(photo credit: AP [file])
The way Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tells it, the Islamic Republic is well on the way to establishing itself as "the leader of the Muslim world" in what he describes as "the coming clash of civilizations."
In a speech at a teachers training college in Teheran last Sunday, Ahmadinejad claimed that the Islamic Republic had already won the first round against "arrogant Crusader-Zionist powers" led by the United States.
One sign of that victory, according to Ahmadinejad, is the decision by the European Union trio of Britain, Germany and France to resume negotiations on the Iranian nuclear dossier. The trio had walked out of the talks five months ago and stated it would not return until Iran stopped uranium processing at a plant in Isfahan. Well, Iran did not stop, forcing the Europeans to eat humble pie and return to the negotiating table. Teheran's tactic of talking while continuing the nuclear project seems to be working.
"The Europeans have returned with their tails between their legs," says Shariat Madari, editor of the daily Kayhan and a key supporter of Ahmadinejad.
There is no doubt that government propaganda that emphasizes Ahmadinejad's macho style as juxtaposed against Western "cowardly arrogance" has helped boost his populist base. And, engaged as he is in a power struggle against a coalition of mullahs and business tycoons, Ahmadinejad may well need the boost.
Nevertheless, the macho style and the incendiary language that Ahmadinejad uses have not been as cost-free as his supporters pretend.
In fact, all that Ahmadinejad has achieved is to return the Islamic Republic to the isolation it suffered from during its early days when American diplomats were held hostage at the US Embassy in Teheran.
The first sign of that isolation came last September when France, Germany and Austria politely informed Teheran that earlier "agreements in principle" to welcome Iran's new president on state visits to Paris, Berlin and Vienna had been kicked into the tall grass. All three had unrolled the red carpet for Ahmadinejad's predecessor, the mullah Muhammad Khatami who, as president, had managed to pull the wool on European eyes as to the true nature of the Islamic Republic.
France, Germany and Britain had hoped that Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a business man-cum-mullah, would win last June's Iranian election and did not expect to face Ahmadinejad. The invitations issued had been for Rafsanjani, not Ahmadinejad.
That setback was followed by Washington's decision to deny visas to the Speaker of the Islamic Majlis (parliament) and a group of 12 deputies to attend the annual session of the inter-parliamentary union in New York. This was the first time that such a humiliation was being inflicted on the Khomeinist regime.
The Islamic Majlis Speaker, Ghulam-Ali Haddad-Adel, did manage to get visas for other capitals. But wherever he went he got the cold shoulder. In Strasbourg the president of the European Parliament refused to see him and in Brussels the Speaker of the Belgian parliament cancelled a meeting at the last minute. Last week in Moscow, Hadad-Adel was forced to cancel his address at the Russian Parliament because not a single member turned out for the occasion.
AHMADINEJAD'S adventurous, not to say weird, foreign policy has done more damage to the Islamic Republic closer to home. Almost 15 years of efforts to build a relationship with Saudi Arabia have been annulled. Earlier this month Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz hosted an emergency summit of Muslim leaders in Mecca in which Ahmadinejad was also present. But Teheran's demand that Ahmadinejad be allowed to extend his visit by a day or two as guest of the king were politely refused by the Saudis.
Worse news for Ahmadinejad came a few days after the Mecca summit when leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Abu Dhabi and agreed to a "joint response to Iran's problematic approach to a number of issues."
One key issue, according to GCC's Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman al-Attiyah is the Islamic Republic's "nuclear program."
Al-Attiyah has made it clear that the GCC has "deep concern" about the entire Iranian nuclear project even if it were, as Teheran claims, limited to civilian purposes.
The GCC's concern is not fanciful.
Iran's first nuclear power station, expected to go on stream next year, is located at the Bushehr Peninsula on the Persian Gulf. The whole region is one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. A study by Stanford University, conducted in the 1970s under the Shah, warned that tremors measuring more than seven on the Richter scale could destroy the nuclear power station as designed by the German company Siemens.
The project, abandoned in 1978 and half destroyed by Iraqi bombing in 1980, was revived in 1989 with the help of Russian companies. Teheran claims that design changes have been made and that the future power station would resist tremors of more than seven on the Richter scale. That claim, however, is disputed in a report presented by the Seismological Institute in Teheran to President Khatami in 2000. Attempts at holding a parliamentary hearing on the report over the past five years have been scotched by both Khatami and Ahmadinejad on the grounds of "national security."
THE GCC Arabs have every reason to be worried. Between 40 and 100 per cent of the GCC states' population live in areas that would be directly affected by any nuclear catastrophe at Bushehr. Qatar, sticking out like a thumb across the Persian Gulf, is located just opposite the Iranian nuclear power station. More than 80 per cent of the GCC's oilfields are also within the radius of danger.
Since the Persian Gulf is a shallow body of water - nowhere deeper than 90 metres - any nuclear pollution could inflict damage lasting centuries. An "incident" of the kind seen at Chernobyl could halt shipping and cut the flow of almost 25 per cent of the world's daily supply of oil. It could also render the offshore gas deposits of Qatar and Iran, the second largest in the world, unusable for centuries. As al-Attiyah has pointed out such an incident could inflict "incalculable damage" on all aspects of the environment in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of the Indian Subcontinent. Iran itself would be less affected because less than 10 per cent of its population lives along the coastline.
Even more worrisome for the GCC Arabs is the fact that all of the 25 nuclear power stations that Iran plans to build in the next decade or so will be located in areas close to GCC territory. The second Iranian nuclear power station is under construction at Dar-Khuwayn on the River Karun in Khuzestan, a stone-throw from both Kuwait and Iraq. The third, still in the drawing room, is to be built on the Jask Peninsula on the Gulf of Oman, opposite the Sultanate of Oman.
Dotting an earthquake-prone zone with so many nuclear power stations is reason enough for concern. But the problem does not end there. It is now certain that the Islamic Republic is determined to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons, launching an arms race with unforeseeable consequences. It is unlikely that all those concerned would sit back and watch as Mr. Ahmadinejad pushes the region towards environmental risk and, perhaps, even war. He may well laugh at what he sees as the Europeans' "lack of a backbone." And, like the man in the famous anecdote, he may even say: So far, so good!
But the kind of game he is playing often ends in grief. Regimes like his do not know when and where to stop, until they hit something harder than themselves. And then it is too late.
The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.
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