It's like old times in the Persian Gulf. As of
this week, a second aircraft carrier battle task force is being sent in – not
long after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen highlighted
planning for "potential military courses of action" against Iran; just as the
Bush administration's catechism of charges against the Iranians in Iraq reaches
something like a fever pitch; at the moment when rumors
of, leaks about, and denials
of Pentagon back-to-the-drawing-board planning for new ways to attack Iran
are zipping around ("Targets would include everything from the plants where
weapons are made to the headquarters of the organization known as the Quds Force
which directs operations in Iraq"); and only days before the U.S. military in
Iraq is supposed to conduct its latest media dog-and-pony show on Iranian support
for Iraqi Shi'ite militias ("including date stamps on newly found weapons caches
showing that recently made Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq at a steadily
increasing rate"). On the dispatching of that second aircraft carrier, Secretary
of Defense Robert Gates offered the following
comment: "I don't see it as an escalation. I think it could be seen, though,
as a reminder."
And, when you really think about it, it is indeed a "reminder" of
sorts. After all, the name of that second carrier has a certain resonance.
It's the USS
Abraham Lincoln, the very carrier on which, on May 1st exactly
five years ago, President George W. Bush landed in that S-3B Viking
sub reconnaissance Naval jet, in what TV people call "magic
hour light", for his Top-Gun
strut to a podium. There, against a White House-produced banner
emblazoned with the phrase "Mission Accomplished," he declared that
"major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
Now, more than five years after Baghdad fell, with Saddam Hussein
long executed, Osama bin Laden alive and kicking, and American soldiers
fighting and dying
in the vast Shi'ite slum suburb of Sadr City in Baghdad, the dangerous
administration game of chicken with Iran in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere
once again intensifies. It's a dangerous moment. When you ratchet up
the charges and send in the carriers, anything is possible.
We regularly read about all of this, of course, but almost never as seen through
anything but American administration or journalistic eyes (and sometimes it's
hard to tell the two apart). The author of Globalistan
and also Red
Zone Blues, Pepe Escobar, a continent-hopping super-journalist for the
always fascinating Asia Times and
now The Real News
as well, has done a striking job of covering the Iraq War, the various oil wars
and pipeline struggles of the Middle East and Central Asia, and, these last
years, has regularly visited Iran. Today, in his first appearance at Tomdispatch,
he offers something rare indeed, an assessment of Iran "under the gun" – without
the American filter in place. Tom
The Iranian Chessboard
Five Ways to Think about Iran 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 in context.
Here are just a few recent instances of the ongoing campaign: 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
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 Muhammad.
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
and Shanghai. No wonder Dick Cheney, checking out Iran, "salivates
like a Pavlov dog" (to quote those rock 'n roll geopoliticians, the
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.
Iran's 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 imperialism."
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 player, Iran 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 century. 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.
Ahmadinejad is relentlessly depicted as an angry, totally irrational,
Jew-hating, Holocaust-denying Islamo-fascist who wants to "wipe Israel
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 occupying Jerusalem 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 nuke Israel.
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-á-vis
what is still widely considered by Iranians of all social classes and educational
backgrounds as Anglo-Saxon colonialism.
Ahmadinejad is 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
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
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.")
But 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.
For Khamenei 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.
Ahmadinejad, for 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
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, and
Tabriz – 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
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
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 Iran's
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 modernity.
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 horizon.
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 world.
From American supply lines and bases in southern Iraq to the Straits
of Hormuz, the Iranians, though no military powerhouse, do have the
ability to cause real damage to American forces and interests – and
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 and Afghanistan, will attack. They feel a tide at their
backs. Meanwhile the "Look East" strategy, driven by soaring energy
prices, is bearing fruit.
Ahmadinejad has 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 against
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.
Pepe Escobar, 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, Paris, Singapore, and Bangkok. Since the late 1990s,
he has specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central
Asia, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 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.
Copyright 2008 Pepe Escobar