The Iranian Chessboard: Five Ways to Think
Under the Gun
By Pepe Escobar
More than two years ago, Seymour Hersh disclosed in the New Yorker how George W. Bush was
considering strategic nuclear strikes against Iran. Ever since, a campaign to
demonize that country has proceeded in a relentless, Terminator-like way,
applying the same techniques and semantic contortions that were so familiar in
the period before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.
The campaign's greatest hits are widely
known: "The ayatollahs"
are building a Shi'ite nuclear bomb; Iranian weapons are killing American
soldiers in Iraq; Iranian
gunboats are provoking U.S.
warships in the Persian Gulf - Iran, in short, is the new al-Qaeda, a terror
state aimed at the heart of the United
States. It's idle to expect the American
mainstream media to offer any tools that might put this orchestrated blitzkrieg
Here are just a few recent instances of the
Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates insists that Iran
"is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons." Adm. Michael Mullen,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits that the Pentagon is planning for
"potential military courses of action" when it comes to Iran. In tandem with U.S.
commander in Iraq Gen. David
Petraeus, Mullen denounces Iran's "increasingly
lethal and malign influence" in Iraq, although he claims to harbor
"no expectations" of an attack on Iran "in the immediate
future" and even admits he has "no smoking gun which could prove that
the highest leadership [of Iran] is involved."
But keep in mind one thing the Great Saddam
Take-out of 2003
proved: that a "smoking
gun" is, in the end, irrelevant. And this week, the U.S. is ominously floating a second aircraft
carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf.
But what of Iran itself
under the blizzard of charges and threats?
What to make of it? What
does the world look like from Tehran?
Here are five ways to think about Iran under the gun and to better
decode the Iranian chessboard.
1. Don't underestimate the power of Shi'ite Islam: Seventy-five percent of the world's oil
reserves are in the Persian Gulf. Seventy
percent of the Gulf's population is Shi'ite. Shi'ism is an eschatological - and revolutionary -
religion, fueled by a passionate mixture of romanticism and cosmic despair. As
much as it may instill fear in hegemonic Sunni Islam, some Westerners should
feel a certain empathy for intellectual Shi'ism's almost Sartrean nausea
towards the vacuous material world.
For more than a thousand years Shi'ite Islam has, in fact, been a galaxy of Shi'isms - a kind of Fourth World
of its own, always cursed by political exclusion and implacable economic
marginalization, always carrying an immensely dramatic view of history with it.
It's impossible to understand Iran without
grasping the contradiction that the Iranian religious leadership faces in
ruling, however fractiously, a nation state. In the minds of Iran's
religious leaders, the very concept of the nation-state is regarded with deep
suspicion, because it detracts from the umma, the
global Muslim community. The nation-state, as they see it, is but a way station
on the road to the final triumph of Shi'ism and pure
Islam. To venture beyond the present stage of history, however, they also
recognize the necessity of reinforcing the nation-state that offers Shi'ism a sanctuary - and that, of course, happens to be Iran. When Shi'ism finally triumphs,
the concept of nation-state - a heritage, in any case, of the West - will
disappear, replaced by a community organized according to the will of Prophet
In the right context, this is, believe me,
a powerful message. I briefly became a mashti - a
pilgrim visiting a privileged Shi'ite gateway to
Paradise, the holy shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, four hours west of the Iran-Afghan
border. At sunset, the only foreigner lost in a pious multitude of black
chadors and white turbans occupying every square inch of the huge walled
shrine, I felt a tremendous emotional jolt. And I wasn't even a believer, just
a simple infidel.
2. Geography is destiny: Whenever I go to
the holy city of Qom, bordering the central deserts
in Iran, I am always reminded, in no uncertain terms, that, as far as the major
ayatollahs are concerned, their
supreme mission is to convert the rest of Islam to the original purity and
revolutionary power of Shi'ism - a religion
invariably critical of the established social and political order.
Even a Shi'ite
leader in Tehran,
however, can't simply live by preaching and conversion alone. Iran, after
all, happens to be a nation-state at the crucial intersection of the Arabic,
Turkish, Russian, and Indian worlds. It is the key transit point of the Middle
East, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus,
and the Indian subcontinent. It lies between three seas (the Caspian, the
Persian Gulf, and the sea
of Oman). Close to Europe
and yet at the gates of Asia (in fact part of Southwest Asia), Iran is the
ultimate Eurasian crossroads. Isfahan,
the country's third largest city, is roughly equidistant from Paris
No wonder Dick Cheney, checking out Iran, "salivates like a Pavlov
dog" (to quote those rock 'n roll geopoliticians, the Rolling Stones).
