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The Islamic Republic of Iran: facts and fiction, part 4.

This is the fourth part of a four-part article.

(6) The only way to stop Iran from acquiring the nuclear bomb is to bomb it.

This is a deceptive, futile and dangerous idea backed by some powerful political groups of ultraconservatives in the United States and Israel. The hawks' arguments for a preventive strike are fairly simple, if not very convincing. First, the Islamic Republic is determined to acquire nuclear weapons because (a) all its major neighbors (Russia, Israel, Pakistan and, by proxy, the United States) are already nuclear powers; (b) no country possessing an atomic bomb has ever been attacked; (c) the Tehran government cannot financially afford to match its adversaries in conventional weapons; (d) Tehran has publicly announced its uranium-enrichment capabilities to be up to 20 percent, thus becoming a "virtual" nuclear state; and (e) the November 2011 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has showed that Tehran is involved in "efforts to master the technology needed for atomic weapons" and is not forthcoming in its various nuclear-development activities.

A nuclear-armed Iran, in the neocon view, should thus not be allowed to proceed: because (1) it would lead to an arms race and nuclear proliferation in the region; (2) it would immensely increase Tehran's prestige in the Middle East, and enable it to use the nuclear umbrella to establish its regional hegemony, forcing smaller countries into its orbit; and (3) it would pose an existential threat to the state of Israel. At the same time, preemptive-strike proponents argue that the U.S. Cold War policy of containment/deterrence vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and China would not stop the Islamic Republic from using its nuclear weapons. Their reasoning: the Iranian regime is shaped by a messianic cult and run by fanatical mullahs who place the highest value on martyrdom and life in the hereafter, thus making annihilation a welcome event!

The flaws in these arguments are many. First, they ignore Tehran's repeated and emphatic denials and fatwas issued by Ayatollah Khomeini and other grand ayatollahs against nuclear use. Second, even if Iran were actually engaged in developing a nuclear device, bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would be neither practical nor effective, as several high-ranking American and Israeli authorities have repeatedly pointed out. Iran is not Iraq or Syria with a fixed, open and known nuclear facility and no possibility of retaliation. Bombing multiple Iranian sites near population centers would require many air sorties, causing heavy human casualties and dangerous nuclear fallout. Invading planes could be shot down and their crews taken prisoner. Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz, sending oil prices sky high and damaging the global economy. American and allied ships and installations in the Persian Gulf could be attacked. In short, there could be no "clean and calibrated" air strikes, but a violent and messy affair with untold consequences. New insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan could be instigated. An American or Israeli attack on Iranian sites is also bound to trigger a catastrophic regional war involving the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members.

On top of all these, even the successful bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities with bunker-busting shells might temporarily cripple the nuclear program, but it will not stop it. In fact, it may unify the opposition behind the government and encourage the Tehran regime to redouble its nuclear efforts. Installations may be destroyed, but knowledge cannot be wiped out of scientists' minds.

Third, and most significant, the Iranian clergy's alleged character traits are grossly misunderstood. The concept of the "hereafter-fixated mullahs" is a complete fiction. A cursory look at the ruling clergy's mode of living in Iran--multiple wives, spacious living quarters, luxury cars, foreign bank accounts, sumptuous wedding and anniversary parties for their offspring--attests to their love for life and fear of death. Shiite clerics in Iran may reject certain aspects of Western culture, but they are hardly suicidal.

In many experts' views, a deterrence policy is probably the most cost-effective way to deal with the situation.

(7) Iran's massive pro-democracy demonstrations of 2009--the Green Movement--have been the main inspiration for the uprisings in the Arab world, the so-called Arab Spring.

This connection seems highly far-fetched, for several reasons. First, the lapse of time between Tehran's June 2009 street demonstrations and the first spark in the Tunisian uprising in December 2010 makes the events too distant from one another to be correlated. Second, the nature of the riots, the protesters' demands and the dynamics of the discourse have been vastly different in the two cases. In Tunisia, as in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, grievances were about dictatorial regimes that had resulted in mass unemployment, high inflation, rampant corruption and rising poverty. In Iran, the complaints focused solely on the rigged presidential elections and "lost votes." Similarly, the demonstrators' demand in the Arab world was straightforward: the ouster of the long-ruling dictators. In Iran, there was no demand for regime change or the supreme leader's dismissal. Third, the Arab uprisings were generally leaderless and sprang almost spontaneously from the frustrated, aggrieved and unemployed youth seeking a better material life. In Iran, the "Green Movement" was backed by two aging former officials and solid members of the Islamic Regime's nomenklatura who were deeply and personally involved in some of the regime's questionable deeds. These "opposition" leaders did not push for the theocracy's downfall. They wanted, in fact, to go back to Ayatollah Khomeini's "golden era," his "true teachings" and a strict observance of Iran's Islamic constitution.

