When Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his "wipe Israel off the map" remarks last month, many diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic rushed to explain, read between the lines and relativize what was an unambiguous statement of Teheran's long-established policy. They expressed the hope that Iran would "clarify" - meaning soften - its position.
That was followed by feverish diplomatic activities, mainly by the United Nations' Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to persuade Teheran to tone down Ahmadinejad's remarks. (Annan was forced to cancel a planned visit to Teheran after the Iranians told him they would not allow any conciliatory phrases into the final communique.)
Last week, however, Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi, the nation's ultimate decision-maker under the Khomeinist Constitution, not only gave his ringing endorsement to Ahmadinejad's remarks, but went further by offering his "vision for Palestine."
Addressing a congregation at the end of Ramadan, Khamenehi said Iran rejected the two-states formula proposed by the US, and would fight for the creation of a single state encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories. In such a state, power would be in the hands of Muslims, although some Jews would be allowed to remain, under unspecified conditions.
Khamenehi went further by suggesting that Israel's political and military leaders, especially Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, be tried on charges of crimes against humanity.
WHY HAS Teheran decided to play hardball? The answer is that it wants a clash with the US over the future of the Middle East, and is convinced that it can win.
For almost a quarter of a century the Islamic Republic has been trying to change the status quo in the region while the US sought to preserve it. After 9/11 President George W. Bush transformed the US into an anti-status quo power and introduced major changes by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath in Iraq. Sooner or later a new status quo has to emerge in the Middle East. The question is whether it will be shaped by the US or by Iran.
Ahmadinejad believes that Iran has a better chance of putting its imprint on the new Middle East. The US lacks staying power and Bush is an aberration in contemporary American history. All that the Islamic Republic needs to do is wait until the Bush presidency is either politically destroyed by its opponents in Washington or comes to the end of its term. Then, once Bush is crippled or gone, no American leader would have the stomach for a fight with Iran.
In the meantime, the only regional powers capable of challenging Iran's leadership are out of the race for different reasons. Turkey has decided to become part of Europe, and would not cherish the prospect of being sucked into the Middle East's deadly politics. Egypt, for its part, is heading for a period of instability under an octogenarian leader who just managed to retain power with the support of no more than 12% of the electorate in a rigged election.
Iran, on the other hand, has become more powerful. Internally, the soft-liners have been kicked out, allowing a new generation of radical revolutionaries to seize control of all levers of state power. Iran's oil income is at an all-time high, allowing the new president to buy popular support.
Abroad, while the US is bogged down by the insurgency in Iraq and the periodical resurfacing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran has formed solid alliances in both countries. Iran has also emerged as the main supporter of Palestinian radical movements, some of which had been without a patron since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Next February, Teheran is scheduled to host the largest gathering of radical leaders from across the Muslim world to endorse its one-state formula for ending the Israel-Palestine conflict. Syria, isolated and terrified, has become even more dependent on Iranian support while Iran, operating through Hizbullah, remains a major player in Lebanon.
THE NEW Iranian leadership is also encouraged by the current weakness of the European Union. Germany is apparently unable to form a new government while Britain's influence is fading as Premier Tony Blair becomes a political lame duck. As for France, it is facing a Muslim intifada while its top three leaders are tearing each other apart over who should be a presidential candidate in 2007. Italy is heading for elections that seem certain to spell the end of pro-American Premier Silvio Berlusconi and the return of weak coalition governments.
Closer to home, Iran is positioning its pawns.
After more than a decade of relative quiet, Teheran has also reactivated its network of Shi'ite contacts in the Persian Gulf region.
A Shi'ite coalition was formed in Kuwait last month, while two Shi'ite parties in Bahrain have been told to go on the offensive against the emir and his policy of rapprochement with Israel. Teheran has also resumed contact with Saudi Shi'ite opposition leaders in exile.
In the meantime, Iran's massive military buildup has been accelerated, and it is no longer a mystery that the new leadership is seeking a nuclear arsenal within three to five years.
Teheran also counts on support form China and Russia. Thirsty for energy, China needs Iran, which holds the world's third-largest oil reserves and second-largest gas deposits. A plan, originally negotiated under the shah in 1975, for building 25 oil refineries in China was revived last September as part of Ahmadinejad's "Look East" policy. Russia needs Iran for two reasons: to help counter American influence in the Caspian Basin and Central Asia, and to forestall revolt among Russia's Muslim communities.
Iran also hopes to revive the moribund non-aligned movement as a global anti-American forum, with the help of allies such as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
The state-owned media in Teheran are in combative gear. Echoing Ahmadinejad's analysis, the Iranian media present the West, led by the US, as a "sunset" (ofuli) power that must be taken on and defeated by a tolue'e (sunrise) Islamic power led by Iran. In that context the destruction of Israel becomes a key element in Teheran's strategy in the Middle East because Ahmadinejad knows that radical Sunni Arabs will not accept the leadership of Shi'ite Iran unless it is perceived as the only power capable of realizing their dream of wiping Israel off the map.
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The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based
Adina Kutnicki, Ridgewood, New Jersey
Regarding "Whose New Middle East" - I do not have a scintilla of a doubt that Tahiri's analysis is correct.
