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    Middle East
     Jan 19, 2006
Iran and the art of crisis management
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The first six months of Mahmud Ahmadinejad's term as president of Iran deserve to be observed rationally, away from all the anti-Iran rhetoric being heard in the Western world.

The 49-year-old leader is someone who is clearly dying for world attention. He has earned it by moving ahead with his nuclear



program, and now faces the threat of United Nations sanctions against his country, despite the objections of Russia and China.

There is plenty of talk in the international press about UN sanctions and US military strikes as an effective way to destroy the ambitions of Ahmadinejad. Confrontation, however, would not work with the Iranian president. To deal with Iran, the West must understand Ahmadinejad.

The Western perception of the Iranian leader has been distorted with reports about him being involved in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 at the US Embassy in Tehran and in the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Vienna in 1989. Many dismiss Ahmadinejad as immature, wild and foolish, someone similar to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, but it would be very wrong not to take him seriously.

A man who survived the Iranian revolution, lived through the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and emerged as president with a landslide victory in 2005 is no fool. He is certainly not mad, but an ambitious man, in his own special way, who has an agenda for Iran that he makes no attempt at hiding.

The secret behind Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad is a populist leader. One of his goals is "putting the petroleum income on people's tables". This explains his surprising success in last year's presidential elections. He was elected by poor and young Iranians, meaning he has a popular mandate that the Americans should not forget. He is not a dictator who came to power through a military coup, against the will of the Iranians.

An aide to the Iranian president recently said that Ahmadinejad dreams of creating a Persian empire, with its capital in Tehran.

In his own words, Ahmadinejad is inspired in these dreams by the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, and former Egyptian president Gamal Nasser, who revolutionized Egyptian society from 1952 to 1970 and entered history as the man to defy the United States, Britain and Israel.

Nasser lost his wars with the West (with a brief exception in 1956) but in the long run that did not really matter. What mattered was that Nasser restored confidence to the Arabs - fake confidence perhaps, but confidence nevertheless that they have a cause that they must promote and defend. In promoting this cause, he believed, there were no taboos or red lines.

That is exactly where Ahmadinejad stands today. Like Nasser, he has a cause he wants to promote and defend. Like Nasser, he wants to enter history as a man who defied the West. And like him, he also has no taboos or red lines. One thing the world must understand is that talk is often cheap in the Third World, especially since the Nasserist era. Not everything people say will materialize. Ahmadinejad wants to "wipe Israel off the map", but he will never drag his country into such a senseless war - unless the Israelis or the Americans strike first.

He knows how costly and difficult it would be to sustain such a war, given Israel's alliance with the US. His remarks about wanting to destroy Israel are just provocative rhetoric said with the aim of enhancing his popularity in the Iranian street and Muslim world. The paranoid West and the Israelis made a big fuss over his statements, which in reality are no different from remarks read every single day in the state-run dailies of Syria, the private dailies of Egypt and Jordan, the Al-Manar TV of Hezbollah, and the mass rallies of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.

How to deal with the president?
The West has to decide: Do they want to confront the Iranian president, or appease him? Confronting him would be too costly for the US, especially since President George W Bush is entangled in a mess in Iraq. He does not have the manpower for another war, nor the funds, nor the international backing.

Also, all of America's Shi'ite allies in Iraq are former proteges and current allies of the Iranian regime. Ranging from Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari to the Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (who is Iranian and not Iraqi), these leaders would never tolerate a war on Iran.

They also would never tolerate US-engineered sanctions on Tehran. If they decide to abandon the Americans in Iraq, and side with revolutionary Shi'ites such as Muqtada al-Sadr, this would be America's worst nightmare. Also, Iran is difficult to break because of its size, wealth and religious zeal. Any US war on Iran that did not achieve a total regime change would be a failure by US standards, and the Americans cannot afford another failure in the Persian Gulf region.

A successful strike would have to target at least a dozen nuclear production centers. Iran, fearing the worst, has spread these all over the country in well-protected areas, making the task even more difficult for the Americans.

One of the loudest voices calling for military action against Ahmadinejad is not the United States but Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party and former prime minister of Israel. He said attacking Iran "is the Israeli government's primary obligation. If it is not done by the current government [of ailing Ariel Sharon], I plan to lead the next government to stop the Iranians."

Larry Derfner, who writes in the Jerusalem Post, commented: "Preemptive military attack is not a strategy for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons anymore. A nuclear Iran isn't a cause for indifference but neither is it a cause for dread and certainly not for recklessness. A nuclear Iran is actually acceptable. We can live with it."

