“This is our proposal: give a part of your own land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to [the Jews] so that the Jews can establish their country.”
– Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, December 14
“I called it [Iran] part of the ‘axis of evil’ for a reason. It’s a real threat.”
– US President George Bush, December 14
A DVD is making a splash in Iran. No, it’s not the new, pirated King Kong. It shows Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad telling an ayatollah how he was miraculously enveloped by a green aura when he delivered his fiery speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York. He added that for half an hour the array of world leaders, in awe, didn’t even blink.
President George W. Bush was not as enlightened – and the audience definitely not in awe – when in 2002 he told the UN to behave, otherwise he would invade “axis of evil” member Iraq by himself (which he did).
Vienna will feel like Alaska next Wednesday when Iran resumes negotiations on its turbulent nuclear dossier with the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany). It’s all got to do with Israel. First, the “tumor” should be “wiped off the map.” Then, it should be moved to Europe. Now, expunged from the “myth” of the Holocaust, it should be relocated perhaps to Alaska.
Ahmadinejad, former Revolutionary Guard, former mayor of Tehran, current president of the Islamic Republic, couldn’t be topped by any screenwriter in his capacity to provoke widespread horror movie reaction in the Christian West for his remarks about Israel. It’s the third time he’s done it since his election in June.
And once again, all over the Muslim world, the silence is as thunderous as the new digital King Kong’s roar.
What is he really up to?
Not exactly a tactician or a strategist, Ahmadinejad self-consciously bills himself as a man of the people (Asia Times Online Travels in Ahmadinejadland, September 15). When he says that Europeans “have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it to be above God, religion and the prophets,” he is basically expressing a popular consensus from Cairo to Baghdad, from Ramallah to Karachi, according to which Israel always invokes the victimhood of the Holocaust as a smokescreen for its occupation and activities in Palestine.
Ahmadinejad is capable of producing rhetoric that Arab potentates congregating in Mecca for a conference or in Dubai for a polo match cannot; otherwise they would lose precious American protection in the form of investment/aid dollars and/or weapons sales.
The man-of-the-people president doesn’t need any favors from the so-called (by the Iranian revolutionaries) “Great Satan.” And although a Persian, he’s above all a pious Muslim, so he’d rather be in sync with the vast masses of the Arab lumpen proletariat. Moreover, everything he says about Israel is standard practice since the 1979 Islamic revolution. It’s exactly what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini thought and expressed. And it’s exactly how the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sees it.
Once again this week, meeting with the head of Hamas’ politburo, Khaled Mishaal Sayyed, Khamenei reiterated that the only way for Palestinians to liberate their land was through armed resistance.
Ahmadinejad clearly does not care about Western public opinion – an alien concept to his mindset. He instinctively knows that the message that sticks in the minds of the disenfranchised Muslim masses is when he stresses that the West has invaded Muslim lands and plundered their wealth. For all their conceptual divergence and mutual hatred, al-Qaeda (which considers Shi’ites apostates) would be saying exactly the same thing.
Many secularists and reformists in Tehran believe that the Ahmadinejad-does-Israel show fits in a much bigger picture conformed by a select group of advisors very close to the supreme leader. These include former Revolutionary Guard and current secretary of the Supreme Council on National Security – SCNS – (and thus Iran’s top nuclear negotiator) Ali Larijani, his elder brother Ardeshir (a foreign affairs specialist) and one of Ahmadinejad’s mentors, Hashemi Samare’i.
The target audience is predominantly internal rather than external. It is possible events could go this way: breaking the ultimate taboo – at least in the West – of criticizing Israel is just a first step, after which the Islamic Republic will retreat into its shell, scrap the nuclear dialogue with both the UN and the EU-3, thus getting no concessions, and leave the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether and essentially go nuclear all the way.
It’s illuminating to see how this plays inside Iran. The official news agency IRNA totally ignored the latest allusions to Israel, concentrating on Ahmadinejad’s pledge that Iran would not give up its natural right to nuclear technology. In an all too obvious reference to the US, the president insisted that “those who have built and continue to build nuclear weapons do not have the right to block Iran’s access to nuclear technology.”
