Once upon a time, an ex-soldier with no credentials but his belief in his own destiny joined a fanatic movement. Against all odds, he won an election, purged his opponents, and outfoxed the powers that surrounded his country. Western elites have not yet accepted that an Austrian corporal bested them, preferring to regard the events of 1933-1945 as an inexplicable aberration. What will they make of the blacksmith’s son and Revolutionary Guard bully-boy Mahmud Ahmedinejad of Iran?

In just five months, Iran’s president has seized the balance of power in Mesopotamia, foiled a global campaign to slow its nuclear weapons program, and forced Washington to entreat Iran for negotiations cap in hand. After Tehran rejected a first American offer, US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad repeated the request on December 1.

As I wrote on October 25 (A Syriajevo in the making?), the US depends on Iran to maintain stability in Iraq, giving Iran in turn sufficient leverage to thwart American efforts to stop its nuclear weapons program. Asia Times Online’s correspondents have provided compelling evidence to support this conjecture in the meantime. [1] Israel’s military leaders now take it for granted that Iran will become a nuclear power, Stratfor reported on December 1. [2]

Just after September 11, I picked a bone with Sir John Keegan’s claim that “in this war of civilizations, the West will prevail” (Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam might win, October 12, 2001):

Readers who reproached me for using the word “racism” to qualify Washington’s orientation toward the Islamic world should read Keegan’s essay carefully. Here we have the upright Westerner against the underhanded Oriental. Kipling (who wrote vividly about the sneakiness of the British in the Great Game) would blush. It’s all completely, totally, revoltingly wrong. The West confronts not a throwback to medieval Islam, but a Westernized version of Islam transformed into a totalitarian political ideology.

Until Ahmedinejad’s ascent, however, no Islamist leader had emerged with the cunning and capacity to exploit the West’s confusion. Iran seemed the least likely venue for Islamist leadership. With 15% inflation and 11% unemployment, Iran seemed vulnerable in early 2005 – almost as vulnerable, one might add, as Germany was in early 1933 when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor.

American regional experts without exception expected Iran’s regime to crumble from within. Daniel Pipes, for example, stated in 2003, “I compare Iran today to the Soviet Union under [Leonid] Brezhnev. Yes, the state is strong and threatening, but the people don’t believe in it anymore. It’s a hollow, hollow regime, in other words.” [3]

As late as April, Michael Ledeen forecast political disintegration “in Iran, where near-constant demonstrations, protests, and even armed attacks against the institutions of the Islamic Republic have raged … Iranians no longer require excuses to show their hatred of the mullahcracy.” [4]

Reuel Marc Gerecht, the American Enterprise Institute’s resident Iran scholar, insisted throughout that America had nothing to fear from the Shi’ites. With just a bit of covert support for Iranian dissidents, Ledeen insisted, the regime would collapse. Western analysts spent their time with the intellectuals of Tehran, who party at Western-style clubs and wear lipstick under their burkhas – the equivalent of judging Germany’s temper in 1933 from the vantage point of Berlin cabarets.

They ignored the groundswell of support from the rural poor and the Tehran slums that gave Ahmedinejad an overwhelming margin of victory in the June presidential elections. It took the new president just a few months to put paid to dissidents and moderates, placing hundreds of his Revolutionary Guard comrades in the key positions of Iran’s bureaucracy, and purging 40 ambassadors from the diplomatic corps. Hitler was no more ruthless in consolidating power during the weeks following his ascension to the Kanzleramt in March 1933.

It is with grudging respect that I compare Ahmedinejad to Hitler, who bluffed a weak hand into a nearly winning game. Like Hitler, Ahmedinejad evinces a superior cunning born of the knowledge that he has nothing to lose. The position of the Iranian regime is weak; in the long term, it is hopeless.

Within a generation, both Iran’s oil and demographic resources will be exhausted. Impending demographic collapse, I have argued in the past, impels Iran towards an imperial design (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13). Iran’s elderly dependent population will soar to nearly 30% from just 7% today by mid-century, the consequence of the country’s collapsing birth rate. The demographic disaster will hit just as oil exports dry up during the 2020s. To break out of the trap, Iran must make an all-or-nothing bet during the present generation.

