TCS Daily

Iran's Balancing Act

By Ziba Norman - November 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Make no mistake about it, Iran is anti-American and anti-Israel. While this is no revelation, an International Herald Tribune editorial (29/30 October 2005) arrives at this conclusion as if it were a hidden truth, saying: "at last no one can pretend that Iran has no hostile motives for its nuclear program." President Ahmadinejad's provocative comments on Israel (to some 3,000 students at a conference entitled " A World Without Zionism"), its right to exist and the curse offered to all who support it are now recognized as a genuine threat, even in quarters that have traditionally been dismissive of their importance.

Much of the so-called balanced reporting on President Ahmadinejad's comments, both on this occasion and in the past, has tended to underestimate the significance of his strong words. It is generally believed that President Ahmadinejad is a young firebrand politician -- injudicious, full of rhetoric. It is believed -- more still, hoped -- that former President Rafsanjani (more moderate of disposition) is the real driving force behind attempts at nuclear negotiations. This is a comforting conclusion for those who are foxed by Iran, but does little to illuminate the direction in which Iran is seeking to project its power. Further, if this interpretation holds and gains currency, it may lead to a dangerously complacent reading of the facts.

In the past President Ahmadinejad's comments have been the cause of some embarrassment to his own government. He was recently quoted in a Dubai newspaper, in which he threatened energy supplies by restricting oil sales if Iran were taken to the UN Security Council. In an attempt at damage control, President Ahmadinejad's office denied the interview had taken place and said that President Ahmadinejad had made no such statements.

But it would be wrong to assume that on this occasion there is no deliberate attempt to turn up the temperature. Let's not forget that at the start of Sacred Defense Week, in September of this year, President Ahmadinejad presided over a parade displaying Shahab ballistic missiles, draped in slogans such as: Death to America and We Will Trample America Under Our Feet. A well-staged event such as this cannot be dismissed as mere ebullience on the part of an overly vocal politician. Iran realizes that its greatest strength lies in the threat of action, whatever shape that action may take, rather than in the taking of any actual action. With Rafsanjani in the background playing soft-cop and President Ahmadinejad making charged statements, they create a certain confusion, and one which makes it very difficult for Iran's real motives, and short-term to medium term plans, to be assessed -- though their longer-term objectives in the region should be very clear, with a desire to dominate being at the heart of their policy, notably expressed by sowing seeds of dissent in Iraq.

So it may be a serious error to assume that Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad are not, in essence, working together; the goals of both are the same: an Iran militarily and economically dominant in the region.

Iran is emboldened, and in the circumstances what country wouldn't be? Iraq is at best a work-in-progress, at worst a civil war waiting to happen. Energy prices, thanks to rising global demand and in part to the after-effects of hurricane Katrina, are soaring. And Iran has successfully played chicken with the IAEA, saying one thing but doing another, while continuing to work, unchecked, toward its goal of becoming a nuclear power in the region.

Arguably the most dangerous effects of the Rafsanjani/Ahmadinejad balancing act are that it has made it exceedingly difficult for the US to develop a clear policy on Iran. But leadership from Washington is precisely what is needed if the negotiations with the Europeans are to be resurrected.

Iran, with its state sponsorship of terrorism and nascent nuclear program, has long been recognized as a major problem in the region. It was believed that successful action in Iraq would leave Iran a chastened nation and one in which reforming tendencies could thrive. But this worldview neglected to look at the converse situation, and the one with which we are all faced.

So where to now? There are few who would like to see a nuclear-armed Iran -- just as much of a worry to other powers in the region as to the US and European countries. It cannot be beyond our collective wit to counteract the dreams of a few demagogues in Iran, unless we neglect to face up to them. Denial is no basis for a foreign policy.

Ziba Norman is founder and director of the Transatlantic Institute, a newly established educational charity based in London. She is also a member of the editorial board of Prospect Magazine, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Her articles have previously appeared in the Observer, Prospect Magazine, and the RSA Journal.


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