Members of the Iranian upper middle classes
in North Tehran might spin dreams of Iran
recapturing the expansive range of influence once held by the Persian empire; but the silky, Qom-carpet-like
diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will assure you that what they
really dream of is an Iran
respected as a major regional power. To this end, they have little choice,
faced with the enmity of the globe's "sole superpower," but to employ
a sophisticated counter-encirclement foreign policy. After all, Iran is now completely surrounded by post-9/11
American military bases in Afghanistan,
Central Asia, Iraq, and the Gulf states. It faces
the U.S. military on its Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, and Persian Gulf borders,
and lives with ever tightening U.S. economic sanctions, as well as a continuing
drumbeat of Bush administration threats involving possible air assaults on
Iranian nuclear (and probably other) facilities.
The Iranian counter-response to sanctions
and to its demonization as a rogue or pariah state
has been to develop a "Look East" foreign policy that is, in itself,
a challenge to American energy hegemony in the Gulf. The policy has been
conducted with great skill by Foreign Minister Manouchehr
Mottaki, who was educated in Bangalore, India.
While focused on massive
energy deals with China, India, and Pakistan,
it looks as well to Africa and Latin America.
To the horror of American neocons, an
intercontinental "axis of evil" air link already exists - a weekly
commercial Tehran-Caracas flight via Iran Air.
diplomatic (and energy) reach is now striking. When I was in Bolivia early this year, I learned of a tour Iran's ambassador to Venezuela had taken on the jet of Bolivian President Evo Morales. The ambassador reportedly offered Morales
"everything he wanted" to offset the influence of "American
Meanwhile, a fierce energy competition is
developing among the Turks, Iranians, Russians, Chinese, and Americans - all
placing their bets on which future trade routes will be the crucial ones as oil
and natural gas flow out of Central Asia. As a
is trying to position itself as the unavoidable bazaar-state in an
oil-and-gas-fueled New Silk Road - the backbone of a new Asian Energy Security
Grid. That's how it could recover some of the preeminence it enjoyed in the
distant era of Darius, the King of Kings. And that's the main reason why U.S. neo-Cold
Warriors, Zio-cons, armchair imperialists, or all of
the above, are throwing such a collective - and threatening - fit.
3. What is the nuclear "new
Hitler" Ahmadinejad up to?: Ever since the days
when former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami
suggested a "dialogue of civilizations," Iranian diplomats have
endlessly repeated the official position on Iran's nuclear program: It's
peaceful; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no proof of
the military development of nuclear power; the religious leadership opposes
atomic weapons; and Iran - unlike the US - has not invaded or attacked any
nation for the past quarter millennium.
Think of George W. Bush and Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new Blues
Brothers: Both believe they are on a mission from God. Both are religious
fundamentalists. Ahmadinejad believes fervently in
the imminent return of the Mahdi, the Shi'ite
messiah, who "disappeared" and has remained hidden since the ninth
Bush believes fervently in a
coming end time and the return of Jesus Christ. But only Bush, despite his
actual invasions and constant threats, gets a (sort of) free pass from the
Western ideological machine, while Ahmadinejad is portrayed
as a Hitlerian believer in a new Holocaust.
relentlessly depicted as an angry, totally irrational, Jew-hating,
Holocaust-denying Islamo-fascist who wants to
off the map." That infamous quote, repeated ad
nauseam but out of context, comes from an October 2005 speech at an obscure
anti-Zionist student conference. What Ahmadinejad
really said, in a literal translation from Farsi, was that "the regime
must vanish from the pages of time." He was actually quoting the leader of
the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, who said it first in the early
1980s. Khomeini hoped that a regime so unjust toward the Palestinians would be
replaced by another more equitable one. He was not, however, threatening to
In the 1980s, in the bitterest years of the
Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini also made it very clear that the production,
possession, or use of nuclear weapons is against Islam. Iran's Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later issued a fatwa -
a religious injunction - under the same terms. For the theocratic regime,
however, the Iranian nuclear program is a powerful symbol of independence
vis-à-vis what is still widely considered by Iranians of all social classes and
educational backgrounds as Anglo-Saxon colonialism.
mad for the Iranian nuclear program. It's his bread and butter in terms of
domestic popularity. During the Iran-Iraq War, he was a member of a support
team aiding anti-Saddam Hussein Kurdish forces. (That's when he became friends
with "Uncle" Jalal Talabani,
now the Kurdish president of Iraq.)
