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Why is Tehran Acting Timid? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Six, seven, eight, 23, and 57. These are figures that Tehran decision-makers ought to contemplate as the United Nations Security Council moves towards imposing further sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The progression of the figures indicates the progressive isolation of the Khomeinist leadership within first in its own region and then in the broader community of nations whose sympathies it needs more than ever before.

The figure six refers to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a grouping of six Arab states in the Gulf and thus most directly affected by whatever happens to Iran- both rough and smooth. For more than 18 months, the six conducted a quiet but determined diplomatic campaign to persuade the Khomeinist leadership to accept compromises designed to prevent escalation over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. A string of senior officials from the GCC visited Tehran while several GCC capitals also unrolled the red carpet for Iran’s new radical leader President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By the end of last year, however, it had become clear that leadership in Tehran was not prepared to make the slightest change in its policies and tactics and that, confident that its actual or potential adversaries would never unite, was determined to stay on the offensive throughout the region from Afghanistan to North Africa and passing by Iraq and Lebanon.

The realisation that Tehran was in confrontational gear inspired a degree of cohesion within the GCC that it had not known since the 1980s. The most potent symbol of that cohesion was the collective decision to develop a nuclear energy industry for the GCC, signaling a determination to engage the Khomeinist regime in whatever race it wished to start in the region.

The figure seven cited above refers to a new grouping of Islamic nations that met in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital this week to draft a new strategy for Muslim nations with regard to key current issues: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Iranian nuclear ambitions. The group consisted of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. This was the first time since the first Muslim summit in Rabat in 1969 that Iran was not present at a meeting of what had always been The Group of Eight. The reason for Iran’s exclusion was not that the other seven nations did not wish to have the Iranians around. The reason was Tehran’s refusal to offer the degree of flexibility without which no common position could be developed on the issues.

The figure eight refers to the semi-official grouping of the six GCC nations with Jordan and Egypt, acting as a hard core of the figure 23 that represents the members of the Arab League. It is now clear that the Group of Eight is in a position to propose a broad strategy to tackle the most urgent issues of the region. That proposal is expected to be put to the next Arab Summit, to be hosted by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh later this month, and is almost certain to be adopted with near unanimity. (Only Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his friend Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese President, might abstain as a gesture to their allies in Tehran.)

The figure 57 refers to the membership of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which the Islamic Republic has always regarded as source of bloc support. In 2003 the OIC refused to support Saddam Hussein in his defiance of the UN Security Council, and is unlikely to back the Khomeinist leadership in the fight it has picked up with the same council.

The Tehran leadership has tried to compensate for loss of diplomatic support among Islamic nations by brandishing its new alliances with the pseudo-Marxist regimes of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba plus the Stalinist gang in North Korea and the pariah regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. But the more Tehran advertises such alliances the less likely it is to arouse secure sympathy in the Muslim world.

Not surprisingly, many people within the Khomeinist regime itself are wondering aloud whether it is wise to lead Iran into a conflict with the UN, and possible war, based on such problematic alliances.

Conscious of its growing diplomatic isolation and the weakening of its overall position as a result of the somber mood inside Iran itself, the Khomeinist leadership has had to eat humble pie in recent weeks.

It had promised to hit back “with double force” against those who imposed any sanctions on the Islamic Republic. So far, however, it has not done so. It has not even called in the ambassadors of the countries involved in the Security Council move to protest.

Nor has the Khomeinist leadership acted on its threat to topple the Lebanese government or plunge the country into a civil war through Hezbollah. If anything, there are signs that Tehran has told Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to cool things down, at least for the time being.

Even in Iraq, there are signs that the Khomeinist leadership, conscious of its isolation and vulnerability, is playing timid. It has recalled Moqtada Sadr, the firebrand junior cleric who represents Tehran’s chief asset among the Iraqi Shiites, allowing his Mahdi Army to evaporate like snow in summer. Worse still, the much-promised “retaliation” for the capture of at least a dozen senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard officers by the Americans in Iraq has failed to materialise.

Meanwhile, General Rahim Safavi, the Islamic Republic’s most senior military commander, has come out with a clear warning that his forces are not in a position to keep the country safe. In a speech last week he frankly admitted that Iran was open to attacks from the air because its outdated air force and sub-standard anti-aircraft defences were in no position to deny the enemy easy entry into the national air space. He also admitted that his forces could not protect the nation’s more than 8000 kilometres of land and water borders.

Also interesting is Tehran’s decision to turn its face the other way while the United States proceeds with the biggest build-up of firepower in the Gulf since 1991. President Ahmadinejad might try to explain his uncharacteristic pusillanimity in the face of what is a clear and present danger by expressing the hope that the Hidden Imam will somehow ride to the rescue at the 11th hour. That, however, cannot be the basis for a serious national strategy. Isolated, friendless, and designated as the new universal enemy of humanity, the Tehran leadership is taking Iran into very dangerous waters.

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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