Iran Seeking Superpower Status
No. 1 2006 January/March
Vladimir Sazhin

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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
Teheran’s refurbished old policy line has internal and external

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.