The much later demonstrations in Iran during 2010--which involved faint chants against the rahbar and scattered stifled demands for Khamenei's ouster--have themselves, ironically, been influenced by the Arab Spring, rather than the reverse. The new anti-rahbar cries started after Ben Ali's ouster in Tunisia and Mubarak's in Egypt.

Avoidable Pitfalls

The distorted picture that these myths present goes beyond mere abstractions. The myth of a popularly elected government in Iran and the fiction of an "Islamic democracy" propagated by the regime's mouthpieces around the world have enabled the Islamic Republic, one of the world's most notorious misogynist regimes, to gain a seat at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the principal world body dedicated exclusively to gender equality.

The exaggerated notion about Ayatollah Khamenei's absolute power and unique prestige has deflected attention from the fact that, since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran has been steadily moving from a theocratic oligarchy towards a quasi military dictatorship in which the top brass, masquerading as devout Muslims, enjoy not only increasing political clout but also growing financial power--with dire consequences for the country and the region.

The myth about President Ahmadinejad being responsible for the Tehran-Washington rupture has camouflaged the real stumbling blocks. The reason Ayatollah Khamenei and other top political leaders have been reluctant to engage in a serious dialogue with Washington is not essentially a clash of personalities or hostility toward a grand bargain, but simply a matter of profound mistrust. In March 2010 Ayatollah Khamenei rejected President Obama's "extended hand" (of friendship) by calling it a "steel hand inside a velvet glove." Rightly or not, Iran's political leaders are convinced that Washington's ultimate objective regarding Iran is "regime change," and that all the talk about nuclear weapons or human-rights abuses is sheer political subterfuge. A recent newspaper report, attributed to an unnamed Washington official, indicates that the sanctions are designed to create enough popular discontent to force a change. Thus, unless and until the Iranian leaders are disabused of this notion, there will be no gesture of reconciliation from the Iranian side. At the same time, given the current make-up of the U.S. Congress and the domination of U.S. politics by special-interest pressure groups, Tehran's overt and unrelenting hostility towards the state of Israel, as well as its undisguised opposition to the two-state solution, will prevent Washington from considering any genuine detente with Tehran.

The illusion about the futility of sanctions has played into the hands of those who advocate "neutralizing" the Iranian nuclear threat rather than containing it. Ignoring the devastating effects of sanctions and coercive measures on ordinary Iranian citizens--consequences explicitly claimed to be unintended by the Obama administration--American and Israeli hardliners are emboldened to propose yet stiffer and more coercive measures.

The fiction concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions has complicated Iran's normal relations with its neighbors and the international community at large. It has led the hawks to get ahead of the facts and overplay the significance of the Islamic Republic's drive for nuclear technology by falsely claiming that the latest IAEA report finds Tehran on the threshold of having a nuclear bomb. And the preposterous notion about the mullahs' craving for martyrdom and defiance of mutual annihilation has likewise prompted the warmongers to push for early preventive strikes.

Finally, the false notion about the Arab Spring's emanating from Iran's Green Movement has enabled the Islamic Republic's propaganda machine to portray the North African uprisings as a "great Islamic awakening," a "struggle against the West," and a "revival of Islamic rule." In truth, none of these movements has showed any similarity to Iran's 1979 revolution. There have been no "death to America" or "death to Israel" slogans, no burning of the American flag, and no demands for an Islamic government. In their general yearning for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights, there has been a clear rejection of an Iranian-type Islamic rule. Interestingly enough, in the UN General Assembly votes on Iran's 2011 human-rights violations, Tunisia and Libya voted against the Islamic Republic, and Egypt abstained.

A clearer understanding of these myths may not end the West's Iranian conundrum, but it might lead to less swash-buckling and more effective ways of dealing with it.

Dr Amuzegar is an economist, former member of the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund and periodic contributor to the Iran Times. This article first published in the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES).
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Title Annotation:Commentary, text and context
Author:Amuzegar, Jahangir
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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