The Threat from Tehran
By Dieter Bednarz and Erich Follath
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shocked the world when he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” World reaction was prompt. But Iran insists. Just how much of a threat does the Iranian leadership pose to Israel and the world?
Ed: Full article below.
It was a promise to his religious conservative supporters, a warning to his pragmatic, liberal opponents, and a threat to the rest of the world. “Allah willing, this is the beginning of a new era in the life of our nation,” said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 24, when he cast his vote in the country’s presidential election. Soon afterwards, Ahmadinejad, the son of poor parents, a self-proclaimed clean-up man and mayor of Tehran felt that Allah had given him the mandate he required: For an outsider candidate, he had achieved a glowing electoral success, claiming more than 60 percent of votes.
Ahmadinejad, 49, initially seemed humbled by his success. At his inauguration, he respectfully kissed the hand of his mentor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 66. The new president seemed even more conciliatory at his first press conference, where he said that he had no intention of closing the stock exchange because, as he had suggested during the campaign, it is “un-Islamic.” When asked about foreign policy, he insisted that Iran is a responsible member of the world community, that it is not interested in war and that it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons. By September, Ahmadinejad, who may be well-versed in domestic policy but has no international political experience, made his first aggressive speech, taking the undiplomatic approach of sharply criticizing what he called the evil West in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
And now, with his recent anti-Israeli tirade, the political hardliner has outdone himself. He may have looked cheerful enough when he took to the podium in his shirtsleeves last Wednesday in Tehran, but his words sent a chill down the world’s collective spine. Speaking as if he were a terrorist leader, and not the elected president of perhaps the most important regional power in the Middle East, he called for the destruction of an entire state: “Israel must be wiped off the map!” His audience of 4,000, at a conference in Tehran titled “A World without Zionism,” broke out into the rhythmic chanting of what amounted to a call to arms: “Marg bar Israel!” (death for Israel). On Friday, the regime added flame to the president’s fire, announcing a “Jerusalem Day” in Tehran and calling upon tens of thousands of Iranians to “rise up against Zionists and infidels.”
Outrage and indignation
While the Islamic world has once again remained silent, the reaction in the West to Ahmadinejad’s tirade of hate was sharp and unanimous. “Unbelievable and outrageous,” said the US government. Iran’s ambassador in Berlin was sent home. Even the Russians, closely allied with Tehran both economically and politically, expressed their outrage. But the sharpest reaction came from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who issued an unveiled threat, saying that the attitude of the Iranians toward Israel and towards terrorism and nuclear weapons was unacceptable. He also said that at some point people would start demanding the West to do something and that it seemed unimaginable that a country with such an attitude should ever possess atomic weapons.
Not surprisingly, the level of indignation against what Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres called this “insane regime” was especially high. The Tel Aviv daily newspaper Haaretz even compared Iran’s president with Adolf Hitler, “that other elected leader who promised to destroy the Jews.” A number of high-ranking politicians have called for Iran’s exclusion from the United Nations, on the grounds that Tehran has violated the UN Charter — a symbolic but unrealistic demand.
But the Iranian’s president’s hate speech did set off speculations among military and intelligence experts, as well as in the academic world, that it could prompt Israel to launch a preventive strike against Iran. It is widely believed that plans have been underway for months to launch surgical strikes against about a dozen Iranian nuclear facilities. The United States has delivered 500 of its so-called “bunker-busting” missiles to Israel, weapons that would be of no use in the Israelis’ conflict with the Palestinians — but would be effective in a coordinated Israeli-US attack on Iran’s well-secured, frequently underground nuclear storage facilities on the outskirts of the major cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Natanz.
Efraim Kam, Deputy Director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Tel Aviv, believes that an attack “must be the last option.” First, he says, the global community must once again try to isolate Iran internationally, and attempt to monitor the flow of funds out of the country. “Their financial assistance to the Palestinian terrorist organization Islamic Jihad has increased dramatically in recent years,” says Kam.
