“Tehran appears hell-bent on defying the international community and pursuing a nuclear program that is of growing concern.”
– Sean McCormack, US State Department spokesman. This followed a rare press conference with the international media in Tehran on Monday in which Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad suggested that Tehran might withdraw from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and also said “there is no need” for US-Iranian talks on Iraq.

Because of the opacity of Iran’s theocratic nationalism, outsiders may be tempted to assume that the official Iranian position is the one expressed last week in Baku, Azerbaijan, by Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar: “The United States has been threatening Iran for 27 years, and this is not new for us. Therefore, we are never afraid of US threats.”

President George W. Bush and other US administration officials have frequently said that “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States suspects is designed to develop nuclear weapons.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council passed a statement asking Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei to report simultaneously to the council and the IAEA board by April 28 on whether Iran had halted enriching uranium, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear warheads. To date, Tehran has refused to do so.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the UN, has repeatedly relayed the official position. Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful; there is no proof of a military development; the religious leadership opposes atomic weapons; and Iran has not invaded or attacked any nation for the past 250 years.

The power spheres in Iran seem to bet that even in the event of a shock and awe of B-2s, missiles and bunker busters, that simply is not enough to snuff out accumulated Iranian nuclear know-how and the quest to master the nuclear fuel cycle. So the only real question would be for how many years the US would be able to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.

Is that all there is? Not really.

As some Iranian analysts and ministry officials have told Asia Times Online in Tehran off the record, there are reasons to believe the leadership is misreading an avalanche of US signs related to the military and psychological preparation for a possible war.

For instance, fundamentalist Christians in the US – who support Zionism for theological reasons – unleashed a ferocious media campaign depicting Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the Antichrist who wants to destroy Jerusalem and prevent Jesus’ comeback.

There are even indications that the Iranian leadership has not taken the Bush administration’s explicit desire for regime change seriously. It’s as if the leadership is persuading itself Washington would never dare to escalate the situation – especially after such US bodies as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of Sciences have stated that a tactical nuclear strike could kill more than a million Iranians.

At Monday’s press conference, Ahmadinejad, asked about possible military strikes, smiled broadly and dismissed the notion. “Military attacks? On what pretext?” he asked, adding that Iran was strong and could defend itself.

Earlier, Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said any US military attack over Iran’s nuclear program would result in a humiliating defeat for the United States, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

But what if the Bush administration and the Ahmadinejad presidency were bluffing each other into a nuclear war?

Pick your faction

The key question is which Iranian leadership will have the final say. There are at least four main factions in the complex Iranian game of power politics.

The first faction is a sort of extreme right, closely aligned from the beginning to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and involved with a rapprochement with Sunni Arabs in general, while opposing even a tactical rapprochement with the US.

The faction includes the dreaded hojjatieh (a semi-clandestine, radically anti-Sunni organization) and the Iranian Hezbollah, which supports both the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Arab nationalism of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. Former defense minister Ali Chamkhani – whom Asia Times Online was told in Tehran could not talk to the foreign press – is very close to this faction. They are very conservative religiously and socialist economically.

The difference between the Iranian and the Lebanese Hezbollah is that in Beirut Hezbollah is much more active, pushing to be at the heart of political life and improving people’s living conditions.

The role of Ahmadinejad – a former Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) middle-rank official – in molding this first faction has been crucial. In 2005, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had the support of former president and Machiavellian master of ambiguity, Hashemi Rafsanjani, at the highest levels of power – the Expediency Council.

But as a balancing act the supreme leader also decided to boost the profile of Ahmadinejad, who happened to be totally opposed to the pragmatist Rafsanjani. To add more arabesques to this Persian miniature, Khamenei’s favorite candidate in the 2005 presidential elections was actually Baqer Qalibaf, a former chief of police – basically a conservative but in favor of a controlled opening of political life, the supreme leader’s own policy.

What this all means is that Ahmadinejad – even winning against Rafsanjani and Qalibaf – and as the new leader of the extreme right is not really in charge of the government. It’s an open secret in Tehran that the Pasdaran intervened in the elections through massive fraud. This has led in the past few months to the formation of an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition that ranges from Qalibaf supporters to – believe it or not – pro-secular intellectuals close to former president Mohammad Khatami.

The supreme leader knew that Ahmadinejad would revive the regime with his populist rhetoric, very appealing to the downtrodden masses. But the ruling ayatollahs may have miscalculated that since they control everything – the Supreme National Security Council, the Guardians Council, the foundations, the army, the media – they could also control the “street cleaner of the people.” That was not the case, so now plan B – restraining the president, and the powerful Pasdaran – is in order.

The second key faction is composed of provincial clerics, whose master is the supreme leader himself. These are pure conservatives, attached to the purity of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and more patriotic than the first faction. They are not interested in more integration with Sunni Arabs. Faithful to the supreme leader, they want to keep both progressives and extremists “in the same house” (Ahl al Bait) , with the velayat-e-faqih – the role of jurisprudence – as the supreme law of the land. Ever since the 2004 parliamentary elections – largely boycotted by the Iranian population – an association of clerics totally dominates the majlis (parliament).

