Ahmadinejad's Iran

A monster of our own making Allister Heath Cyrus the Great, the ancient Persian king who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and wrote the first charter of human rights, must be spinning in his grave. Once the world's most advanced civilisation, Iran is yet again descending into barbarism under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the rabid fanatic who took power in a rigged election last year. A former member of the elite Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad is determined to return Iran to what he believes to be its rightful place at the vanguard of the global Islamic revolution. At first the world chose to turn a blind eye to his inflammatory rhetoric; but even the West's most deluded diplomats now take him seriously when he calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, especially given that his government is also busily developing a nuclear programme. Ahmadinejad's rise was always going to be bad news for Iran's long-suffering population; but it is now looking equally catastrophic for the rest of the Middle East, which is suddenly waking up to the prospect of a newly dominant Iran. For it is now becoming all too clear that the Islamic Republic has emerged as the surprise victor from the invasion of Iraq and is making the most of the power vacuum in the Gulf to establish itself as the new regional superpower. The demise of Iraq, together with Iran's dash to nuclear capability — another development that the West has disastrously mishandled — has meant that the balance of power is changing radically in the Middle East, with Iran firmly in the ascendancy. Control of Iraq, together with the acquisition of the weapons of mass destruction that all serious experts believe to be the aim of its nuclear programme, would make Iran the Gulf's uncontested hegemon as well as the pre-eminent force within political Islam, a stunning double victory now within Tehran’s reach. This would be an unmitigated disaster. Iran is the world's most active state sponsor and paymaster of terrorism; its allies include (among others) the Lebanese Shia militants of Hezbollah (which Iran helped found in the 1980s); the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which has now just been elected to power; the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; various groups in central Asia and Afghanistan; and many of the despicable terrorists who are murdering people every day in Iraq in an effort to destroy its first glimpse of freedom. A nuclear Iran raises the horrifying spectre of nuclear-armed suicide terrorists at some point during the next decade. What is most astonishing about Iran's sudden ascendancy is how much of it now seems due to a terrible strategic miscalculation by the US and its allies. A strong and determined government in Baghdad has long proved the major stumbling block to Iran's ambitions in the Gulf, which is why the US and Britain backed Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic extremism, then rightly seen as a greater evil than Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship. But following the invasion of Iraq this traditional counterweight has now been eliminated and replaced by a weak and enfeebled government which cannot even control its own territory, let alone stand up to the mullahs in Tehran. The south of Iraq has been turned into an Iranian quasi-protectorate with police and local militias controlled by Tehran; the British troops that were once supposedly in charge are now merely garrisoned there. Iran, a Shia Muslim country, has been given a further boost by the result of Iraq's elections, which have returned a Shia majority with a mandate to introduce what in effect amounts to an Islamic republic, a far cry from Saddam’s atheist regime, which favoured the Sunni minority. It is no wonder, therefore, that a senior retired State Department official has told this magazine that it is becoming clear that the invasion of Iraq was 'the biggest strategic blunder in recent US foreign policy' - not because of the failure to discover the expected weapons of mass destruction, but because by removing one of the main bulwarks to Iranian expansionism without replacing it with a viable alternative, the West has unleashed a hostile regional superpower it is unable or unwilling to contain. It is only by luck that the whole of Iraq has not already gone the way of its southern tip. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the distinguished leader of Iraq's Shia majority and the most powerful man in the country, so far appears to have retained his independence from Iran, against all the odds. He has refused to meet representatives of the Tehran government; even though al-Sistani is actually an Iranian citizen, he seems to prefer traditional Shia doctrine to the revolutionary fare favoured by the Iranians. So while he does support an Islamic state, complete with tough restrictions, al-Sistani's version could yet turn out to be quite different from that seen in Iran. By contrast, the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters grabbed 30 seats in the new parliament, openly supports Iran and Syria and has already met their leaders. The Iranians are doing all they can to boost al-Sadr and other radicals, hoping that they will eventually take over from al-Sistani, who has recently suffered from heart trouble, and swing the Shia behind Iran. But they dare not openly undermine al-Sistani, who is revered by the Shia, and are biding their time. In parallel with their growing activities and influence in Iraq, the Iranians are reinforcing their ties with their allies