Right from the start of the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration has pursued three main objectives.
The first of these is to prevent the formation of a unified international front opposed to Tehran. The idea here is that if Iran manages to split the United Nations’ Security Council, and prevent the United States from enlisting the full support of the European Union, any plan to stop Iran’s plans would be doomed to failure.
The second objective of the Ahmadinejad administration has been to present the nuclear issue as the most pressing topic in Iran’s domestic politics. The idea here is that since most people do not quite know what is at stake the government has a fair chance of casting itself in the role of “ the defender of national interests” against foreign, imperialistic powers that do not wish Iran, and other developing nations for that matter, to secure a share of modern science and technology. The nuclear issue has the added advantage of edging out other issues of domestic politics, notably the systematic violation of human rights, the looming economic crisis, and the bitter power struggle that is tearing the ruling establishment apart.
Finally, the Ahmadinejad administration has tried to transform the nuclear issue into a duel between itself and the Bush administration in Washington. This strategy is based on the calculation that almost all countries, including Iran’s neighbors and the veto-holding members of he Security Council, would be glad to transfer that hot potato to Washington.
Right from the start of his presidency, Ahmadinejad has claimed that the world today has only two options with regards to shaping the future. One is to adopt the American economic, political and cultural model in the context of globalization. The other is to adopt the Khomeinist model in which politics, economics and culture provide a unified whole within a social framework built on religion and controlled by theological authority.
Ahmadinejad is convinced that the two models are heading for a “final showdown” and that the Khomeinist model, albeit altered to suit the realities and needs of other nations, is sure to emerge as the winner.
In the open letter he has addressed to President George W Bush, the Islamic Republic President has even expressed the hope that the United States itself would adopt the Khomeinist model. Asserting that the American liberal democratic model has already failed and is dying, Ahmadinejad asks rhetorically whether Bush will not join the masses of the world who are supposed to be clamoring for the chance to live under a government like that of Iran today.
Most commentators in the West, especially the United States, have received Ahmadinejad’s open letter with a mixture of derision and disbelief. They are wrong.
Ahmadinejad represents an ideology with deep historical roots not only in Iran but also throughout much of he Middle East. According to that ideology the West is doomed to a tragic fate because it has consistently, that is to say for the past 14 centuries, refused to abandon its “ abrogated religions” and convert to the “ ultimate version of the only truth.”
Ahmadinejad is not alone in believing that the domination of the Western model in the past two to three centuries has been a disaster for mankind. Muhammad Khatami, the mullah who acted as President of the Islamic republic before Ahmadinejad’s election last year, was also convinced that the West, which eh calls “ the child of Enlightenment”; was nothing but a monster that has set large parts of the world on fire and drenched in blood.
“ What did the Enlightenment lead to?” Khatami asked in a speech he made at Florence University six years ago. “ His answer was: war, colonialism, imperialism and“ rabid materialism.”
This type of messianic politics has always been hard for the average Western politician or intellectual to grasp.
In the 19 th century, British politicians and commentators were more amused than alarmed by Marx’s calls for a global proletarian revolution and the destruction of the capitalist system. Even in the 1870s when Marxist ideas had been recognized as part of the topos of radical politics, most Brits believed that this was just another “ continental quirk.” Almost half a century later it was Lenin’s turn to challenge the democratic model. And, once again, many in the West were amused rather than alarmed by his discourse. Fifty years after Lenin it was Hitler’s turn to present his “ one people, one Reich, one leader” model as the ideal for mankind, or at least those portions of it that were not regarded as subhuman.
All this does not mean that Ahmadinejad is another Marx, Lenin or Hitler. As Marx observed, History dopes not repeat itself, except as caricature.
What is important to understand is that the sudden disappearance of the various brands of Communism as challenger to the Western model has left a vacuum that other radical ideologies especially of the Right, including Khomeinism, are trying to fill.
Ahmadinejad deserves credit because he plays an open hand. He is saying aloud what all Khomeinists, including those who speak of “dialogue of civilizations”, think in silence.
Ahmadinejad is right: the Khomeinist system is threatened by the Western, more specifically, American “liberal democratic model.” Thus, the relationship between the two cannot but be one of confrontation of conflict until one side wins a decisive victory over the other.
Confrontation and conflict, of course, need not mean a military clash let alone a full-scale invasion of the Islamic Republic. The fight is essentially political and, thus, the principal battlefield is Iran’s domestic scene.
Paradoxically, Ahmadinejad’s decision to push everything to crisis point could help those who, when all is said and done, prefer the Western, rather than the Khomeinist model, for Iran. By publicly declaring that the Khomeinist system is incompatible with democracy and that Iran cannot develop a liberal, market-based society unless it has a different regime, Ahmadinejad is reorienting the debate towards rte only issue that matters: regime change.
It is, of course, theoretically possible that Ahmadinejad could still mobilize the full potential of the Khomeinist establishment, add to it other non-religious enemies of the Western model, and give the regime a much stronger base than it has had at least since the late 1980s. But even that would set the stage for a clear duel between two visions of Iran: one as an enemy of democracy and, thus, of the West as a whole; and the other as a rising power in search of democratization and a proper place in a global system that has been shaped by the very Enlightenment that Khatami regards as “ pure darkness.”
By making it harder for the mullahs to obfuscate, dissimulate and lie, Ahmadinejad is doing a good job. He is forcing everyone in Iran and all those outside who are interested in Iran to take side.