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Sufism, Sophistry and Politics - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Bombing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations would turn the Middle East into a “ball of fire”.

The warning comes from Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Muhammad El-Baradaei. The “ball of fire” is a poetic expression, and I wondered where it came from. I thought of Johnny Cash’s famous song, The Ring of Fire. However, a friend suggested that the image came from a qasida by the great Egyptian Sufi Ibn al-Farid.

That Egyptians, besides being masters of jokes (nokats), have a poetic bend of mind is to their credit. What is not praiseworthy, however, is the use of poetical metaphor in domains that require sober analysis.

Politics is one such domain.

When the late Jamal Abdul-Nasser launched the 1967 war as a “Dawn of Victory”, another borrowing from Ibn al-Farid, his discourse sounded great on The Arabs’ Voice (Sowt al-Arab), but not on the battlefield.

In 1990, it was the turn of my friend Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, another great Egyptian, to dip into Ibn al-Farid and come out with the phrase “floods of fire” to warn those who wanted to kick Saddam Hussein out of occupied Kuwait.

In 2002, Amr Moussa, also a great Egyptian and Secretary General of the Arab League, pinched another cliché from Ibn al-Farid. Rather than offer anything serious to prevent the Iraq war, he went around shouting “the Gates of Hell” were about to open.

Let us return to El-Baradaei, another great Egyptian.

As a diplomat and bureaucrat in charge of one of the United Nations’ affiliates, he is bound by a duty of reserve. This means that he should not use his position to askew the terms of international debate on subjects concerning his department.

The image of “a ball of fire” might frighten the old lady in Surrey. But it doesn’t say much about what is a serious problem.

El-Baradei’s primary duty is to establish whether the Islamic Republic is, as the United States and its European Union allies claim, violating the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). If he establishes beyond reasonable doubt, that Tehran is not trying to make a bomb, he would need no poetic cliché to prevent war. If, on the other hand, he cannot establish that or, worse still, feels that the opposite may be the case, he should not lend succor to the violator of a treaty of which he is guardian.

In any case, El-Baradaei should tell the world what exactly his “ball of fire” might consist of.

The greater Middle East, which is supposed to become “a ball of fire”, is comprised of 25 countries from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Would the Pakistanis or the Moroccans burn their homeland by joining “the ball of fire” because Khomeinism is denied the bomb?

Would Turks and Algerians jump on the “ball of fire” to show solidarity with a regime that has helped terror groups against them for decades?

Even the Syrian rulers are unlikely to risk their survival by trying to jump on El-Baradaei’s “ball of fire” to please the mullahs. They like the mullahs’ money, not the mullahs themselves.

Despite Tehran’s massive handouts in recent years, one doubts even Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in general would take risks to show solidarity with a regime that, while generous, has been trying to impose ideological control.

That leaves the branches of the Hezbollah, especially the largest and best-financed Lebanese one. But then, as always what Hezbollah does will be decided in Tehran not Beirut.

Contrary to El-Baradaei’s eschatological vision, if the attacks are limited to nuclear sites, the Khomeinists will not escalate the conflict. On the contrary, they will try to de-escalate, to stop a war that could lead to regime change in Tehran.

Khomeinists, as they have stated repeatedly, do not care about Iran or even Islam as such. Their primary concern is the survival of their regime. Their Constitution gives their “Supreme Guide” the right to suspend even the basic rules of Islam if that is needed to protect the regime. For them there is no Iran and no Islam without Khomeinism.

As the ousted commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Yayha Safavi, warned several months ago, Tehran’s military options are limited.

One option is to close the Strait of Hormuz, disrupting the flow of oil.

This could be done by mining the waterway. But the waterway could be cleared quickly. Even if it remains closed for weeks, the principal loser would be the Islamic Republic that depends on oil revenues for 80 per cent of its budget. Closing the strait would end gasoline imports that account for 48 per cent of Iran’s consumption. The IRGC could run out of fuel for its gunboats and helicopters. The Islamic Republic imports half of Iran’s food. Shutting trade routes could throw millions into hunger.

What else could the regime do to give El-Baradaei his “ball of fire”?

The IRGC could invade Iraq and Afghanistan and, using sleeper agents, do some mischief. But what good would that do the mullahs, except further inciting Iraqis and Afghans against them?

It is unlikely that the Islamic Republic would invade Turkey to hit NATO bases. An invasion of Pakistan is also hard to imagine while moving into Azerbaijan and/or Turkmenistan, though technically possible, would produce no positive military results for Khomeinist strategists. It is also unlikely that the IRGC would try to make the ‘ ball of fie’ bigger by invading Russia or Kazakhstan.

The mullahs may decide to fire missiles at oil installations in the Gulf states. However, that too, is easier said and done. Anyone who might want to attack the Islamic Republic is sure to knock out its missile launching pads first.

In 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that an attack on the Islamic Republic could drive oil prices to “over $100 a barrel”. We reached that price months ago without a war and the skies did not fall.

Those who wish to prevent war should not encourage the Khomeinists in their illusion that they could blackmail more powerful adversaries with talk of high oil prices, suicide attacks, and, yes, “the ball of fire.”

If war comes there would be “a ball of fire”. But it would be only in Iran, not the whole of the Middle East. This is why those within the Tehran leadership who still love Iran with or without Khomeinism, should tell their radical colleagues, intoxicated with a mad ideology, that war, contrary to Khomeini’s claim, is not “a gift from God” but a curse of Satan.

In the broader scheme of things, Sufism may have its place. Extended to politic, however, it could become sophistry.

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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