Tehran invokes revolutionary fervor
By M K Bhadrakumar
On Monday, Iran's powerful Guardian Council endorsed the Majlis' resolution
adopted the previous day to downgrade the country's ties with Britain. The
speed with which the process gathered momentum conveys the message that it
carries the stamp of a decision at the highest levels of the Iranian
That and the overwhelming mood of support for the move within the Majlis also
indicate that the locus of power in Iran is shifting to a hard line.
The move includes expelling the British ambassador in Tehran and downgrading
the representation to the level of charge d'affaires. By Tuesday afternoon,
dozens of Iranian protesters forced their way into the British compound in
Tehran, tearing down the Union Flag and throwing documents from windows. A
has been put up in Tehran that can be ignored only at some peril.
The protesters raised three main slogans: "Down with Britain", "Down with
America", and "Down with Israel". They carried photographs of Iranian scientist
Majid Shahriari and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander
Major-General Qassem Soleimani. Tuesday was also the first anniversary of
Shahriari's murder, which was believed to have been carried out by Israel's
Mossad with the support of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
But the tipping point must be London's steps toward removing the Mojahedin-e
Khalq (MKO) from the list of terrorist organizations. The MKO has been
responsible for some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in the history
of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran holds the MKO responsible for more than
17,000 killings over the years. The most "celebrated" were of course those of
Ayatollah Muhammad Behesti (who was next only to Imam Ruhollah Khomeini in the
pantheon of the revolutionary leadership) in June 1980 and of the popularly
elected Iranian president Muhammad Rajayi in August of the same year. The
second terrorist strike came close to eliminating the entire revolutionary
leadership under Khomeini.
It must be one of the quirks of modern history that Western intelligence has
depended on the MKO, which practices an ideological mix of Marxism, nationalism
and Islam, as the principal instrument to subvert the Islamic regime in Iran.
Iranian security personnel and Lebanon's Hezbollah busted in a major
counterintelligence operation in Beirut the entire network of the US Central
Intelligence Agency in Lebanon and Iran.
The CIA was apparently using Lebanon as the "gateway" to penetrate Iran, given
the relative freedom of movement between the two countries. Through May and
June, Iranian security officials arrested more than three dozens Iranians who
were working for the CIA. Their interrogation revealed that recent covert
operations against Iran were the joint ventures of the CIA, Mossad and the MKO.
Thus the British move to rehabilitate the MKO (whose leadership is based in
Brussels and is allowed to travel freely to the European capitals) has
infuriated Tehran to no end. It seems to be the real reason behind the present
crisis. Tehran is resorting to "asymmetrical" response by striking at the
symbol of British power because it lacks the capacity to pay back to London in
the same coin.
A deep chill is setting in with Iran's ties with Britain. The relationship has
been a hugely troubled one historically, the high-water mark in recent history
being the coup leading to the overthrow of the government of Mohammed Mossadeq
in Iran in 1952, which is commonly attributed to the CIA but was actually the
handiwork of MI6. And Iran remembers it. Iran knows better than most countries
that Britain continues to be the "brain" behind America's policies - be it
toward Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Myanmar.
Britain will almost certainly take its grouse over the Iranian snub to the
European councils and will seek a "regional" consensus in the Western world to
make diplomatic moves against Iran in unison. The predictable pattern will be
that given the heightened feelings in London, such countries as Germany that
have extensive involvement in Iran will fall in line. All the same, it becomes
an occasion to take the temperature on European unity when chips are down over
the Iran situation in the coming months.
This, in a manner of speaking, will also be the trial run for the Middle East.
The lines are being drawn as the night of the long knives begins. Everyone
understands it. And for the autocratic regimes in the Persian Gulf, there will
be no corner to go and hide in. The hurried visit by King Abdullah of Jordan to
Israel shows the panic over the gathering storm. Saudi Arabia's robust efforts
to divide the region on Sunni-Shia sectarian lines haven't succeeded. The Arab
street will find it difficult to accept the Western push against Iran. That is
the thought worrying Abdullah most. What if this mass indignation erupts in
The United States and Israel will no doubt work overtime in the European
capitals to get the West to downgrade ties with Iran and if they succeed, they
will beat the drums that Iran faces "international" isolation. But it may have
no value other than propaganda. Clearly, Tehran has factored in the downstream
diplomatic fracas that will follow by insulting Britain, and is nonetheless
going ahead with its decision to downgrade ties.
So, what is on the Iranian mind? Some serious conclusions can be drawn. First,
Tehran estimates that a US-British-Israeli axis is in any case gearing up for a
confrontation. The strategic ambiguity - "all options are on the table" - no
longer exists really, after the hardline policy speech by US National Security
Adviser Tom Donilon at the Brookings Institution in Washington last week.
Evidently, Donilon spoke up for President Barack Obama, fully mindful of the
criticality of an already supercharged Middle East situation:
enhanced our significant and enduring US force presence in the region. In
addition, we have worked to develop a network of air and missile defenses,
shared early warning, improved maritime security, closer counterterrorism
cooperation, expanded the programs to build partner capacity, and increased
efforts to harden and protect our partners' critical infrastructure.
