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TEHRAN RISING: Iran’s Challenge to the United States

TEHRAN RISING: Iran’s Challenge to the United States

Last month Iran’s new President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad presented his government’s “medium and long-term strategy” in the form of a 6000-word documented submitted to the Islamic Majlis (parliament) in Tehran. In it he presented the Islamic Republic as “the core power” in a new Muslim bloc whose chief task is to prevent the United States from imposing its vision on the Middle East. The document presented the Iran-US duel as “a clash of civilization” and predicted that the Islamic Republic will emerge victorious.

“Leadership is the indisputable right of the Iranian nation, “the document asserted.

According to Ahmadinejad the world is heading for a “multi-polar system” in which the European Union, China, India, and Latin America, probably led by Venezuela, will stand against the United States’ “hegemonic ambitions”. The Islamic world, too, will emerge as a new “pole” structured around the Islamic Republic of Iran which, thanks to its demographic, military, and ideological strength, is the natural leader of the Muslim world.

Adopting the analysis of Samuel Huntington, the American essayist who invented the term “clash of civilizations” a decade ago, Ahmadinejad described the US as a “sunset” (ofuli) power while the Islamic Republic was a “sunrise” (tolu’ee) power. In the clash between the two the Islamic Republic would win, Ahmadinejad promised.

And earlier this month Ahmadinejad fleshed out his analysis during two speeches at the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York. His message was simple: the Islamic Republic seeks a world leadership role in the name of a radical revolutionary interpretation of Islam.

Ilan Berman Berman whose “Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States” has just been published could not have read Ahamdinejad’s programme when writing his own timely essay. And, yet, it is as if Berman already knew what was going on in the minds of the new ruling elite in Tehran.

The chief merit of Berman’s nook is that he does not beat around the bush. At a time that everyone is obsessed with the issue of Tehran building a nuclear bomb, Berman shows that the real question is the Islamic Republic’s desire for domination in a vast region that includes the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Basin, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

“Will Iran, armed with nuclear weapons, emerge to dominate the Middle East? Or will the Islamic Republic give way to a more benign, pro-Western political order?” Berman asks.

By posing the problem this way, Berman clearly rejects a third possibility- one cherished by the Clinton administration- to seek a “ grand bargain” with the Islamic Republic under which Iran would be recognized by the United States as the regional “superpower” in exchange for changes in aspects of its behaviour, especially on such issues as Palestine and sponsoring terrorism.

Berman, who teaches at the National Defence University in Washington DC, sees the Iran-US duel as a win-lose situation, at least long as Iran is ruled by a totalitarian Islamist elite. Rejecting Cold War ideas such as détente and peaceful coexistence, Berman believes that the present balance of power in the Middle East cannot be sustained for any appreciable length of time. Either Iran succeeds to chase the Americans out of the Middle East or the US, with or without allies, adopts a policy of regime change vis-à-vis Tehran.

Regime change, however, is easier said than done.

Even in Iraq where the US-led coalition won a quick military victory largely because the Iraqi people decided not to fight for Saddam Hussein, regime change has proved more complicated than many had imagined. This is why Berman devoted less than three per cent of his short book to ways and means of achieving regime change in Tehran. Berman suggests the revival of what he labels “The Reagan Doctrine” which, he says, led to the destruction of the Soviet “Evil Empire”.

In practical terms what Berman suggests amounts to no more than a

greater use of public diplomacy and the free flow of information especially through Persian-language radio and television networks funded by Washington. He also wants Washington to use the Iranian expatriate community-including some 2 million of them in the US – as a channel for relaying democratic ideas into Iran itself.

Berman urges the US to find an alternative leadership for Iran, someone like Lech Walesa in the final years of Communism in Poland.

He suggests two candidates. The first is Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of he late Muhammad Reza Shah who has called for a referendum to find out what type of government Iranians want for the future. Berman’s other candidate is the Mujahedin Khalq group which has some 4000 armed men and women in a camp in Iraq under the protection of the US-led coalition, and which has been described as a “ terrorist organization” by the State Department in Washington.

Berman suggests that the US conduct a series of polls both inside and outside Iran to find out which dissident group is most likely to win the largest measure of support from the Iranian people. Once that is determined the US and its allies would be able to give political, diplomatic and, presumably, financial support to the alternative Iranian leadership. But even then it is not quite clear how such a leadership will be installed in Tehran. Through elections? Through invasion? Or an internal coup d’etat by anti-mullah elements?

Those with a deeper knowledge of Iran will find Berman’s outline of a scenario for regime change without military action somewhat unconvincing. But the value of this essay lies elsewhere. It is in Berman’s frank admission that President George W Bush’s dream for a democratic Middle East that would be friendly to the United States may well turn into a nightmare if Iran, under its present leadership, succeeds to impose its agenda on the region, starting with Iraq.

And that is not such a far-fetched idea. By all accounts, the Islamic Republic is already busy building an infrastructure for intervention and, when the time comes, domination in Iraq.

There is no guarantee that whoever succeeds President Bush will share his vision or have his guts, some might say his audacity, to take risks that no other American leader has taken since Harry S Truman. The Islamic Republic in Iran has dealt with five American presidents so far. Only one of them, George W Bush, has so far refused to offer the mullahs some version of the “grand bargain” that President Bill Clinton tried to offer the mullahs-only to be snubbed by them.

Even within Bush’s own Republican Party there are quite a few grandees who dream of a “grand bargain” wit the mullahs, among them Senator Chuck Hagel and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.

Thus there is no reason why the Islamic Republic should not try to wait George W Bush out and then go for broke in what Ahamdinejad describes as Iran’s “natural sphere of leadership” that is to say the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Basin and Central Asia.

Berman’s book makes it impossible for the policymakers in Washington to ignore the Islamic Republic as a nasty toothache that it is bound to fade away. But it is far from clear whether or not the current administration has the time and, yes, the courage to devise a strategy to meet what is one of the biggest challenges the US foreign policy faces at present.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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