Iran's political persuasions

About the author
Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is a regular commentator for NPR's Marketplace and Middle East Analyst for CBS News. His first book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam has been translated into half a dozen languages, was short-listed for the Guardian (UK) First Book Award, and nominated for a PEN USA award for research Non-Fiction. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Slate, Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Chicago Tribune, the Nation, and others, and has appeared on Meet The Press, Hardball, The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, Anderson Cooper, and Nightline.
Iran remains in a strong bargaining position regarding the nuclear issue and also in terms of Iraq. There is a boldness to the way that Iran is responding to intimidation that reveals their confidence in their position.

Ahmadinejad is, however, increasingly facing pressure from within Iran. Iranian politics has always been very fractious and inherent animosity persists between the various factions: the faction that the president represents - the Revolutionary Guard and the military; the faction that the clerical regime represents - the old traditionalist conservatives; the new conservative movement that's headed by the mayor of Tehran Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf; and then a centrist group forming with a coalition between the traditional reformist Mohammed Khatami and people like Akber Hashemi Rafasanjani. These factions within Iran are now pushing back against Ahmadinejad and the militarisation of Iranian politics.

Militarised politics

It's something that's lost in the debates about Iran and Ahmadinejad. This notion that Ahmadinejad represents wild conservatism or ultra-religious ideology is not true at all. The biggest criticism against Ahmadinejad has come from the traditional religious classes that see him as not religious enough.

What Ahmadinejad truly represents is the militarisation of Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad's constituency, outside of the poor rural classes which made up such a huge amount of his voting block, is almost exclusively made up of the Revolutionary Guards - primarily the veterans of the Iran-Iraq war - and the more traditional military groups.

Ahmadinejad has put military and Revolutionary Guard representatives in traditional cabinet and administrative positions. Iranians, particularly the old political class, are of course worried about the bellicose rhetoric and the apocalyptic nature of Ahmadinejad's idea of Shi'ism, but what they're truly afraid of is that Iran is becoming militarised along with its politics.

That's where the blowback is coming from and you're seeing coalitions form between traditional rivals like Khatami and Rafsanjani, as a means of deflecting some of the power that the Ahmadinejad faction has accrued for itself.

Ahmadinejad and his faction resemble the US neoconservatives. In their view, Iranian power has to spread through military means. Iran can spread its influence through the region by reshaping the region. That's neo-conservatism.

A power in its own right

Iran has more or less stopped looking west. That is what has made it look so dangerous. That's why it's been able to more or less shrug off the fear of sanctions. It recognises that it has far more to gain by simply strengthening ties with Russia, China, India and even Pakistan (as evidenced by its recent $7 billion oil pipeline deal with Islamabad and New Delhi). That's why it stopped trading in dollars. There used to be a time when the US could maintain control over Iran through the purse string. Those days are gone. Iran is saying to Europe and the United States, "Who needs you? We've got China, Russia, India." That is a great fear for the United States, and it underlines the growing power of Iran.

Iran has taken advantage of the reshaping of the middle east since the war in Afghanistan. It is now, with Saddam Hussein and the Taliban gone, the major economic and political and military power in that region. It has managed to spread it's influence militarily through groups like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Jaish-al-Mahdi in Iraq.

Rather than recognise the reality and treat Iran like the regional power that it has become (as a direct result of US actions), the US is still treating Iran like some petty state teetering on the verge of another popular revolution.

Facing American militarism

The lessons of the Hizbullah-Israel war has started to fade away in Washington. Before that war, the US was seriously thinking about attacking Iran. After the war, that possibility was taken off the table completely, because we saw very clearly what Iran could do. It is certainly an indication of the strength of Hizbullah that they launched more missiles into Israel on the last day of fighting than any previous day. They were not weakened by any means.

As the Bush administration has become less and less popular, it has become more and more isolated from the outside world. You would think that the opposite would occur, but it has become even more ideological, more cut off from reality. As the memory of the summer has faded, there are those in the administration - primarily Vice President Dick Cheney - who, having all along favoured military attack on Iran, are becoming more bold in suggesting it as a possible option.

The US is essentially preparing for it at this point. There's no other reason why there would be three warships in the Persian Gulf if not for Iran. They're not going to do anything in Iraq, obviously.

The rhetoric is now racheting up. The Bush administration is now trying to pin the attack on 20 January on five US soldiers on Iran. What is fascinating about this argument is that they're saying quite clearly, "Look, we have no evidence that Iran was involved, however, we're starting with the theory that Iran was involved, so we have to prove that theory." So essentially, Iran has been deemed "guilty until proven innocent". The US is cocked and loaded, ready to fire and just waiting for an excuse to do so.

Nuclear negotiations

Nothing on this earth is going to keep Iran from continuing to pursue its civilian nuclear programme. There is plenty that can be done, however, to keep that programme from transforming into a weapons program. There's a plenty of time, ten years according to the CIA, until Iran can develop a nuclear weapon.

United Nations Resolution 1737 was a useless idea, a total waste of time. The plan that the Europeans are floating around - that there would be a symbolic halt to uranium enrichment that would coincide with the beginning of negotiations - seems more productive. But the Bush administration has no interest in speaking to Iran. It feels quite rightly that it cannot negotiate from a position of strength, so it feels obliged to ratchet up the military option, its only recourse.

The European approach can win the day, because Europe is much more inclined to think of Iran as a power that needs to be dealt with it according to its strengths. Again, the Bush administration works from a set of postulates. Chief amongst those postulates is "don't negotiate with 'evil doers'". Moving towards negotiations with Iran is much more of an ideological decision than one that has to do with diplomacy or facts on the ground.

The Bush administration has essentially said, "We will talk to Iran when it changes its behaviour". What this indicates is this idea somehow that negotiations and diplomacy are a reward for good behaviour. Never in the history of the United States has that been a viable concept. Diplomacy is normally what changes your behaviour not the reward for good behaviour.