And then he made a connection between the American-supported Shah regime in Iran, the post-revolution American embargo and nuclear sovereignty that any peasant could understand. “There should not be any excuse for not selling aircraft spare parts to other countries. When in the past a murderer regime ruled Iran, those who imposed sanctions against us today gave that regime everything. But when the Islamic revolution became triumphant and freedom and independence of the people were fulfilled, they imposed sanctions on the nation. Now what assurances exist that they will not do the same thing regarding nuclear fuel?”
Plane crashes happen all the time in Iran – the most recent only 10 days ago when an aging US-made military transport plane hit a tall building in Tehran and killed 115 people. Iranian government officials say the main reason for the crashes is the American-imposed embargo, which makes it very hard to buy spare parts.
Get me to the Mahdi on time
The problem is not only that Ahmadinejad seems to be impervious to subtlety and always means what he says. The problem, as secular, educated liberal professionals in Tehran pointed out to this correspondent this summer, is that he basically echoes the teachings of his master, ultra-powerful, ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who boasts that he could convert all of America to Shi’ism.
It all comes back to the belief in the Mahdi – the 12th hidden (since 941) Shi’ite imam who will come to save the world from injustice and widespread corruption. If you believe in the Mahdi, the time is now. There are fascinating parallels with the Christian fundamentalist vision of Armageddon, according to which a vengeful Christ will terminate every unbeliever on judgment day, including Jews (thus the Christian fundamentalist belief that ultimately every good Jew is either dead or converted).
Further embarrassed by the president’s lack of diplomatic skills, since June secularists and reformists in Iran have been recoiling in horror at the sight of the new breed in power – these disciples of Yazdi for whom realpolitik is in practice just a detail. For them, what really matters is to prepare for the arrival of the Mahdi. The new breed in power sees itself as incorruptible, thus unstoppable.
But they have a lot of internal enemies. The perennial Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the all-powerful Expediency Council, former president Mohammad Khatami (whose “dialogue of civilizations” is now dead and buried) and the respected former secretary of the SCNS, Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani, as well as other influential ayatollahs, are rumored to want to send Ahmadinejad to somewhere like Alaska (a virtually impossible scenario as he is fully supported by the supreme leader).
This does not remove the fact that even billions of dollars of public relations could not have handed such a prize to Israel’s hardliners. A possible writing on the (West Bank) wall can be read in these words by Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Thank God Israel has the means to end the extremist regime in Iran.” Gissin obviously was quick to deny that Israel had any specific plans to attack Iran’s suspected nuclear sites, just like the lethal air strike against the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981.
It’s so cold in Alaska
But the plans are on the table, and were dutifully leaked by the Israeli military to the London Sunday Times, one of Rupert Murdoch’s papers and a staunch ally of Israel. The Israeli Army has already received orders from Sharon (special forces commandos are already on “G” readiness, maximum alert) to strike Iran in late March – after the alleged discovery of presumed secret uranium enrichment sites camouflaged into civilian structures, according to the paper.
Not even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) knows about these sites. Israel supposedly got this piece of information from a base in Bush-liberated Iraqi Kurdistan and from espionage inside Iran. The head of the foreign policy department of the Israeli Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, obviously denied everything. But Sharon’s spokesman Gissin once again left the door open; an attack would be launched only “after all diplomatic options had been exhausted” (echoes of the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq).
In early March, IAEA chief and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad ElBaradei should deliver a crucial report on Iran. He has said on the record that most major issues have been resolved and he hoped to close the dossier in the next few months. But in parallel, Israel’s “point of no return” has already been moved from 2010 to 2008 and now 2006; this means, according to the Israelis, the point after which Iran will have the required technical know-how to enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear warhead is two to four years.
As Iraq was not enough, the escalating rhetorical war between Iran and Israel may be leading to a “hellish military confrontation” for the whole Middle East, as a recent editorial of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi put it. As much as the paper emphasized that the “international community could not be allowed to be dragged by Israel into a new war in the Middle East, exacerbating violence and terrorism and threatening oil supplies,” it seems Israeli hardliners are very much intent on proving that the Iranian desert in March can be as cold as Alaska.