February 25, 2005


Taking on Tehran
(Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh, March/April 2005, Foreign Affairs)

Although Iran's hard-line leadership has maintained a remarkable unity of purpose in the face of reformist challengers, it is badly fragmented over key foreign policy issues, including the importance of nuclear weapons. At one end of the spectrum are the hardest of the hard-liners, who disparage economic and diplomatic considerations and put Iran's security concerns ahead of all others. At the opposite end are pragmatists, who believe that fixing Iran's failing economy must trump all else if the clerical regime is to retain power over the long term. In between these camps waver many of Iran's most important power brokers, who would prefer not to have to choose between bombs and butter. [...]

Iran's conservative bloc is riddled with factions and their contradictions. But whereas reformers and conservatives differ over domestic issues, the divisions within the conservative faction chiefly relate to critical foreign policy issues. Stalwarts of the Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 still control Iran's judiciary, the Council of Guardians (the constitution's watchdog), and other powerful institutions, as well as key coercive groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic vigilantes of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah. The hard-liners consider themselves the most ardent Khomeini disciples and think of the revolution less as an antimonarchical rebellion than as a continued uprising against the forces that once sustained the U.S. presence in Iran: Western imperialism, Zionism, and Arab despotism. Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi Shahroudi, the chief of the judiciary, said in 2001, "Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward America and any word on compromise with the Great Satan." For ideologues like him, international ostracism is the necessary price for revolutionary affirmation.

The pragmatists among Khomeini's heirs believe that the regime's survival depends on a more judicious international course. Thanks to them, Iran remained a regular player in the global energy market even at the height of its revolutionary fervor. Today, these realists gravitate around the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and occupy key positions throughout the national security establishment. One of the group's leading figures, Muhammad Javad Larijani, a former legislator, argues, "We should not have what I would call an obstinate policy toward the world." Instead, the pragmatic conservatives have tried to develop economic and security arrangements with foreign powers such as China, the European Union, and Russia. In reaction to the United States' overthrow of two regimes on Iran's periphery--in Afghanistan and Iraq--they have adopted a wary but moderate stance. Admonishing his more radical brethren, Rafsanjani, for example, has warned, "We are facing a cruel and powerful U.S. government, and we have to be cautious and awake."

In a similar vein, the issue of Iraq is also fracturing the theocratic regime. In the eyes of Iran's reactionaries, the Islamic Republic's ideological mission demands that the revolution be exported to its pivotal Arab (and majority Shiite) neighbor. Such an act would not only establish the continued relevance of Iran's original Islamic vision but also secure a critical ally for an increasingly isolated Tehran. In contrast, the approach of Tehran's realists is conditioned by the requirements of the nation-state and its demands for stability. For this cohort, the most important task at hand is to prevent Iraq's simmering religious and ethnic tensions from engulfing Iran. Instigating Shiite uprisings, dispatching suicide squads, and provoking unnecessary confrontations with the United States hardly serves Iran's interests at a time when its own domestic problems are deepening. As a result, Tehran's mainstream leadership has mostly encouraged Iraq's Shiite groups to participate in reconstruction, not to obstruct U.S. efforts, and to do everything possible to avoid civil war. Hard-liners, meanwhile, have won permission to provide some assistance to Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite rejectionists.

Teetering between the two camps is Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. As the theocracy's top ideologue, he shares the hard-liners' revolutionary convictions and their confrontational impulses. But as the head of state, he must safeguard Iran's national interests and temper ideology with statecraft. In his 16 years as supreme leader, Khamenei has attempted to balance the ideologues and the realists, empowering both factions to prevent either from achieving a preponderance of influence. Lately, however, the Middle East's changing political topography has forced his hand somewhat. With the American imperium encroaching menacingly on Iran's frontiers, Khamenei, one of the country's most hawkish thinkers, is being forced to lean toward the pragmatists on some issues.

More than any other issue, the pursuit of nuclear weapons has exacerbated tensions within Iran's clerical estate. The theocratic elite generally agrees that Iran should maintain a nuclear research program that could eventually allow it to build a bomb. After all, now that Washington has proved willing to put its provocative doctrine of military pre-emption into practice, Iran's desire for nuclear weapons makes strategic sense. And Tehran cannot be entirely faulted for rushing to acquire them. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, which was not yet nuclearized, and avoided using force against North Korea, which already was, Iranians came to see nuclear weapons as the only viable deterrent to U.S. military action.

The key, of course, is for us to demonstrate that nukes aren't a deterrent. A strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would take care of that.

But the rest of the essay raises an obvious question: how many totalitarian regimes have ever made the choice to pursue economic development at the cost of abandoning military aspirations? Any? If you can't afford to have elections can you afford to appear weak?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2005 6:30 PM

We can't strike the NKor nuclear facilities. The Norks would, in turn, unleash holy hell on Seoul. They have somewhere between 10K and 15K vintage artillery pieces dug into the heights on their side of the border that can reach Seoul. Even with the best, most efficient counter-response by US/SKor forces on those tubes wouldn't be quick enough to stop the destruction of Seoul. Consider each artillery piece firing two shells a minute -- could be more 'cept the Nork soldiers are weakened by hunger -- that equals a whole lot of shells hitting Seoul and surrounding areas in the first four hours. And there's no way for us to stop that.

The Bush strategy seems to be the best: wait them out and let them implode. And then make sure the Mad Mullahs understand that having nukes doesn't equate to feeding your people, and that the U.S. will collect your scalp in the end.

Posted by: Steve White at February 25, 2005 10:18 PM


It's a dubious proposition that they'd strike or that a strike would work, but well worth establishing the principle--60 years too late--that no one can have nukes without our permission.

Posted by: oj at February 26, 2005 1:47 AM

When was the last time they fired any of those vintage pieces? Do shells decay over time?

Posted by: Bob at February 26, 2005 12:27 PM

When was the last time they fired any of those vintage pieces? Do shells decay over time?

Posted by: Bob at February 26, 2005 12:27 PM