The steps demonstrate unmistakably to Tehran that any attempt to dominate the
region will be futile. And they show the United States is prepared for any
contingency ... President Obama has said as recently as last week, we are not
taking any options off the table in pursuit of our basic objectives.
Second, Tehran estimates that this confrontation may take place within Obama's
first term as president - because it may well ensure the success of his bid for
a second term. The manner in which the Obama administration jacked up the
tensions with Iran almost in parallel with the commencement of his re-election
bid hasn't escaped Tehran's attention. Third, emanating out of the above,
Tehran has little choice left but to take to the high ground, as it is no
longer a matter of Iran being flexible on the nuclear issue or not, of Iran
being conciliatory toward Israel or not, or of Iran being "moderate" on the
Palestine problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict or not.
It is pure power play and realpolitik. A similar situation arose in 1980 when
Tehran couldn't care less anymore what the US and Britain thought of its
revolution, and Tehran feels today once again that it is far better off without
the British hanging about. The Iranian historical consciousness still regards
Imperial Britain as a poisonous serpent that every now and then crept up from
India to devour the succulent Persian fruit.
The animus against Britain comes out clearly in the statement issued by the
student protesters who stormed the embassy: The embassy of the old fox
should have been occupied much earlier. Every free-minded Iranian whose heart
is beating for this land and has observed the crimes of the old colonialism
against Iran and the Iranians should know that occupation of the embassy of the
old fox serves the interests of Iran and our country's national interests.
The recent statements by Iranian military commanders have warned that Iran has
known (and unknown) capabilities to retaliate if attacked. By warning
explicitly, it hopes to inject some rational thinking into the
US-British-Israeli discourses that are bordering on delusional estimations
regarding Iran's policies and choices. But Tehran senses the futility of trying
to influence the undergirding of the Obama administration's disposition anymore
in the near term.
In the Iranian estimation, Obama is simply not interested in hearing Iran's
narrative. His obsessive concern is his 2012 re-election bid, and his campaign
interests lie in diverting the locus of the political discourse away from his
failings in mending the US economy. A regime change in Syria and a move toward
cracking down on the Hezbollah are just the kind of decisive leadership that he
needs to project to get over the image that he "leads from the rear".
With an amazing degree of belligerence, Donilon continued in his speech at
Brookings: The end of the [Bashar al-] Assad regime [in Syria] would
constitute Iran's greatest setback in the region, a strategic blow that would
further shift the balance of power in the region against Iran. Tehran would
have lost its closest ally in the region. To be sure, the
"revolutionary" mood in Tehran is developing against the regional backdrop.
Tehran links Donilon's belligerence with the stationing of the nuclear aircraft
carrier USS George H W Bush off Syria. The US 6th Fleet is also
patrolling the eastern Mediterranean off Syria. The US and Turkey have asked
their nationals to leave Syria.
Again, US Vice-President Joseph Biden has arrived on a surprise visit to Iraq,
en route to Turkey on a mission to display US backing for Ankara's
interventionist role in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu hinted
for the first time on Tuesday that his country was ready for an intervention in
According to Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, a secret meeting was held in
Istanbul last Friday between Turkish officials and representatives of the
Libyan "opposition" to work out the logistics to bring Libyan fighters who were
trained and equipped by the West to fight in Syria.
There are reports in the Russian media that the first contingent of 600 Libyan
fighters may have already been transferred to Syria. The dilemma facing Turkey
and its Western allies is that the Syrian armed forces have overwhelmingly
remained loyal to the regime. Thus the fig leaf of Syrian "resistance" is
unavailable, which in turn would expose the gamut of the outside intervention.
The Libyan fighters are expected to make up for this operational deficiency.
In short, the writing is there on the wall that a Western intervention in Syria
led by Turkey is shaping up. France has openly called for creating a European
Union-backed humanitarian corridor that would allow Western intelligence and
military advisers to move through Turkey into Syria and mastermind the regime
change. Turkey was specially invited to the EU foreign ministers' meeting in
Brussels on Tuesday.
All in all, Tehran is left in no doubt that the time has come to switch the
Iranian nation into a revolutionary mode. The intrusion into the British
Embassy invokes archetypal symbols of defiance and resistance, which are
embedded in the Iran's revolutionary consciousness - especially when the
collective memory about Britain is summoned. It is Iran's ultimate line of
defense - as was the hostage crisis with the US in the months following the
revolution when Iran came under siege.
Clearly, Obama, who has a panache for taking political gambles - and has so far
won in a meteoric political career - is on a slippery path. Syria is a hard nut
to crack; Hezbollah is waiting in the wings; so is Hamas. The odds are 50-50
that things may not happen the way Donilon tried to persuade us to anticipate,
even if they may not be an exact replay of the outcome that horrified Jimmy
Carter. On Tuesday afternoon, the US-Iran standoff moved to a flashpoint.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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