And to make matters worse …
Last Wednesday, at almost exactly the same time as Ahmadinejad’s rabble-rousing speech, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Israeli city of Hadera, killing five Israelis. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombing, and Israel retaliated with air strikes in the Gaza Strip — dealing yet another blow to what had seemed to be a promising start to a workable relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships.
Rarely has there been so much fluctuation in the political situation in the Middle East as in recent weeks, when rays of hope have alternated with ominous dark clouds — making the Iranian president’s speech seem all the more explosive.
The Syrians have come under intense pressure following the publication of a UN report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. The paper implicates Syria in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In return for a guarantee that his regime will be allowed to survive, Syrian President Bashar Assad could yield to US pressure and curtail his support for radical Palestinian groups, as well as tighten Syrian control over the country’s border with Iraq. This would potentially prevent many Al-Qaida fighters from infiltrating Baghdad.
If Assad were to pull out his last remaining intelligence agents from Lebanon, long dominated by Syria, the Hezbollah militia, which is supported by Tehran and Damascus, could ultimately be forced to yield to UN demands that it disarm. Lebanon’s now-faltering cedar revolution could reemerge and transform the country into the Arab world’s first democracy — possibly with decisive consequences for countries like Egypt that have shown the beginnings of a willingness to reform.
Israel, the region’s only nuclear power (although it has never officially admitted to that role), would soon be forced to rethink its occupation policies in the West Bank and grant the Palestinians a viable state.
Suddenly the UN, long despised in Jerusalem, is once again being viewed in a positive light by the Israelis. Rarely has anyone in Israel paid attention to UN resolutions when they related to demands on Israel itself. Indeed, many a hardliner may have been secretly delighted to see Tehran, with its offences, take away some of the international pressure on Israel. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric has even prompted the French, perhaps Israel’s greatest critics in Europe, to declare their unconditional solidarity.
What could Iran’s president be up to? Is he trying to go along with the underlying prejudices of his fellow Iranians and detract from the fact that he has thus far been unable to keep most of his social promises? Doesn’t it concern him that he is burning bridges, both in Europe and with the Middle Eastern states of Egypt and Jordan, both put off by his anti-Israeli invective?
Ahmadinejad is apparently so convinced of his strength that he believes that he must no longer take anyone or anything into consideration when it comes to his international policies.
The true victors of the war in Iraq
Ahmadinejad’s newfound perception of strength can be mainly put down to the debacle in Iraq, for which both US President George W. Bush and, to an even greater extent, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are responsible. According to the most recent opinion polls, only about a third of the US population believes that the United States plans to “put things right” in Iraq, as Rumsfeld said in an interview with SPIEGEL. Contrary to Rumsfeld’s apparent belief, the truth is that while the Americans are busy conducting a war in Iraq, the Iranians are leaning back — and winning the war.
If Iraq does in fact receive a federal constitution, its two-thirds Shiite majority will have the say in a federal Iraq. Clerics trained in the Iranian city of Ghom — such as Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, whose movement has been supported by the Tehran administration for decades — will presumably play the leading role in this government. On the other hand, if Iraq breaks apart, the south, with its rich oil fields, would almost automatically go to Iran. Even today, Tehran’s envoys have more control over Basra than its British occupiers.
The mullahs know that Western troops will not be able to remain in Iraq forever. Time is on their side, when it comes to both Iraq and the nuclear issue.
No one in Tehran appears to be concerned about an economic boycott of other sanctions, given the amount of disagreement among the world’s nations today whenever they are called upon to make concrete resolutions. The West and energy-hungry China would have trouble doing without Iranian oil and natural gas. After Saudi Arabia, Iran has the second-largest oil reserves on earth (with Iraq a close third), and is the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter.
The nuclear option
Ahmadinejad already took a tough stance on Iran’s nuclear policy during the election campaign. He has a low opinion of the EU’s investigative efforts, and has referred to his own country’s lead negotiators as “criminally accommodating.”