Not many presidents have been trained in guerrilla warfare. Speculation is
rampant in Tehran that Ahmadinejad, the leadership of
the Quds Force, an elite division of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), plus the hardcore volunteer militia, the Basij (informally known in Iran as "the army of twenty
million") are betting on a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities to
strengthen the country's theocratic regime and their faction of it.
Reformists refer to Russian President
Vladimir Putin's visit to Tehran last October, when he was received by
the Supreme Leader (a very rare honor). Putin offered
a new plan to resolve the explosive Iranian nuclear dossier: Iran would halt nuclear enrichment on Iranian
soil in return for peaceful nuclear cooperation and development in league with Russia, the
Europeans, and the IAEA.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator of
that moment, Ali Larijani, a confidant of Supreme
Leader Khamenei, as well as the Leader himself let it
be known that the idea would be seriously considered. But Ahmadinejad
immediately contradicted the Supreme Leader in public.
Even more startling, yet
evidently with the Leader's acquiescence, he then sacked Larijani
and replaced him with a longtime friend, Saeed Jalili,
an ideological hardliner.
4. A velvet revolution is not around the
corner: Before the 2005 Iranian elections, at a secret, high-level meeting of
the ruling ayatollahs in his house,
the Supreme Leader concluded that Ahmadinejad would
be able to revive the regime with his populist rhetoric and pious conservatism,
which then seemed very appealing to the downtrodden masses. (Curiously enough, Ahmadinejad's campaign motto
was: "We can.")
the ruling ayatollahs miscalculated.
Since they controlled all key levers of power - the Supreme National Security
Council, the Council of Guardians, the Judiciary, the bonyads
(Islamic foundations that control vast sections of the economy), the army, the
IRGC (the parallel army created by Khomeini in 1979 and recently branded a
terrorist organization by the Bush administration), the media - they assumed
they would also control the self-described "street cleaner of the
people." How wrong they have been.
himself, this was big business. After 18 years of non-stop internal struggle,
he was finally in full control of executive power, as well as of the
legislature, the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij,
and the key ayatollahs in Qom.
his part, unleashed his own agenda. He purged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
of many reformist-minded diplomats; encouraged the Interior Ministry and the
Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to crackdown on all forms of "nefarious"
Western influences, from entertainment industry products to colorful
made-in-India scarves for women; and filled his cabinet with revolutionary
friends from the Iran-Iraq War days. These friends proved to be as faithful as
administratively incompetent - especially in terms of economic policy.
Instead of solidifying the theocratic
leadership under Supreme Leader Khamenei, Ahmadinejad increasingly fractured an
increasingly unpopular ruling elite.
Nonetheless, discontent with Ahmadinejad's economic incompetence has not translated into
street barricades and it probably will not; nor, contrary to neocon fantasyland scenarios, would an attack on Iran's nuclear
facilities provoke a popular uprising. Every single political faction supports
the nuclear program out of patriotic pride.
There is surely a glaring paradox here. The
regime may be wildly unpopular - because of so much enforced austerity in an
energy-rich land and the virtual absence of social mobility - but for millions,
especially in the countryside and the remote provinces, life is still bearable.
In the large urban centers - Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz,
- most would be in favor of a move toward a more market-oriented economy combined
with a progressive liberalization of mores (even as the regime insists on going
the other way). No velvet revolution, however, seems to be on the horizon.
At least four main factions are at play in
the intricate Persian-miniature-like game of today's Iranian power politics -
and two others, the revolutionary left and the secular right, even though
thoroughly marginalized, shouldn't be forgotten either.
The extreme right, very religiously
conservative but economically socialist, has, from the beginning, been closely
aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmadinejad
is the star of this faction.
The clerics, from the Supreme Leader to
thousands of provincial religious figures, are pure conservatives, even more
patriotic than the extreme right, yet generally no lovers of Ahmadinejad. But there is a crucial internal split. The
substantially wealthy bonyads - the Islamic
foundations, active in all economic sectors - badly want a
reconciliation with the West. They know that, under the pressure of
Western sanctions, the relentless flight of both capital and brains is working
against the national interest.
Economists in Tehran
project there may be as much as $600 billion in Iranian funds invested in the
economies of Persian Gulf petro-monarchies.
