In June the hard-line mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, walked across American and Israeli flags painted on the pavement of a mosque and voted in Iran’s ninth presidential election. After all the ballots were counted, the results stunned the international community—an unreconstructed ideologue had emerged triumphant, confounding all predictions that Iran’s youthful populace and sophisticated middle class would somehow press its politics in a reformist, even liberal direction. In the intervening months, Ahmadinejad has gone on to perplex and outrage the international community through his denials of the Holocaust, incendiary denunciations of America and a marked indifference to global opinion.
As Iran’s nuclear program crosses successive thresholds and edges closer to a military capability, the Western capitals are struggling to understand the man at the helm of power in Tehran. Is Iran’s president as irrational as his rhetoric would suggest? Is Ahmadinejad driven by a messianic religious fervor that makes him immune to practical considerations? What are the political and ideological determinants of Ahmadinejad’s policies? Before contemplating measures to arrest Iran’s impetuous impulses, it is important to have a better appreciation of the ideology that animates the new president and the new cohort of hardliners that are leading the Islamic Republic.
The War Generation Comes to Power
After 27 years, the complexion of the Iranian regime is changing. An ascetic ”war generation” is assuming power with a determination to rekindle revolutionary fires long extinguished.
For Ahmadinejad and his allies, the 1980-88 war with Iraq defined their experiences, and it conditions their political assumptions. The Iran-Iraq War was unusual in many respects, as it was not merely an interstate conflict designed to achieve specific territorial or even political objectives. This was a war waged for the triumph of ideas, with Ba’athi secular pan-Arabism contesting Iran’s Islamic fundamentalism. As such, for those who went to the front, the war came to embody their revolutionary identity. Themes of solidarity, sacrifice, self-reliance and commitment not only allowed the regime to consolidate its power, they also made the defeat of Saddam the ultimate test of theocratic legitimacy. War and revolution had somehow fused in the clerical cosmology. To wage a determined war was to validate one’s revolutionary ardor and spiritual fidelity—the notions of compromise and a ”ceasefire” were anathema to this point of view.
Suddenly, in August 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the conflict to be over. After eight years of brutal struggle and clerical exhortations of the inevitability of the triumph of the armies of God, the war ended without achieving any of its pledged objectives. For veterans like Ahmadinejad, not unlike post-World War I German veterans, there was a ready explanation for this turn of events. It was not the inadequacy of Iran’s military planning or the miscalculations of its commanders, but the West’s machinations and its tolerance of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons that had turned the tide of the battle.
And although many Iranians wanted to forget the war, for people like Ahmadinejad the war, its struggles and its lessons are far from being a faded memory: They are constantly invoked. In his much-discussed speech in front of the UN General Assembly in September, Iran’s new president used the platform offered to him to pointedly admonish the gathered heads of state for their shortcomings:
For eight years, Saddam’s regime imposed a massive war of aggression against my people. It employed the most heinous weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, against Iranians and Iraqis alike. Who, in fact, armed Saddam with those weapons? What was the reaction of those who claim to fight against WMDs regarding the use of chemical weapons then?
A pronounced suspicion of the United States and the international community would come to characterize Ahmadinejad’s perspective. After all, neither America’s human rights commitments nor the many treaties prohibiting the use of weapons of mass destruction saved Iran’s civilians and combatants from Saddam’s wrath. The lesson that the veterans drew from the war was that Iran’s independence and territorial integrity could only be safeguarded by its own initiatives and not by international legal compacts and Western benevolence.
The postwar direction of the Iranian society also disturbed the returning veterans. Despite its duration, Iran waged the war largely with volunteers; only in the latter stages of the conflict did it have to rely on conscripts. As such, the war touched only a narrow segment of the populace, usually religiously zealous young men from traditional, lower-class families. As with America’s own current war in Iraq, vast numbers of young men from affluent families were unaffected by the carnage of the conflict and unharmed by the vicious nature of the war. Even more disturbing, the postwar society treated the returning veterans with a degree of indifference and seemed determined to discard the revolution and its exalted values. The lure of Western culture, the focus on accumulating wealth and calls for cultural freedom preoccupied Iran’s youth. For those who suffered the war and took its religious claims seriously, such callous disregard was contemptible. While much of Iran had moved on in the 1990s, the austere veterans nursed their grievances and, more ominously, assumed important positions in the security services and the Revolutionary Guards. The move to political office was natural, even inevitable.
”We must return to the roots of the revolution”, proclaimed Ahmadinejad during his many campaign stops. It seemed like yet another empty slogan by yet another politician brandishing retrogressive shibboleths in the hope of mobilizing his constituents. A theocratic state that is riddled with corruption and a clerical elite that has long abandoned sublime pursuits of faith for temptations of power have generated a degree of popular cynicism. Even genuine expressions of revolutionary convictions are treated with skepticism. Ahmadinejad in many ways seemed an anachronism, as he genuinely believed that the ”government of God” still had relevance. And he was earnest in his perception that somehow all the problems could be resolved if only Iran went back to the roots of the revolution.
As with his presidency, Ahmadinejad’s candidacy was a rebuke of the establishment and a challenge to the elders of the revolution who had grown cautious and complacent. For Iran to be revitalized and reawakened, its leaders had to capture the moral cohesion and the stern discipline of those who bravely confronted Saddam’s war machine. The instrument of Iran’s redemption had to be Islam—not the passive, indifferent, establishment Islam, but the revolutionary, politicized and uncompromising devotion that launched the initial Islamic Republic under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. A united Iranian populace would once more redeem its faith from the transgressions of the West and the stagnation of a corrupt ruling class. By appropriating Islam’s sacred symbols and invoking the history of struggle against foreign infidels and their domestic enablers, Ahmadinejad sought to transform religion once more into a revolutionary ideology. Such a faith would galvanize the masses to reclaim their lost republic and defend their patrimony.
Iran, a country of contradictions and paradoxes, elected to the presidency a politician that pledged to turn back the clock. “Today we should define our economic, cultural and political policies based on the policies of the imam’s return. We should avoid copying the West’s political systems”, he announced. Ahmadinejad’s vision for Iran constituted a mixture of statist economic policies, the reimposition of Islamic cultural strictures and the reversal of the limited political freedoms that Iranians had come to enjoy during the reformist interlude. A populace struggling with persistent economic dislocation and offended by the rampant corruption of the men of God seemed to have hoped that a humble politician with limited taste for material wealth would somehow bring about the revolution’s pledge of social justice and economic equality. However, it would be on the international stage that Ahmadinejad would garner the greatest attention and cause considerable alarm and anxiety among both his countrymen and his larger global audience.
Ahmadinejad’s Foreign Devils
As the face of Iran changes and the elders of the revolution recede from the scene, a new international orientation is gradually beginning to surface. A combustible mixture of Islamist ideology, strident nationalism and a deep suspicion of the international order comprise Ahmadinejad’s global perspective. As an uncompromising nationalist, Ahmadinejad is unusually sensitive of Iran’s national prerogatives and sovereign rights. As a committed Islamist, he continues to see the Middle East as a battleground between forces of sinister secularism and Islamic authenticity. As a suspicious ruler, he perceives Western conspiracies and imagined plots where none may in fact exist.
Nowhere has this new ideological determinism been more evident than in perceptions of America. For the aging mullahs such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the more pragmatic head of the Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani, America remained the dominant actor in Iran’s melodrama. For the those hardliners, the United States was the source of all of Iran’s problems, while for the older generation of more pragmatist conservatives it was the solution to the theocracy’s mounting dilemmas. In either depiction, America was central to Iran’s affairs. Given that this cohort came into political maturity during the reign of the shah and his close alliance with the United States, was engaged in a revolutionary struggle that was defined by its opposition to America, and then led a state often in conflict with Washington, it was natural that they were obsessed with the United States.
In terms of their international perspective, Ahmadinejad’s generation of conservatives does not share its elders’ preoccupation with America. Their insularity and their ideology-laden assumptions about America as a pernicious, imperial power lessen their enthusiasm for coming to terms with a country long depicted as the “Great Satan.” Even a cursory examination of the younger hardliners’ speeches reveals much about their view of international relations: that power in the international system is flowing eastward. As Ali Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council, noted, “There are certain big states in the Eastern Hemisphere such as Russia, China and India. These states can play a balancing role in today’s world.” In a similar vein, another stalwart of the new conservatives, the current mayor of Tehran, Muhammad Qalibaf, declared, “In the current international arena we see the emergence of South Asia. And if we do not take advantage of that, we will lose.” From the perspective of the new Right, globalization does not imply capitulating to the United States but cultivating relations with emerging power centers on the global landscape. It is hoped that such an “eastern orientation” might just obviate the need to come to terms with the United States.
In a stark contrast to their elders, the war generation displays a unique degree of indifference and passivity toward America. Ahmadinejad emphasized this point, stressing, “Our nation is continuing in path of progress and on this path has no significant need for the United States.” The notion that Iran should offer concessions on important national priorities for the sake of American benevolence has a limited appeal to Iran’s new leaders. After a quarter of a century of hostility, war and sanctions, Iran’s emerging leadership class is looking east, where its human rights record and proliferation tendencies are not particularly disturbing to its commercial partners.
In Ahmadinejad’s pantheon of angels and devils, Israel maintains an important position. During one of the usual gatherings of radicals, reactionaries and militants from across the Middle East (which are all too familiar to observers of the Islamic Republic), Ahmadinejad issued his infamous call for the eradication of Israel. Far from being chastened by the international outcry, he followed up his outrageous remarks by calling the Holocaust a “myth.” For a politician that had advocated the pan-Islamic dimension of Khomeini’s revolution, the flagrant attack on Israel was a natural, even routine affair. After all, one of the core pillars of Khomeini’s vision was the notion that Israel was an illegitimate entity and an imperial infringement on the Islamic realm.
However, beyond the glare of publicity and international condemnation, what was missed about Ahmadinejad’s speech was his attempt to reverse the reformist policy adjustment on Israel. Under the Khatami regime, Iran had gradually moved beyond some of its pathologies about Israel and stressed that it would be willing to countenance a peace compact acceptable to the Palestinians. As I noted in a previous article for The National Interest, the Iranian pragmatists were not going to be “more Palestinian than the Palestinians.”
In contrast, Ahmadinejad declared, “Anybody who takes a step toward Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nations’ fury.” In essence, Iran’s president was suggesting that the Islamic Republic, on behalf of the entire Islamic community, would no longer be prepared to accept a peace treaty that was endorsed by the Palestinian officials and the Arab states. Indeed, Iran would not just continue its assistance to radical Palestinian groups determined to scuttle any peace treaty, but would potentially renew its earlier policy of seeking to subvert Arab regimes that normalized ties with the Jewish state.
At a time when the Middle East peace process appeared in tatters, Ahmadinejad may have perceived a unique opportunity to exploit the Palestinian cause to assert his influence on larger regional deliberations. Iran could use its opposition to the peace process to burnish its Islamist credentials and gain popularity with the Arab street, in turn allowing Iran to have an impact on regional issues. By embracing an inflammatory posture toward Israel, Ahmadinejad sought to press the theocratic regime, with its increasing penchant for diplomacy rather than confrontation, toward a more defiant international outlook.
A similar mixture of wariness and nationalism is driving the new regime’s approach to the nuclear issue. The bitter experience of the war has led to cries of “never again”, uniting the veterans-turned-politicians behind a desire to achieve not just a credible posture of deterrence but potentially a convincing retaliatory capability. After decades of tensions with America, Iran’s reactionaries perceive that conflict with the United States is inevitable and that the only manner by which America can be deterred is through possession of the strategic weapon. Although today the United States may seem entangled in an Iraqi quagmire that tempers its ambitions, for Iran’s rulers it is still an aggressive state whose power cannot be discounted and whose intentions must not be trusted.
