Let’s make no bones about: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has won the first round of the match that he had tried hard to start against the major Western powers since his election last year. He wanted a confrontation and he has ended up getting one.
The European Union trio- Britain, Germany and France- and the United States, are now exactly where Ahmadinejad wanted them to be at this moment.
If they do nothing to stop Iran’s nuclear programme, Ahamdinejad will end up having his “nuclear surge capacity”, the final step towards building a bomb. If on the other hand the Euro-American quartet takes military action, Ahamdinejad would end up having the mini-war that he so wants to trigger his “clash of civilisations.”
The threat of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, if it ever materialises, does not frighten Ahmadinejad either. He actually wants to develop a siege mentality in Iran and mobilise his radical base against the businessmen-mullahs within the establishment who fear for their foreign assets. He has based his economic policy on “self-sufficiency” and “import substitution”, and would welcome massive reductions in imports.
In any case the European trio gave Iran almost three years to prepare for sanctions. Iran has been stockpiling the goods that might be denied it under an embargo and has expanded the black-market network it has developed since the US imposed unilateral sanctions in 1979.
Much of Ahamadinejad’s victory, however, is due to the inability so far of the Western quartet to deploy even a fraction of the power that they have in a confrontation like this.
The Iran issue has not yet hit the radar of public opinion in the United States and the Bush administration might find it hard to build a political base for tough action against the Islamic Republic. As for Europe, the union, its profession of “strong unity” notwithstanding, remains divided. A sign of that came last week when the German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier announced that talks with Tehran had “reached a dead-end”. Twelve hours later, Javier Solana, the EU’s Foreign Affairs “supremo”, contradicted Steinmeier by inviting Iran to continue with talks! Ahmadinejad may just take up Solana’s offer and launch another slow boat down an endless river of ultimately meaningless talks.
In fact, he is already offering a new diversion.
These days his senior aides are developing one theme: the Islamic Republic will not use nuclear weapons!
This is designed to move the issue a step away from the making of nuclear bombs to their use. Ahmadinejad hopes that the Europeans will end up playing the gullible cuckold and accept a new deal under which Tehran “solemnly promises” not to use nuclear weapons as a first option in a conflict.
To be sure, Iran is better prepared to absorb the shock of sanctions for at least as long as Saddam Hussein, playing a much weaker had, was able to do.
But should Ahmadinejad take Saddam Hussein as a model? And is the outside world prepared to play a new version of the cat-and-mouse game that Saddam Hussein initiated?
The answer to both questions is: no.
Ahmadinejad seems to have based his strategy on three assumptions that may prove false.
The first is that President George W Bush would not have the stomach to take any meaningful military action against the Islamic Republic.
That assumption is based on Bush’s low ratings in opinion polls, his difficulties over Iraq, and his concern about Republican losses in mid-term elections.
Bush, however, seems to have modeled himself on President Harry S Truman who left office with the lowest public opinion rating ever but has since emerged as an almost legendary hero for most Americans. The fact that Bush does not face re-election is important if only because he would not want to enter history as the president under whose watch a regime regarded by the US as a deadly adversary acquired nuclear weapons.
Ahmadinejad’s second problematic assumption is that whatever sanctions the UN might impose would not hurt. This may be true in material terms- at least at first. In psychological terms, however, sanctions and diplomatic isolation would hurt. Already, we witness a near paralysis of economic activity in Tehran as contracts are put on hold while the national currency, the Rial, is having the jitters. The Central Bank has been forced to intervene to stop a run on the Rial by promising to maintain its parity with the dollar throughout the next Iranian year-starting in March.
Sanctions could also hurt the very nuclear industry which is the cause of the current crisis. The consortium of nations exporting nuclear technology and materiel could stop deliveries to Iran for an indefinite period, thus delaying the Iranian nuclear programme for years. Russia could suspend work on the Bushehr nuclear plant, postponing its inauguration until after the current crisis is resolved. As for the 22 other nuclear power plants that Tehran has decided to build it would be hard to see who would want to build them in the teeth of UN sanctions.
The third and possibly the most erroneous assumption that Ahmadinejad makes is that the Iranian people will back him to the bitter end.
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad, unlike the mullahs who preceded him as president, does have a genuine popular base. But how large is that base and how solid its support? In last year’s election, assuming that it was free of fraud, which it wasn’t, Ahmadinejad was backed by 13 per cent of the electorate in the first round and by 35 per cent in the second. This means that two-thirds of those who could vote did not want him.
Since Ahmadinejad was unknown to most Iranians we must assume that some of those who voted for him did so to prevent the election of Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah-cum-businessman who, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as a symbol of clerical corruption and oppression. Millions of voters, of course, were seduced by Ahmadinejad’s promise of sharing out the oil revenue, creating jobs, and raising living standards all around. If he ends up offering more hardship
under sanctions, he may find himself in trouble sooner than he thinks. Ahmadinejad can also be sure that once his administration is in difficulty his opponents among the mullahs would not hesitate to stab him.
Winning the first round does not guarantee winning the match. In international politics as in sport how things end is at least as important as how things begin. Ahmadinejad says he has provoked the current crisis on the basis of “a battle plan” he claims he has. He would do well to remember Field Marshal von Moltke’s famous saying: “The best battle plan unravels with the first encounter with the enemy.”