After reading this cogent and very scary article about Iran's declaration to wipe Israel off the map - despite the outrage that the Iranian President knew would ensue - now makes perfect sense. Why? Because he is putting all Muslim countries on notice that it will be Iran's Shiite regime that will realize their collective dream of destroying Israel.
Therefore, they better get used to Iran calling all the regional shots. The Sunnis would be so "grateful" for their "present" they will be simultaneously ecstatic and petrified of Iran. This outburst was only indirectly aimed at the western world.
This was the main reason for Iran's President's belligerence - his promise to the entire Middle East needed to be made before the world.
Ron, New York City
: Isn't there a paradox between Ahmadinejad's call to destroy Israel and Khomenehi's call for a one-state solution?
Is Ahmadinejad implying to destroy Israel in the literal sense, say by a nuclear bomb? If so, that would mean the destruction of Islam's third holiest site and the death of over four million Palestinians. Or is he implying the political end of Israel through regime change by military force (which would be in line with Khomenehi's statements).
Joe, College Park, MA
: This was a clear, to the point and penetrating piece. I only ask, what if anything, is being done to shut down Iranian nuclear capability. Perhaps the better question is what can be done?
I pray a lot about this issue. I am more than a little scared.
H. Peskin, Montreal, Canada
: About a month ago, a meeting was held in Chicago
discussing the looming threat of Islamic extremism around the world. Present were Daniel Pipes
and several other prominent observers of the Middle East and the Muslim world. High on the agenda was the question of where we were going in Iraq?
There is little doubt that elections scheduled in mid December will bring about a majority Shia government and the implementation of the much-vaunted newly established constitution. It might be of interest to examine this constitution a lot more closely than has been done to date. Here are some of the more pertinent provisions. Both the Kurdish north and the Shiite south will be allowed to retain their own militias. Furthermore the Shiites are to keep all revenues from present oil production and future exploration. The Kurds on the other hand are expected to share income from current oil production but will have the right to sole ownership of future exploration. In a nation like Iraq with little resources, other than oil, this provision means that the central government loses most of its power to the southern Shia provinces.
And who has the preponderance of power in the south. The five largest parties are Islamic with a strong fundamentalist bent. Their model for governance is that of Iran. The most powerful individual in the state is not an elected official but the Grand Ayatollah Sistani. In the last election, Sistani issued a fatwa stating that it is the religious duty for Shiites to vote. Sixty percent turned out, an unhead of figure by North American standards. The Shias are not pro American and are rabidly anti Israeli. They to gain power, pure and simple, are using America. Once elected the Americans will be invited to leave and will do so with little hesitation. You might wonder why the US is being so compliant. Well, as Daniel Pipes pointed out, when you are trapped in a sinkhole, you are most concerned to get out; you worry about the consequences later. Iranian advisors are prepared to replace the American ones as soon as the right moment arrives. In the meanwhile large amount of weaponry is being shipped from Iran to the Shia militias. Sistani has stated on several occasions that he has little trust or confidence in the American trained federal troops. Here he might be correct since there is little motivation to fight amongst these forces, wheras the Militias are fanatic in the outlook.
They also to happen to be fearless fighters.
For Israel, this is the nightmare scenario. Iran's pending expansion of influence as well as their nuclear aspirations pose a mortal threat.
Just around the time Iraq invaded Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini
made a cryptic remark. He stated that the road to Jerusalem
goes through Baghdad. It would be tragically ironic if the US invasion of Iraq
helps fulfill this prediction. President Bush is turning out to be a disaster for Israel.
Amir Taheri, Switzerland:
America understands the nature of the conflict and the vast majority of the American people understand how much is at stake.
Maybe the author has been spending too much time talking to French intellectuals in Paris.
History is riddled with the corpses of those who underestimate the staying power of Americans. There is no way that the United States
, or for that matter Israel, will tolerate a state like Iran with nuclear weapons.
Steven Wilson, Anchorage, Alaska:
Maybe it is about time that the United States and Israel initiate a Mutually Assured Destruction Agreement against Iran.
Biological and Nuclear holocaust would be initiated if the Iranian Regime tried to destroy Israel. Not that this is not the plan already, but let's put it in writing for a change. It's time to play hardball with the Iranian nut. He is obviously either related to Adolf Hitler
or a clone of his. He held american hostages and mistreated them long enough in 1979 to 1981
Would he do any less to Jews or Americans?
Iran is an enemy to any freedom-loving nation.
Lets plan for their destruction before our own.
Joe Levi, Los Angeles
: I suppose Israel with it's over 200 nukes, 5,000 artillery pieces, 5,000 tanks, 1m man and woman army including the reserves, over 700 planes and the best pilots in the world, will simply wait around for the Iranians to make good on their threat. What nonsense. Israel right now can devastate Iran, take out its nuclear plants, and destroy most of its oil.
I'm sure, long before Iran mounts its nuclear bombs on its long-range missiles; the combined Israeli and US air force
peace and stability in that region. If I were innocent Iranians, I would be packing my belongings and heading for the hills right now. Give me a break...when Iran's supposed nukes fall on Israel, where will the Palestinians be, hiding in shelters?