enemy, the U.S. or the “Great Satan,” has practically surrounded Iran militarily – in Iraq to the West, in Afghanistan to the East, and in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the South, as well as on the bases and ships of its Central Command. Neighboring Turkey is a NATO member, while Azerbaijan and Georgia are leaning toward Washington. Two Sunni countries on the opposite shore of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are looking at Iran suspiciously and certainly do not view it as an ally. Last but not least, Israel is a critical factor in the Middle East. The Iranians term it as a “Lesser Satan” and deny it the very right to exist.

The national psychological factor. The Islamic Republic of Iran succeeds the Great Persian Empire, the world’s most ancient civilization that conquered half of the world. On the spiritual plane, Iran has been the center of Shiite Islam for almost six hundred years. These major historical factors form the mentality of the proud and resolute Shiite Iranians, who have long defended their interests against various enemies, the number of which have noticeably increased. The Persian national psychology presents an alloy of imperial nationalism and a Shiite sense of superiority that has grown into a political factor. This seems to be the main cause of Teheran’s ambitions and “nuclear intransigence.”

A question is conspicuous between the lines of Iran’s rhetoric: Why may others, like Israel or Pakistan, do something that’s totally prohibited to us? Why do others have nuclear bombs but we don’t? One can naturally describe this as a national psychological complex, including wounded national dignity. Any attempts to restrict the Iranian nuclear program produce fierce hostility mixed with nationalism. As the political scientist Ray Takeyh wrote in The Financial Times, “The nuclear programme and Iran’s national identity have become fused in the imagination of its leaders. To stand against impudent western demands is to validate one’s revolutionary ardour and nationalistic fidelity. Thus, the notion of acquiescence has a limited utility to Iran’s nationalists.”10 These are complexes, of course, yet they exert an impact on policies, domestic and foreign alike, that are the driving force of the intricate game Iran is conducting on the international arena in order to dominate in the region.
Paradoxically, the Islamic revolutionaries, who overthrew the Shah and abrogated all the institutions of monarchy, are acting out the Shah’s dream of making Iran a regional superpower, the center of a great civilization, which Mohammed Reza Pahlavi wrote about in his ambitious book, Toward the Great Civilization (the subject mulled now is an Islamic civilization). Persistence of the followers of Imam Khomeini transforms Iran gradually into a Shiite Persian empire, which is making weighty claims on the regional and global scale. At the same time, they scornfully reject Israel and the Holocaust, while supporting extremist Islamic groupings in the Middle East. What is more, by flexing its muscles while attempting to juggle the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has made the very system of nonproliferation extremely shaky.

One of the concepts of Khomeinism provides for the messianic role of Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose sacred duty is to propagate an Iranian-type Islamic revolution around the world. Is this not an imperial thesis? As Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov pointed out, messianism is characteristic of all empires and mighty powers. The British and French empires, for example, suffered from megalomania and justified their expansionism with “lofty aims.” The Soviet Union “supported the ‘triumphal march of socialism’ and national-liberation movements across the planet.” (See A. Arbatov’s article in this issue.) Iran, for its part, supports the triumphal march of Islamism and radical Islamic movements.

Iran has begun playing by the rules spelt out by Ahmadinejad’s group on its own territory, in other parts of the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world. In the meantime, this may have serious consequences for Iran itself, the Middle East, and the entire world.

Islamic Iran throwing a challenge to the world community, while craving for nuclear arsenals, is becoming the main factor for destabilization in the Middle East.

Last updated 8 february 2006, 15:25

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