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Prelude to War | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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When he first provoked a confrontation with the United Nations over Iran’s nuclear programme, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was visibly counting on a sharp but short clash that would strengthen the Islamic Republic in the long run.

In defiant mood, the firebrand leader based his policy on the Nietzschean dictum: What cannot kill me makes me stronger!

The idea was that Iranians, nurtured on a culture that upholds patience as one of the highest virtues, are bound to win any contest against their Western, especially American, enemies who are supposed to have no stomach for long contests. An Iranian would put a whole year to weave a small rug. He cooks his soup cook in an oven for an entire day. An American, on the other hand, drinks instant coffee and cannot focus on anything for more than a few minutes.

Almost three years later, however, it seems as if Ahamdinejad has led Iran not into a tangled web of imponderables rather than a short and sharp clash that could be managed with political huffing and puffing.

Within the next few days the United Nations’ Security Council is expected to approve a third resolution, imposing a set of fresh sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Slowly but surely, the screw is being tightened further, and some bones are already beginning to squeak in Iran.

The effects of the sanctions already imposed include a rise in the rate of inflation, from 11 to almost 20 per cent, reflecting the increase in the cost of imports. A shortage of raw materials and parts has also led to the closure of many factories with inevitable job losses. Iran’s independent trade union movement recently estimated that over 1000 workers were being laid off each day. By the time the Iranian economy feels the full effects of the sanctions already in place, more than 2.5 million Iranian workers might find themselves without a job.

Despite decades of talk about “self sufficiency” (khod-kafa’i), the Iranian economy is more dependent on foreign trade than ever. In 1977, just before the mullahs seized power, Iran imported 11 per cent of its food. By most conservative estimates, that figure has now reached 36 per cent.

In 1977, Iran imported small quantities of highly sepcialised refined petroleum products, notably jet fuel. Today, Iran imports almost half of its gasoline needs.

Although it has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, Iran is also a net importer of that energy. This winter, as Iranians shiver in the cold, they are reminded that they depend on Turkmenistan for the gas to heat tens of thousands homes throughout Iran.

The recent sharp rise in crude oil prices has softened the blow that UN sanctions have dealt the Iranian economy.

But what if oil prices, now playing yoyo, fell by $20 or even $30 per barrel?

Ahmadinejad’s latest budget assumes oil prices of around $40 without adjustment for inflation. Making that adjustment, Iran would need prices of above $80 per barrel to keep its economy afloat.

There is no doubt that the sanctions already imposed are working and that the new sanctions being discussed at the Security Council will hurt the Islamic Republic even more.

All this, however, does not mean that the council can achieve its objectives solely by imposing sanctions.

In its two previous resolutions, the council has made one major demand that cannot be easily fudged: the Islamic Republic must stop uranium enrichment and place its centrifuges under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It is clear that Ahmadinejad cannot agree to such a move.

For him to do so would be tantamount to committing political suicide. Even if he were to consider doing so, he would certainly try to postpone taking the bitter pill at least until after the next parliamentary elections in March, if not after the next presidential election in 2009.

Theoretically, the Khomeinist leadership could curtail Ahmadinejad’s tenure or, at least, prevent him from securing a second mandate.

A new president, someone like Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who does not wish to risk his personal wealth in a conflict with the West, might be able to abandon the nuclear adventure at least for a while.

But removing Ahmadinejad from power is not easy. Nor is it certain that the star-chambre of Khimeinism in Tehran could prevent the firebrand president from winning a second term.

Whether anyone likes it or not, and I certainly don’t, Ahmadinejad remains popular with that shrinking constituency that still believes in the Khomeinist revolution. In the absence of normal freedoms, it is hard to establish the actual strength of that constituency.

It may account for one per cent of the population, as opposition groups claim, or be as high as 80 per cent as Ahmadinejad pretends.

What is certain, however, is that within that constituency, Ahmadinejad’s clear message of revolutionary defiance, resonates better than Rafsanjani’s devious message of Clintonesque triangulation.

Ahmadinejad represents a long tradition of radicalism that cannot be halted except through military action.

One need not refer to Hitler if only because Ahmadinejad is no Hitler and Iran no Nazi Germany.

However, other examples can be cited.

Juan Peron’s dream of transforming Argentina into the world’s second “superpower” ended when his army received a beating in a border war against Chile.

Kim Il-sung was reined in when the US-led UN force took the war into his own territory in North Korea in 1951.

Nasser’s dream of a pan-Arab empire died on the battlefields of 1967.

Mao Zedong’s “permanent revolution” hit a wall when his armies were mauled by the Soviets in “hidden wars” along the Usuri River in the 1960s.

The Khmer Rouge was thrown into the dustbin of history in 1979 when it lost the war against Vietnam.

Idi Amin could not be restrained by sanctions. He was removed by force when the Tanzanian army invaded Uganda and marched on Kampala in 1979.

The Soviet Union began to crumble after its military defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

The Taliban regime in Kabul paid no attention to UN sanctions and diplomatic pressure in 2001. It had to be toppled by force.

Saddam Hussein’s regime could not have been persuaded to change policy because it couldn’t change its nature. It had to be stopped in 1991 and then brought down by force in 2003.

Regimes that lack domestic mechanisms for policy change are bound to have change imposed on them by external force.

Thus, the real issue regarding new sanctions against the Islamic Republic is not whether or not they would have some effect. They will. The issue is whether or not their effect would persuade the Khomeinist leadership to obey the Security Council. In other words, the more sanctions imposed by the UN, without producing the desired result, the stronger the argument for war.

The question is: if sanctions don’t work, what then?

History shows that sanctions, often presented as substitute for war, could end up as prelude to war.