Ahmadinejad’s view of the world has always been that Iran must come first. Everywhere he looks, he sees conspiracies against his beloved homeland and feels the urge to strike back. He is a man of fervent conviction and a child of the revolution.
Even as a high-school student, he fought against barricades and demanded the overthrow of “US lackey” Shah Reza Pahlevi. Although claims that he was part of the group that stormed and occupied the US embassy in Tehran when Ayatollah Khomeini came into power are disputed, his ideological proximity to the embassy hostage-takers is not: When he was a student of construction engineering, he was one of the founding members of the student group responsible for the incident at the time.
The fanatic from the provincial town of Aradan later joined the Revolutionary Guards and the Bassij, a militia group whose members were often used as informers. But no one can claim that Ahmadinejad was unwilling to put his words into action. He signed up for military service at the front shortly after the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980. As a member of the “Special Unit of the Revolutionary Guards,” he was even trained to conduct secret commando operations behind enemy lines. After the war ended, he made his way up the political ladder, eventually becoming governor of Ardebil Province, where he proved a capable administrator in a region plagued by earthquakes and floods.
When he returned to Tehran, he taught at the university and became involved in a hardliner organization known as “Office for Strengthening Unity.” Before Iran’s communal elections, an obscure alliance of the dissatisfied joined forces with like-minded groups and made him their leading candidate. The reform-minded citizens of the capital boycotted the elections in 2003 because they were disappointed by the setbacks suffered by their liberal candidates. Suddenly Ahmadinejad, previously a political unknown, became mayor of Tehran.
In this position, he presented himself as a blend of Ayatollah Khomeini, eighth-century Caliph Harun al-Rashid and Robin Hood. He ordered “decadent” fast-food restaurants to be closed down, banned a poster of British soccer star David Beckham because his shorts were “too short,” and demanded gender separation on elevators in municipal buildings. One of his habits was to walk through the streets in disguise to uncover abuses. He also built parking garages and low-cost housing for the poor.
When he announced his candidacy for the presidency more than four months ago, he made the PR-savvy move of taking a broom and sweeping the streets himself — in perfect contrast (and apparently convincing to voters) to Hashemi Rafsanjani, a multimillionaire with a dodgy reputation, who he soundly defeated in the run-off election.
A man of the people
His first 100 days in office were relatively unspectacular in terms of domestic policy. He nurtured his image of being a man of the people by banning expensive rugs from his office and removing his portrait from government offices. To enable underprivileged couples to marry, he established a “Love Fund,” using a billion euros in government funds. He further tightened the press censorship already in place under his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, and banned foreign films. But his promise to deliver oil revenues into the pockets of the country’s poorest citizens has failed to materialize. And corruption is as rampant as ever.
It is probably his inability to bring about decisive change in social conditions that has now driven this foreign policy novice into the global arena. His approach is nothing new. Indeed, it has been Iran’s official policy ever since Khomeini that the founding of the state of Israel is part of the West’s centuries-old aggression against Islam, and that this “Zionist creation” cannot be recognized. Even the reform-minded Khatami never considered establishing official contact with Israel, and consistently condemned its occupation policy. But Khatami never resorted to Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric of “destruction.” Indeed, it has been a long time since the world has witnessed such threats and hateful rhetoric coming from an Iranian head of state.
Does this fanatic really want nuclear weapons? Mohammed El Baradei and his inspectors at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna have yet to find a “smoking gun” and, despite a cat-and-mouse game going on for the past year, and Tehran’s proven history of lies and deception, have kept the channels of communication open.
But Iran’s nuclear program may have already taken a decisive step in the direction of nuclear weapons in recent weeks. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the president has placed himself at the head of a new “Control Center for Nuclear Issues,” which is managed by his friends, the Revolutionary Guards. This enables Ahmadinejad to direct all nuclear developments himself. With intelligence official Farhad Rahbar, who manages the government’s budget, as its deputy director, the organization has unlimited financial resources.
The organization’s objective, according to an intelligence document, is to “finally move things along.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan