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The Rising might of the Middle East super power

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
September 11, 2006
Financial Times


As the cycle of United Nations Security Council conclaves begins, Iran’s nuclear ambitions seem to be surging without restraint—no longer subject to either diplomatic mediation or coercive resolution. And a unique confluence of events ensures that Iran will sustain its defiant posture.

The calls from Washington and European capitals for suspension of Tehran’s nuclear activities may seem reasonable but miss the remarkable changes in Iran in the past year. A combination of bitter experience and Islamist ideology animates the country's new regime. More than any other factor, it is Iran’s own war with Iraq that continues to condition the strategic assumptions of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, and his allies. A pronounced suspicion of the US and the international community that tolerated Saddam Hussein’s war crimes against Iran characterises the perspective of those who fought on the frontlines of that war. The lesson for these veterans was that Iran's independence and territorial integrity could not be safeguarded by international legal compacts and western benevolence.

After decades of tension with America, Iran’s reactionaries perceive that a nuclear capability may be the only way to safeguard Iran's interests. However, it is too simplistic to suggest that fear of America is driving Tehran to acquire the bomb. The Ahmadi-Nejad regime seemingly believes that nuclear weapons are critical for consolidating Iranian hegemony in the Gulf region.

Moreover, the unfolding external changes have only reinforced Iran’s defiance. Since the US invasion of Iraq, the Middle East has undergone a steady transformation. Among the unintended consequences of the war is Iran’s emerging empowerment. The traditional alliances and rivalries that have balanced and contained Iran’s influence simply no longer exist. Iraq is a broken country while the Gulf monarchies are eager to accommodate—as opposed to confront—Iran’s power. In the meantime, Washington's missionary zeal to promote democratic change in the Middle East is only empowering Islamist parties. In spite of the baffling claim by George W. Bush, US president, that the conflict in the Middle East is between forces of freedom and agents of tyranny, elections in places as varied as the Palestinian Authority and Iraq are bringing to power Islamists with long-standing ties to Tehran.

Lebanon’s recent tribulations have furthered Iran’s claims to regional leadership. When the incumbent Sunni Muslim regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt initially criticised Hizbollah’s daring raids, Iran stood by its protégé. The crisis only unfolded to Iran’s advantage, as its client managed to reverse decades of Arab military humiliation, surviving the Israeli onslaught.

Hizbollah defended its villages far better than lions of Arab nationalism such as Gamal Abdul Nasser and Mr Hussein defended Cairo or Baghdad—the seats of Islamic civilisation. In a region accustomed to military capitulation, Hizbollah has captured the public imagination. Iran, which created and nurtured the lethal Lebanese party, is basking in its glory.

Western leaders can be forgiven for insisting that Iran suspends its programme before negotiations can begin. After all, Iran did cease its nuclear activities before as a price for talks with European powers. However, the Islamic republic that acquiesced to such arrangements was a state ruled by reformers eager for integration into global society. It was also an Irannegotiating from a position of vulnerability, as it feared growing US power.

Today, as Iran’s leaders gaze across the Middle East, they see a crestfallen American imperium eager to exit its Arab predicament, an Iraq preoccupied with its simmering sectarian conflicts and a Gulf princely class eager to appease Iranian power. As with China, Iran sees itself as a leading regional power that is key to the Middle East’s conflicts. There can be a solution to neither Iraq's civil war nor the chaos in Lebanon without active Iranian participation. As such, the guardians of the theocracy no longer feel compelled to offer concessions for the sake of US participation or European munificence.

In coming weeks, the UN will issue further invocations condemning Iran, sanctions may be contemplated and the US will issue its veiled threats of military strike. Iran’s nuclear plans will meanwhile continue apace, as the theocratic regime is impressed with neither America’s crass military intimidation nor European offers of inducements.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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