Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Playing Russian Roulette in Tehran - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

“It reminds me of Egypt under Nasser,” a friend commented the other day as we watched television footage of crowds in Tehran shouting the usual slogans.

Crowds always resemble each other. It is individuals that are different.

In this particular case, however, the resemblance went beyond the crowds. Like Egypt in the 1960s, the Islamic Republic appears to be determined to provoke a war without being prepared for it.

Some commentators believe that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s public statements do not reflect the “deep down” position of the Islamic Republic. After all, he is one player among many in Tehran, they argue.

Nevertheless, whether or not Ahmadinejad speaks for the ‘real leaders’ of the Khomeinist regime is beside the point. There is no doubt that the president’s statements, and behaviour, have contributed to raising the tension in the region and increasing the threat of war.

Judging by his public statements, Ahmadinejad seems to believe that only two countries might take military action against the Islamic Republic: Israel and the United States.

He further believes that neither nation would take such action for fear of defeat. “If Israel takes action against us, it will be wiped off the map,” Ahmadinejad said in Doha, Qatar, the other day as a smiling emir watched.

As for the US, Ahmadinejad claims that a military clash with the Islamic Republic would spell “the end of American global hegemony.”

In his Qatar statement, Ahmadinejad revealed that his analysis of the situation was based on two assumptions.

The first is that Israel “lost” the mini-wars against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. If they couldn’t win against such weak adversaries, how could they win against us?

Ahmadinejad’s second assumption is that the US is incapable of fighting a “real war.”

“The Americans never fought a real war,” he said in Qatar.

In Korea and Vietnam, the Americans were just “slaughtering civilian populations.” As for Afghanistan and Iraq, the US did not face “a real army” and just “walked through an empty country.”

It is astonishing how Ahmadinjad’s analysis resembles that of Nasser and Saddam Hussein in their respective moments of truths.

In his memoirs, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov relates how, on the eve of the Six Day war in 1967, Nasser assured him that Israel would not dare attack Egypt and that if they did the Jewish state would be “wiped off the map.”

As fate would have it, Primakov also had an opportunity, almost four decades later, to hear similar analysis from another Arab autocrat, Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi despot was also “absolutely certain” that the Americans had no stomach for a “real war” and would not come down from their planes to “fight like men.”

Just 18 hours before the first Americans tanks entered Baghdad Saddam Hussein was shown on his television telling a crowd that no US soldier would dare enter the capital.

Ahmadinejad’s stance may be written off as another example of his naiveté or his widely publicised claim that the Hidden Imam, a messiah like figure who is supposed to come at the end of time, will charge into the battle to annihilate his enemies.

However, Iranians would have every reason to be concerned about the president’s judgement. He is violating many of the rules of leadership at a time of crisis.

All thinkers on warfare, from the Chinese Sun Tzu to the Italian Machiavelli and the French Jomeini, passing by the German Clausewitz, insist that the best war leader is one who achieves his objectives without going to war.

Ahmadinejad’s rather juvenile optimism is against the first rule of leadership which is to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

He is also violating the principle of prudence which is designed to prevent playing poker with a whole country. Prudence dictates that we should assume that a designated adversary might indeed attack us. And, if that happens, we cannot rule out the possibility of losing. Those who play Russian roulette assume that the sole bullet in the gun may go off when they pull the trigger against their temple.

Even if Ahmadinejad is right and a war with Israel, and/or the US, leads to their “annihilation”, it is prudent to assume that Iran would not emerge from it without any damage. A good leader’s duty is to prevent damage to his country and people.

Those familiar with the state of Iran’s defences, or lack of them, know that the country is in no way prepared for a major war. Almost two years ago, General Rahim Safavi, then Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), warned against starry-eyed assessments of the nation’s military capabilities. Last year, a string of generals from the regular army, which, one must assume would have to defeat Israel and the US in Ahmadinejad’s fantasy-land, revealed its shortcomings in a series of public statements.

The late Ruhallah Khomeini, the mullah who founded the Islamic Republic, was equally unable to control his rhetoric. His provocative policy provided Saddam Hussein with a pretext to attack Iran in 1980, triggering an eight-year war that claimed over a million lives.

Three decades later, Iran has not yet repaired the damage done by that war. Almost half of those displaced by that war have not yet returned to their original towns and villages. Khorramshahr, once Iran’s largest port, remains a shadow of its past. The Abadan refinery, the world’s largest on the eve of the war, is down to a fifth of its original capacity, forcing Iran to import 40 percent of the gasoline it needs. Iran’s official estimated the damage done by that war as being over $1 trillion or the equivalent of five years of the gross domestic product. The country cannot fully provide for the estimated 2.3 million people left disabled by that war.

Add to that the human and economic cost of the wars that the Khomeinist regime has waged against political opponents and ethnic minorities, and it becomes clear that Iran has had enough of war for a long time to come.

Rather than play with the idea of war, as a teenager would with his games console, Ahmadinejad should tell us which national objective might justify taking the country to the brink.

Bravado is no substitute for a national strategy.

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.

More Posts