OpinionIran in the World PressFocus: The nuclear fanatic

Focus: The nuclear fanatic

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The Sunday Times: If some Iran-watchers in America are to be believed, we could be 48 hours away from the day of judgment. The Sunday Times

Iran’s president is the West’s looming nightmare – and this week he’s promising to make matters worse. Sarah Baxter reports

If some Iran-watchers in America are to be believed, we could be 48 hours away from the day of judgment.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, has promised to deliver on Tuesday his response to international demands that Iran stop enriching uranium for nuclear use.

By the Islamic calendar, Tuesday is also a holy date: the night when Muhammad rose to heaven from the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on a “buraq”, a fabulous winged beast with the body of a horse and the face of a woman, and reappeared in Mecca.

Will Ahmadinejad seize the moment to unveil the possession of some new fissile material or weapons system — perhaps a nuclear-tipped one?

Bernard Lewis, the West’s foremost scholar of Islam, has even warned that on such a symbolic date it would be wise to bear in mind the possibility of a “cataclysmic” event such as a strike on Israel.

The messianic Shi’ite president could have waited another nine days for the deadline set by the United Nations for his response on nuclear enrichment; but his obsession with theology and numerology appears to be hastening his decision.

He seems in no mood to retreat. “Nuclear power is our right. No one can take this away from us,” he told cheering crowds recently. “Our main task is to develop and build the Iranian nation. No one will stop us.”

That is no idle boast. While all eyes have recently been focused on Israel and the Lebanon, the world may have been looking in the wrong direction. The most serious challenge to the West is not a resurgent Hezbollah but Iran, the guerrillas’ oil-rich patron.

This week, to coincide with Ahmadinejad’s “judgment day” speech, Iran is launching a new round of sabre-rattling military manoeuvres. Nobody has stopped it on its path to nuclear power — and nobody looks likely to.

The European Union, represented by Britain, France and Germany, has spent the past three years trying to talk Iran out of its nuclear programme — to no effect. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been given the run-around, and last April the Iranian president laid on a ceremony with dancers and doves of peace to celebrate the glorious news, as he put it, that “Iran has joined the countries with nuclear technology”.

The Bush administration, once impatient with EU-IAEA pussyfooting in Iran, is now chastened and divided by its own failure in Iraq.

The war there has been a strategic disaster as far as containing Iran is concerned. Power in Iraq has reverted to the majority Shi’ites, including factions close to the Iranian mullahs; Iranian agents poured into Iraq from the moment Saddam Hussein fell; and, after its experiences of the past three years, the American military has no appetite to take on the well armed and nationalistic Iranians.

The brief war in southern Lebanon — a proxy conflict in which America backed Israel to destroy Iran’s client, Hezbollah — has also failed to fulfil its aims.

John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, is not alone in regarding George W Bush’s Middle East policy as “crap”. There is almost as much unhappiness among American conservatives over his mistakes as there is in the Labour party at Tony Blair’s.

How immediate is the Iranian threat?

AN expert on the Middle East, Ilan Berman, is based at the American Foreign Policy Council. He said last week: “I’m not in the camp that believes the end of the world will come about on Tuesday, but there is a strong apocalyptic strain in Ahmadinejad and his group. He is positioning Iran to be in the vanguard of the clash of civilisations with the West.”

Even those experts who say that Ahmadinejad is no more apocalyptic than fundamentalist Christians (including Bush himself), who believe there will be a day of “rapture” when the faithful will be lifted to heaven, agree that the Iranian president has his eyes firmly set on nuclear weapons.

In their view, on Tuesday Ahmadinejad will offer the West a few measly compromises or at best a temporary freeze, while playing for more time to build a nuclear bomb — and western governments will again fail to stop him.

In an interview with Mike Wallace, the veteran American journalist, last week, the Iranian president presented himself as a mild-mannered man of the people who was merely standing by the suffering Lebanese and pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy programme.

He looked appealingly diffident and laid into Bush for wanting “to solve everything with bombs. The time of the bomb is in the past . . . Today is the era of thoughts, dialogues and cultural exchanges”.

It was Ahmadinejad the “blogger” and letter writer to the White House on show, while out of sight his thugs continue to harass dissidents such as Mansour Ossanloo, leader of the bus drivers’ union, part of whose tongue has been removed by the Iranian security forces.