But there are huge problems behind this appearance of unity. Iranian money from the bonyads – foundations – badly wants a reconciliation with the West. They know that the relentless flight of both capital and brains – which is being actively encouraged by the Rafsanjani faction – is against the national interest. But they also know this can hurt Ahmadinejad’s power. Some Western-connected Iranians are even comparing Ahmadinejad’s current days to the Gang of Four in China a little while before the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

The Pasdaran for their part want to keep their fight against Zionism and go all the way with the nuclear program. This entails the extraordinary possibility of a US attack against Iranian nuclear sites counting on the complicity of a great deal of the mullahcracy – which does not hide its desire to get rid of Ahmadinejad and his Pasdaran “gang.”

All going the Machiavellian’s way?

The third faction is the left – initially former partisans of the son of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ahmad Khomeini, who died in mysterious circumstances in the 1990s. After that they operated a spectacular mutation from Soviet-style socialism into some sort of religious democracy, which found its icon in former president Khatami of “dialogue of civilizations” fame. They became the so-called progressives – and even if they lost the 2004 and 2005 elections, they are still a force, although already debilitated by the slow awakening of a younger, more secular and more radical opposition.

The fourth and most unpredictable faction is Rafsanjani’s. The consummate Machiavellian masterfully retained his own power from the late 1990s, juggling between Khamenei and Khatami. He may be the ultimate centrist, but Rafsanjani is and will always remain a supporter of the supreme leader. What he dearly wants is to restore Iran’s national might and regional power, and reconcile the country with the West, for one essential reason: he knows an anti-Islamic tempest is already brewing among the youth in Iran’s big cities.

As head of the Expediency Council, fully supported by the supreme leader, and in his quest to “save” the Islamic Revolution, Rafsanjani retains the best possible positioning.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad holds as much power as his predecessor – the urbane, enlightened and sartorially impeccable Khatami: that is, not much. What Ahmadinejad’s obvious excesses are doing is to solidify the support the Rafsanjani faction is getting from the intelligentsia as well as the urban youth, not to mention the “enlightened police” faction of Qalibaf. This does not mean that another revolution is around the corner – as the Bush administration’s wishful thinking goes.

Apart from these four factions, there are two others that are outside the ironclad circle of supreme-leader power: the revolutionary left and the secular right. Clerics call them biganeh (eccentric), and the denomination may be correct to a point, as both these groups are mostly disconnected from the majority of the population, although they also support the nuclear program out of patriotism.

The extreme left hates the mullahcracy, but has also derided Khatami’s moderately progressive agenda. As for the Westernized liberals – which include former supporters of deposed prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and members of the Freedom Movement of Iran, an opposition party, they are becoming increasingly popular with Tehran students, who are more and more pro-American (if not in foreign policy at least in behavior and cultural preferences).

The regime may in essence be unpopular – because of so much austerity and the virtual absence of social mobility – but for millions it is still bearable. No one seems to be dreaming of revolution in Iran. What is actually happening is the slow emergence of a common front – bent on the restoration of the power of the Iranian state through an alliance with Shi’ism in Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.

This may be interpreted as a Shi’ite crescent by alarmist Sunni Arabs, but there’s no military, expansionist logic behind it. The common front is also in favor of moving toward a more market economy and a progressive liberalization of morals and public opinion. This is what one hears in Tehran from young people, women, workers in the cultural industry, and philosophers – and it is Tehran that always sets the agenda in Iran.

If the regime does not open up, the Iranian economy will never create enough jobs over the next few years to fight unemployment among its overwhelmingly young population. A great deal of the non-oil-dependent private sector is controlled by the bonyads, whose managers are usually incompetent and corrupt clerics.

Many Iranians know that an economic crisis – high oil prices notwithstanding – will rip the heart out of the lower middle class, the regime’s base, and more crucially the industrial working class, which used to be aligned with the Tudeh, Iran’s communist party.

There is a way out

They key to solving most of Iran’s problems lies in finding a compromise with the West – especially the Americans – regarding the nuclear dossier. For all his vocal, popular support in the provinces, if Ahmadinejad and his Pasdaran hardliners go against this national desire for stability and progress, they will be sidelined.

Demonizing Western parallels of Iran enriching a few grams of uranium as akin to Adolf Hitler’s march into the Rhineland is positively silly. So far Iran has only disregarded a non-binding request from the UN Security Council. The uranium-enrichment program may be under the operational control of the Pasdaran, but Ahmadinejad does not set Iran’s nuclear policy: the supreme leader does, his guidelines followed by the Supreme National Security Council, which is led by the leader’s protege, Ali Larijani. Khamenei and Larijani have both substantially toned down the rhetoric; Ahmadinejad hasn’t.

The point is not that Ahmadinejad is a suicidal nut bent on confronting the US by all means available. The point is that the president leads just one of four key factions in a do-or-die power play, and he is following his own agenda, which is not necessarily the Iranian theocratic leadership’s agenda. Washington neo-conservatives for their part may want regime change – but that won’t happen with another shock and awe.

Ahmadinejad is playing the typical Bonapartist – using a political deadlock to go all the way toward dictatorship. Rafsanjani may also be a Bonapartist, but the difference is he’s not interested in dictatorship.

The ideal outcome of this whole “nuclear crisis” would be an Iran moving to a moderately liberal alliance between eternal pragmatist Rafsanjani – the only one capable of subduing the Pasdaran – and the semi-secular left, which still regards Khatami as the least bad of all possible models. It may not be paradise, but it certainly beats war.