If Ahmadinejad is bombed by the Americans or the Israelis, all this will do is increase his power at home and enforce his determination to further challenge the Americans and Israelis. It would make him more radical, popular and uncontrollable. This is not Saddam Hussein. He has not been in power for 30 years. He does not have billions of dollars to protect or palaces to cling on to. In short, he has nothing to lose from war with the Americans.

In fact, he is pushing the Americans into confrontation. One explanation might be that Ahmadinejad promised a lot during election time last year, but after coming to power discovered that it would be difficult to deliver his social, political and economic reforms. To keep the people occupied, and divert their attention from domestic troubles, the president decided to confront the US and the international community, knowing perfectly well that, preoccupied with Iraq, they would bark back but not confront him.

He talks about sensitive issues such as the Holocaust and destroying Israel partially to please the Iranian street, but mainly because these are just jargon slogans that in reality mean nothing.

Therefore, if one accepts that Ahmadinejad wants to provoke a crisis, the best way is to deprive him of it. This means the best way to deal with Ahmadinejad is appeasement. That term, popularized in the prelude to World War II, is based on pragmatism and fear of war, where a certain uncomfortable condition is tolerated to avoid armed conflict.

Some see it as synonymous with weakness and cowardice, but in reality appeasement can take great courage and wisdom. The greatest example from history is the appeasement of Adolf Hitler by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in the Munich Agreement of September 1938. Chamberlain's appeasement was surrendering Czechoslovakia, the only remaining democracy in Central Europe, to Germany in exchange for a promise by Hitler that that this would be his last territorial claim in Europe.

As it turned out, however, this only enhanced Hitler's ambitions, bringing him to the conclusion that he was dealing with cowards who would be unable and unwilling to stand in his way as he occupied the rest of Europe.

This is what the West must reconsider, however, before applying appeasement to Ahmadinejad. Chamberlain appeased Hitler because the bloody memories of World War I still haunted the people of Europe. Britain was very reluctant to go to war against Hitler because of the psychological trauma that resulted from the vast number of deaths in World War I.

In Britain, up to 40% of all young men had been killed in combat. King George V had famously said he would rather abdicate and stand in central London's Trafalgar Square, singing the communist anthem, than let his country go through another deadly war as the one of 1914-18. Although the king of England was eventually dragged into World War II, his wisdom is worth noting by the current leaders of the West.

Ahmadinejad, by being so controversial, believes he can survive the storm with Washington. If a showdown with the West arises, he would welcome it and not shy away from confrontation, seeing it as a golden opportunity to make history and secure for himself a legacy as the man who fought the US.

Let us not forget that this man's idols are Nasser and Khomeini, not Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. Confrontation that would not break him would actually make him stronger inside Iran. If Washington ignored Ahmadinejad, the results would be much more rewarding for the US. The Americans must accept the reality that sooner or later, as long as they are weak in the Middle East and defeated in Iraq, Iran will develop its nuclear program.

It has the power, money and intention to do so. If Iran does achieve this power, the US should find creative ways to persuade Iran, by diplomacy rather than confrontation, not to use these weapons for war purposes. One way is to remember that Iran has no direct conflict with Israel. It is at war with the Zionist state because Israel is at war with the Palestinians. If a fair Palestinian-Israeli peace deal were reached under US auspices, then Iran would have no reason to be at war with Israel.

A coalition is rapidly emerging against the Iranian president from within the Iranian regime. It is created by a strange combination of conservatives, reformers, officers and clerics who all worry that his policies are driving Iran into a head-on collusion with the international community.

The more the US pressures Ahmadinejad, the more likely the opposition against him will be silenced, because it is common for people to rally around their leader when he is confronted by an external threat. If the Americans were to ignore Ahmadinejad, his radical policies inside Iran would increase, and so would resentment to his rule.

The majlis (parliament) is not too fond of Ahmadinejad, having rejected all of his cabinet candidates for the oil portfolio and objected to the appointment of his allies in senior government office. They see him as wild and irrational, and if he continues to make mistakes, or fails to deliver his promises to the Iranian people, they could eject him from office.

Iran, after all, given all its faults, is not a Stalinist dictatorship. Ahmadinejad is not alone in power and he shares authority with the majlis, the Guardians Council and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The ayatollah was a former supporter of the Iranian president, especially during last year's elections. Today, however, he has seemingly lost faith in Ahmadinejad, empowering the Expediency Council, a non-elected body headed by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, to monitor the president.

The Americans should let the system of checks and balances do its business in Iran. Its power alone can marginalize Ahmadinejad. The Iranian system, from within, has enough power either to weaken the Iranian president, or at least control his authority, if not remove him from power before his tenure ends.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)


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