The mask slipped for a moment when Ahmadinejad went on to accuse Israel of being a “fabricated state” and failed to deny that he wanted it “wiped off the map”.

The son of an ironworker, Ahmadinejad, 49, hero-worshipped Ayatollah Khomeini as a student and was in the vanguard of the 1979 revolution. He went on to join Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, where he became known as a persecutor of dissidents. In 2005 he was catapulted into the presidency by the mullahs as a trusty hardliner who had impressed working-class Iranians with his homespun lifestyle as mayor of Tehran.

There is no doubt that he is a millenarian who believes in the coming of the 12th imam, the mahdi (or messiah) of Sh’ite theology. In his first speech to the UN last year, he startled his worldly audience by begging “O mighty Lord” to “hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace”.

While his piety is no pose, Ahmadinejad is a shrewd political opportunist. He has consolidated his power by playing the game of “holier than thou”. Vali Nasr, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate school and author of an influential book, The Shia Revival, says: “The leaders of Iran are hardline, revolutionary militants and men of power, but they are not crazy.”

Nasr, who attended a private briefing with Bush on the Middle East last week, is convinced that Iran’s growing regional superpower status poses an all too secular challenge to America.

“The Iranians think the Israel war showed that shock and awe doesn’t work,” he said. “They believe their hand has been strengthened in negotiations with the UN because nobody has the appetite for military action.”

Inside the Pentagon, defence officials have glumly come to the same conclusion.

“Hezbollah has really empowered the Iranians,” said a defence source. “If Hezbollah is a surrogate for Iran and you can’t bomb it successfully, you are not going to be able to bomb Iran with a whistle-clean shot. It may sway some decisions.”

THE Iranian president was in a celebratory mood last week, boasting at a massive rally that Hezbollah had “hoisted the banner of victory” over Lebanon. For the Iranians it was a sign that they could continue to thumb their nose at an enfeebled America.

Who can argue with them? Donald Rumsfeld, the American defence secretary, believes he has his hands full in Iraq, where 160,000 American troops are vulnerable to Iranian meddling.

Adding to the caution of military planners, the Pentagon has been warned that US intelligence has not yet mapped out all of Iran’s nuclear installations and that, in the short term, it lacks the weaponry to penetrate the deep bunkers under granite mountains.

Iran, moreover, could retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow strip of water through which 40% of the world’s oil passes.

Some observers believe a “grand bargain” must be struck with Iran, a diplomatic deal that recognises and settles all the quarrels back to 1979. But quite how that might be achieved is not clear. Others, such as Edward Luttwak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, still believe that military action might be necessary and feasible.

Luttwak is one of the originators of the theory of the short, sharp US bombing strike on Iran. A few months ago his views were all the rage in hawkish circles. He sees no reason to believe that circumstances have changed because of the failure of Israel’s air war.

“Look at what happened in Lebanon,” Luttwak said. “The Israelis couldn’t go after guerrillas but they did go after bunkers. Using only one squadron of their air wing they were able to shut down every physical structure they wanted.

“Attempts to go after mobile targets mostly don’t work. But precision bombing works.”

The most-favoured plan A among neoconservatives is to foster regime change in Iran; that prospect now looks increasingly forlorn. The likelihood is that by the time Bush and Dick Cheney, the vice-president, get ready to leave office at the end of 2008, Iran will be perilously close to having the bomb.

If Bush and Cheney remain faithful to their promise that Iran will not go nuclear on their watch, they may ride roughshod over Rumsfeld’s inhibitions. “If Bush and Cheney feel morally obligated to stop Iran, they probably will,” said Luttwak.

The alternative is to follow the UN route and impose sanctions if Ahmadinejad refuses to give up his nuclear ambitions. But is the UN capable of imposing meaningful sanctions? American diplomats speak confidently of gaining the agreement of Russia and China for limited sanctions, such as a travel ban. If that is not enough, the Americans will attempt to assemble a “coalition of the willing”, with Britain’s support, which will seek to ban trade and investment in Iran.

Curbing the importation of refined oil could hit ordinary Iranians, who need it to run their cars and factories. “Iran has only a month and a half of gasoline in the country and after that they run out,” said Berman. “They have no strategic reserves.”

The hope is that sustained economic pressure will force Ahmadinejad to be more accommodating.

It is not much of a plan B but for now, as Berman has said, “it’s the best purchase we have” on a president and a regime eager for regional power and the day of judgment.

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