Given their suspicions and paranoia, the hardliners insist that American objections to Iran’s nuclear program do not stem from its concerns about proliferation, but its opposition to the character of the regime. They argue that should Iran acquiesce on the nuclear portfolio, the perfidious Americans would only search for another issue with which to coerce Iran. “The West opposes the nature of the Islamic rule. If this issue [the nuclear standoff] is resolved, then they will bring up human rights. If we solve that, they will bring up animal rights”, emphasized Ahmadinejad. Given such views, there appears no sufficient incentive to compromise on such critical national issues, since acquiescence will not measurably relieve American antagonism.
America ’s Strategy
Unfortunately, both American rhetoric and strategy have implicitly validated such perceptions. In the aftermath of September 11, Washington quickly forgave Pakistan its pervasive nuclear sins because of its tentative cooperation on the war on terrorism. In yet another gesture of power politics, the desire to buttress the evolving strategic relationship with India led the Bush Administration to absolve New Delhi of its persistent snubbing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is difficult to make the case that counter-proliferation is an important American priority when the Bush Administration is busy absolving serial nuclear proliferators of any responsibility.
Moreover, the Iranian hardliners find an unusual source for validating their suspicions: the American hawks. Too often, America’s vigilant conservatives muse that a more democratic Iran could be permitted to have an advanced nuclear infrastructure, if not an actual weapon. Robert Kagan captured this flawed reasoning best by recently claiming, “Were Iran ruled by a democratic government, even an imperfect one, we would be much less concerned about its weaponry.” Such arguments are dangerous, for they implicitly affirm Ahmadinejad’s claims that it is the regime, not its nuclear program, that the United States finds objectionable. In essence, the American hawks indulge in an inept argument that under a different regime, Iran should be permitted to violate its treaty obligations. When American conservatives say that a democratic Iran should be permitted to have nuclear weapons, then in essence they concede that a pluralistic Iran should be allowed to violate the NPT, but not an Islamic Iran. As a result, neither the Bush Administration’s discursive counter-proliferation policies nor its allies’ preposterous assertions contribute to a conclusive resolution of Iran’s nuclear impasse.
As Iran plots its nuclear strategy, the American demands that it relinquish its fuel-cycle rights granted to it by the NPT have aroused an intense nationalistic uproar. Larijani emphasized this point, stressing, “Access to nuclear technology is our right and [we] will insist on it.” As a country that has historically been the subject of foreign intervention and the imposition of various capitulation treaties, Iran is inordinately sensitive of its national prerogatives and sovereign rights. The new rulers of Iran believe they are being challenged not because of their provocations and previous treaty violations, but because of superpower bullying. In a peculiar manner, the nuclear program and Iran’s national identity have become fused in the imagination of the hardliners. To stand against an impudent America is to validate one’s revolutionary ardor and sense of nationalism. Thus, the notion of compromise and acquiescence has limited utility to Iran’s aggrieved nationalists.
It is still too early to suggest that Iran is re-entering the dark ages of the early revolutionary period. The Islamic Republic is a government ruled by factions and competing power centers. The intriguing aspect of Iran that tends to persistently puzzle Western observers is that these political factions never completely lose their influence despite poor electoral performance. The fact remains that they all represent important constituencies and have a presence in the complicated web of informal and formal institutions that govern the Islamic Republic. The pragmatic elements of the state and the reformist politicians are engaged in a subtle attempt to restrain Iran’s impetuous new president and are pressing Khamenei to curb Ahmadinejad’s ideological edges. The power plays and rivalries have hardly disappeared, as the perennially divided state is once more battling itself.
However, it is undeniable that a new, harsh political tendency led by a severe war generation has infiltrated the corridors of power. Ahmadinejad and his allied faction (with their powerful appeals to Khomeini’s legacy and open contempt for their elders’ corruption) cannot be discounted or dismissed. Although it may be difficult for a Western audience to appreciate, Ahmadinejad’s message of economic populism and nationalistic self-assertion does enjoy a level of public support, particularly among the lower classes struggling with Iran’s inequalities. A strident new voice has now enshrined itself within the landscape of the Islamic Republic, pressing Iran toward confrontation abroad and reaction at home.