across the Middle East. Last month Ahmadinejad flew to Damascus to meet Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president; the two have worked closely together in their support of Hezbollah. And as part of its strategy once again to become the dominant force in political Islam, a position it had relinquished to al- Qa'eda and the Islamic Brotherhood, the Iranian regime is intensifying its anti-Semitic rhetoric and reiterating its long-held position that the Middle East should be entirely Islamic. Last week Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is often wrongly believed to be a moderating influence, made a fantastical contribution to the bitter international row over the publication of cartoons satirising the prophet Mohammed, claiming that they were an Israeli conspiracy motivated by Hamas's win in the Palestinian elections, even though they were first published in Denmark several months before the elections. Ahmadinejad has also intensified the persecution of Iran's 350,000 adherents of the Bahai religion, accused of the crimes of apostasy and of spying for Israel because some of their ancestors converted from Islam in the 19th century. Those watching with trepidation as Iran plans its next move include the small Gulf countries — Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain — as well as Saudi Arabia. A nuclear-armed Iran would be far more confident about intimidating its neighbours. The Gulf states all have sizeable Shia populations, which they fear the Iranians will seek to turn against them. The Straits of Hormuz, the world's most important waterway, which links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and is thus a priceless strategic asset, is obviously Iran's main target. Some 16 million barrels per day of oil from Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates pass through the Straits daily, one fifth of the world's oil demand, as well as large quantities of liquefied gas. Iran could exercise immense influence and wreak immense economic damage if it were to take over or bomb the waterway. Saudi Arabia, the only other country in the region that could theoretically stand up to Iran, is in no fit state to do so. The House of Saud is terrified at the thought of a nuclear Iran and is rumoured to be considering purchasing nuclear weapons from Pakistan if and when Iran goes nuclear, though this would infuriate its US allies. Among the increasing number of voices expressing their concerns about Iran's bid for regional hegemony is that of Muhammad Abdullah al-Zulfa, a member of the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia. 'As a Gulf area, we don't want to see Iran as the major power in the area,' he says. 'And we don't want to see Iran having this nuclear weapon, where it will be a major threat to the stability of the Gulf area and even to the Arab world altogether.' King Abdullah II of Jordan has been most eloquent, warning that a Shia-led Iraq would develop a special relationship with Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Lebanese Hezbollah (and now also Hamas-run Palestine) to create a 'crescent...that will be very destabilising for the Gulf countries and for the whole region'. He argues that a 'capable, independent, secure Iraq is the best way of containing Iran'. Iran has also been tightening its links with Russia and China, which will come in handy if it is looking for countries to veto any hostile UN Security Council resolution on its nuclear programme. Russia has confirmed a deal to sell Iran TOR-M1 surface- to-air missiles, which use mobile launchers to shoot down multiple targets such as missiles or planes. In an extraordinarily reckless move for a country with its own terrorist problems in Chechnya, the Kremlin has also offered to process uranium for Tehran. Meanwhile Iran has signed a $200 billion trade deal with Beijing to supply energy-hungry China with gas and oil. Iran will export 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas annually for 25 years; the Chinese will help in exploration and drilling. It never pays to dismiss the fascistic rantings of a dictatorship with expansionary ambitions, however mad they may seem to an uncomprehending Western society. With propaganda rife on Iranian TV, an official policy of Holocaust denial and presidential calls to wipe Israel off the map, it beggars belief that anybody can still think that Iran poses no threat to world peace — at least the International Atomic Energy Agency's decision last week to refer Iran to the UN Security Council has forced people to start paying attention. Tragically, years of Western delusion about the regime's intentions, a failure to grasp that traditional logic is redundant with people who believe that God is on their side, together with the diversion of Iraq, have meant that it is now probably too late to stop Iran. While Israel may well decide to take matters into its own hands and launch air strikes to take out Iranian nuclear installations, this would be unlikely to have the desired effect. Even a brilliantly executed operation will not destroy every facility concealed in fortified bunkers spread across the country. Any attack would trigger uncontrollable violence across the Middle East, with unpredictable consequences. The uncomfortable truth is that if Iran's influence over what it insists on calling the Persian Gulf continues to grow over the next few years, and if the memory of King Cyrus the Great is further besmirched, the West will have only itself to blame. [Allister Heath is associate editor of The Spectator and deputy editor of the Business.]

Created By: Christian FLH Borchsenius