Western historians typically portray Hitler as a megalomaniacal lunatic who nearly conquered the world through a series of regrettable accidents. But Hitler took into account his own weakness with greater clarity than the British or Russians. Three weeks after he provoked World War II by invading Poland, Hitler told German military commanders:

We have nothing to lose, but much indeed to gain. As a result of the constraints forced upon us, our economic position is such that we cannot hold out for more than a few years. [Hermann] Goering can confirm this. We have no other choice, we must act … At no point in the future will Germany have a man with more authority than I. But I could be replaced at any moment by some idiot or criminal … The morale of the German people is excellent. It can only worsen from here. [5]

Hitler knew very well that his command economy could crack. He coveted the industrial capacity of Western Europe, the granaries of Eastern Europe and the oil of Romania. Iran covets the oil of southeastern Iraq, western Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union and proposes to annex or at least control it through satrapies on the ancient Persian model. Asia Times Online’s Pepe Escobar outlined the Iranian strategy in a September 10 dispatch from Tehran (Iran takes over Pipelineistan).

Thanks to America’s ideological obsession with democracy, Iran is close to control of Iraq’s oil-rich Shi’ite regions. On December 4, Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a de facto endorsement of the pro-Iranian religious coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, pushing his country further into the Iranian sphere of influence. Sistani’s appeal for support for religious parties ruins the prospects of Washington’s favored politicians, the secular Shi’ites Iyad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi.

Iran’s proxy warrior Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, now holds the balance of military power in Iraq, as I predicted in the October 25 article. As the New York Times’ Edward Wong reported on November 27:

Wielding violence and political popularity as tools of his authority, Mr Sadr, the Shi’ite cleric who has defied the American authorities here since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is cementing his role as one of Iraq’s most powerful figures. Just a year after Mr. Sadr led two fierce uprisings, the Americans are hailing his entry into the elections as the best sign yet that the political process can co-opt insurgents. But his ascent could portend a darker chain of events, for he continues to embrace his image as an unrepentant guerrilla leader even as he takes the reins of political power. Mr. Sadr has made no move to disband his militia, the thousands-strong Mahdi Army. In recent weeks, factions of the militia have brazenly assaulted and abducted Sunni Arabs, rival Shi’ite groups, journalists and British-led forces in the south, where Mr. Sadr has a zealous following.

A year ago, America still had the option to partition Iraq into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shi’ite south. Now that Iran has reinforced Muqtada’s militia with evident American tolerance, partition might well lead to Iranian control of the resulting Shi’ite rump state. Iran’s leaders are the same hard men who did not blink at a million casualties during Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and such tactics as driving hordes of boys into minefields. America simply does not have the stomach for this sort of warfare.

The only potentially successful maneuver at Washington’s disposal would be to repeat Britain’s colonial policy of the 1920s, enlisting and arming elements of the old Ba’ath regime to battle it out with the Shi’ites until both sides are bled white. But I do not think Washington has either the intent or the competence to execute an imperial scheme of this nature.

Under the circumstances, does anyone seriously doubt that Iran will develop nuclear weapons capability? Not the Israelis, it appears. Stratfor, an Internet-based intelligence service, cites “a report in the daily newspaper Maariv, which quoted a senior security source as saying, ‘We shall have to put up with a nuclear Iran’. The unnamed source added that, ‘I do not see any force in the world today that could reverse the situation – namely Iran becoming nuclear … and there will be no alternative but to put up with the emerging situation’.”

Despite Tehran’s anti-Israel rhetoric, a nuclear Iran does not necessarily represent an existential threat to the Jewish state. Israel almost certainly possesses thermonuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, as well as the capability to deliver them via submarine-launched cruise missiles.

Nor do the Tor M-1 anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles that Iran reportedly ordered from Russia last week represent a decisive threat to American or Israeli capabilities. Nonetheless, Russia’s evident willingness to upgrade Iran’s weapons capability reflects another unintended result of Washington’s ideological campaign for democratization. America has offered open support for the “color revolutions” in parts of the former Soviet Union, beginning with Ukraine’s “Orange” revolution last year and continuing through the “Yellow” revolution in Kyrgyzstan last spring. The unpleasant regimes Washington helped replace gave way to equally unpleasant regimes, except with greater instability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin fears instability on Russia’s borders, but he cannot persuade Washington to desist from stirring the pot. Russian military cooperation with Iran provides him with a bargaining chip to use against Washington’s designs on what Putin considers a Russian sphere of influence. Even though Russia has more to fear from an imperial Iran than Washington, American blundering in the former Soviet Union has given Tehran additional room to maneuver. And Iran’s leaders have played the divisions among their prospective enemies masterfully, again calling to mind the Austrian corporal who nearly destroyed the West.

[1] See for example The ties that tangle Iraq and Iran by M K Bhadrakumar on November 29.

[2] Emerging Shift in Israel’s Iran Policy

[3] Taking a Tougher Approach to Syria

[4] The Revolution Continues

[5] Ansprache Adolf Hitlers vor den Oberbefehlshabern auf dem Obersalzberg


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