Eye of the storm: Hiding in a paradox

The EU and US may actually be strengthening Ahmadinejad's position.

Ahmadinejad 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Ahmadinejad 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Having passed over another false crescendo, the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions seems to be calming down somewhat. The United Nations Security Council has danced away from the issue, at least for the time being. And the United States, having subcontracted its Iran policy to the European Union trio, shows no sign of wanting to keep the issue in the limelight. The assumption in both Teheran and Washington is that nothing much will be done at least until June, when the G-8 summit is held in Moscow. The idea is that Russia, as the host of the G-8, will not provoke a split with the US and the EU over Iran during the Moscow summit. There may be yet another reason why all parties to this bizarre dispute may want to cool things down - at least for a few months. Iran will be holding elections for the Assembly of Experts, the clergy-dominated organ that selects the "Supreme Guide," later this year amid speculation that the current majority which backed the incumbent, Ali Khamenei, may be on the way out. If that happens, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be able to control the assembly and promote his spiritual guru, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi as the new "Supreme Leader." Such a development would, in turn, dash all hopes that a more pragmatic wing of the Khomeinist establishment might return to power and prevent the "clash of civilizations" that Ahmadinejad has promised to provoke. BUT THIS year will also see elections in the US. If, as many expect, President George W. Bush loses control of the Congress, he will lose virtually all possibility of pushing Iran's back to the wall. He may then decide to leave the problem for his successor rather than try to fight both the Islamic Republic and a hostile Congress. On the other hand, if Bush manages to keep control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives he may well be encouraged to take the Islamic Republic head on, exploiting its current dissensions, diplomatic isolation and economic difficulties. It is against such a background that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw talks of an "incremental" approach, promising that if and when the UN decides to tighten the screws on Iran this will not be done in such a way as to crush bones in Teheran. All this, however, may well be hiding a paradox. By doing nothing against the Islamic Republic in the medium term, the EU and the US may be strengthening the position of the more radical wing of the Khomeinist establishment led by Ahmadinejad. The Security Council's failure to agree even on a presidential statement has already enabled Ahmadinejad to claim victory in the nuclear dispute. Receiving Syrian Vice-President Farouk Shara in Teheran the other day, Ahmadinejad declared, with well-rehearsed hauteur, that the Islamic Republic had not only won the latest round against the "Zionist-Crusader" powers but was confident of establishing the rule of Islam throughout the world. He ordered the Syrian to return home and prepare for "Islam's victory feast." The fact that Ahmadinejad's policy of deliberate provocation has been cost-free so far has made it impossible for the more pragmatic elements of the Khomeinist regime to develop an alternative to his quest for a "clash of civilizations." Most Iranians, including those opposed to the Khomeinist regime as a whole, do not see why Iran should change any aspect of its nuclear program when there is no risk in pursuing it. NO ONE quite knows where the idea of slow-motion diplomacy vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic originated. But its principal defender over the past three years has been Jack Straw, who, as already mentioned, also fathered the phrase "incremental measures." Before Ahmadinejad's election, Straw's approach to Iran appeared promising. The British, and the EU in general, had established close ties with a number of Teheran mullahs including then president Muhammad Khatami, the all-round wheeler-dealer Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani, who conducted the nuclear negotiations on behalf of the Islamic Republic. At one point the British were even quietly promoting Rouhani as a successor to Khatami. There is no doubt that the British still maintain close contacts with sections of the Teheran establishment. There is also no doubt that Rafsanjani has managed to retain part of his former influence, while Khatami could still be used as thorn in Ahmadinejad's side. But the idea that a pro-British faction might win power in Teheran anytime soon is fanciful, to say the least. Mullahs like Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani have no popular base of their own and, once isolated within the establishment, would be in no position to offer the kind of concessions Straw is hoping for. Thus incrementalism a la Straw can only encourage Ahmadinejad in his defiance and convince the Iranian people that their new radical leadership is right to dismiss the Western powers as part of a "sunset civilization" (ofuli). The US decision to bring Iran into the decision-making process over the future of Iraq has already enhanced Ahmadinejad's prestige, even among the regime's opponents. One sign that Teheran believes the storm has already blown over came last week when Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki committed the Islamic Republic to a "no compromise" policy on the nuclear issue. "There is absolutely nothing more than we could offer," he insisted. Another sign came in the sudden hardening of the positions of both Russia and China, which do not see why they should pick a quarrel with Iran when the US and the EU do not appear to be prepared to stand up to it. When all other imaginable options appear dangerous or counterproductive there can always be a strong argument in favor of doing nothing. But it is important to remember that doing nothing is itself a form of doing something. Right now, this "something" that the Western powers are doing amounts to a clear encouragement of the most radical factions in Teheran. And that means the coming clash, regarded by many as inevitable, will, when it comes, be that much harder on both sides.