The best and the brightest continue to flee the country. But the Islamic
foundations also know that this state of affairs slowly undermines Ahmadinejad's power.
The extremely influential Revolutionary
Guard Corps, a key component of government with vast economic interests,
transits between these two factions. They privilege the fight against what they
define as Zionism, are in favor of close relations with Sunni Arab states, and
want to go all the way with the nuclear program. In fact, substantial sections
of the IRGC and the Basij believe Iran must enter the nuclear club not only to
prevent an attack by the "American Satan," but to irreversibly change
the balance of power in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The current reformists/progressives of the
left were originally former partisans of Khomeini's son, Ahmad Khomeini. Later,
after a spectacular mutation from Soviet-style socialism to some sort of
religious democracy, their new icon became former President Khatami
(of "dialogue of civilizations" fame). Here, after all, was an
Islamic president who had captured the youth vote and the women's vote and had
written about the ideas of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas as applied to civil society as well as the
possibility of democratization in Iran. Unfortunately, his
"Tehran Spring" didn't last long - and is now long gone.
The key establishment faction is
undoubtedly that of moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former two-term President,
current chairman of the Expediency Council and a key member of the Council of
Experts - 86 clerics, no women, the Holy Grail of the system, and the only
institution in the Islamic Republic capable of removing the Supreme Leader from
office. He is now supported by the intelligentsia and urban youth. Colloquially
known as "The Shark," Rafsanjani is the consummate Machiavellian. He
retains privileged ties to key Washington
players and has proven to be the ultimate survivor - moving like a skilled
juggler between Khatami and Khamenei
as power in the country shifted.
Rafsanjani is, and will always remain, a
supporter of the Supreme Leader. As the regime's de facto number two, his quest
is not only to "save" the Islamic Revolution, but also to consolidate
regional power and reconcile the country with the West. His reasoning is clear:
He knows that an
anti-Islamic tempest is already brewing among the young in Iran's major
cities, who dream of integrating with the nomad elites of liquid global
If the Bush administration had any real
desire to let its aircraft carriers float out of the Gulf and establish an
entente cordiale with Tehran,
Rafsanjani would be the man to talk to.
5. Heading down the new silk road:
Reformist friends in Tehran keep telling me the country is now immersed in an
atmosphere similar to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in China or the
1980s rectification campaign in Cuba - and nothing "velvet" or
"orange" or "tulip" or any of the other color-coded
Western-style movements that Washington might dream of is, as yet, on the
Under such conditions, what if there were an American air attack on Iran? The Supreme Leader, on the
record, offered his own version of threats in 2006. If Iran were attacked, he said, the retaliation
would be doubly powerful against U.S. interests elsewhere in the
From American supply lines and bases in
to the Straits of Hormuz, the Iranians, though no
military powerhouse, do have the ability to cause real damage to American
forces and interests
certainly to drive the price of oil into the stratosphere. Such a
"war" would clearly be a disaster for everyone.
The Iranian theocratic leadership, however,
seems to doubt that the Bush administration and the U.S.
military, exhausted by their wars in Iraq
will attack. They feel a tide at their backs.
Meanwhile the "Look
East" strategy, driven by soaring energy prices, is bearing fruit.
just concluded a tour of South Asia and, to
the despair of American neocons, the Asian Energy Security Grid is quickly becoming a
reality. Two years ago, at the Petroleum Ministry in Tehran,
I was told Iran is betting
on the total "interdependence of Asia and Persian
Gulf geo-economic politics." This year Iran finally
becomes a natural gas-exporting country. The framework for the $7.6 billion
Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the "peace"
pipeline, is a go. Both these key
South Asian U.S. allies are ignoring Bush administration desires and rapidly
bolstering their economic, political, cultural, and - crucially - geostrategic connections with Iran. An attack on Iran would now inevitably be viewed as an attack
What a disaster in the making, and yet, now
more than ever, Vice President Dick Cheney's faction in Washington (not to
mention possible future president John McCain) seems ready to bomb. Perhaps the
Mahdi himself - in his occult wisdom - is betting on a U.S. war against Asia to slouch towards Qom
to be reborn.
born in Brazil,
is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and an analyst for The Real News.
He's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, based in London,
Milan, Los Angeles,
Since the late 1990s, he has specialized in covering the arc from the Middle
East to Central Asia, including the wars in Afghanistan
He has made frequent visits to Iran
and is the author of "Globalistan" and also
"Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the
Surge", both published by Nimble Books in 2007.