Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ahmadinejad’s Wager, The World’s Peril

By Barry Rubin

Why did Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with the full backing of Iran’s regime, behave as he did at the Durban-2 conference?

One reason, of course, is that he believed every word he said, and much of the Iranian Islamist regime thinks the same way. This factor should always be remembered, lest people think this was only some cynical ploy.

As the Iranian Islamist regime’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once said, the revolution was not just about lowering the price of watermelons. That is, this was not merely a movement for materialist reasons but one that believes it was executing God’s will on earth. Ideology was central.

To explain this properly, permit me to digress a moment. People often ask: why did Jews under Nazi rule in Eastern Europe not flee or do more to escape the Shoah (Holocaust). After extensive research and interviewing, it is clear to me that while there were a number of factors but foremost was the disbelief that the Germans would murder them all.

Remember that these Jews were forced into slave labor. They produced goods, farmed crops, and repaired roads. In effect, they were helping the German war effort. These laborers were paid nothing and fed barely enough to stay alive.

Why, then, would the Germans destroy, so to speak, a goose that was laying eggs if not necessarily golden ones, possibly losing the war in the process? The answer is: because they believed in their own ideology they would not act pragmatically but rather make their own defeat—and own deaths—more likely.

In a similar way, Iran's regime does things that are objectively against the country's national interest--and to a lesser extent its own interest if the regime's only consideration was to increase its wealth and to lengthen its rule--out of ideological considerations.

The second factor that should be remembered is that of miscalculation, even if a regime is trying to pursue rational self-interest. A leader, particularly if reckless and overconfident, will take an action he thinks is in his interest but turns out to be a disaster. The best internal Middle East examples are those of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser provoking the crisis that led to the 1967 war and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Nasser thought he could score points in the Arab arena and at home by threatening to wipe Israel off the map and taking at least some major steps toward war. He miscalculated. Israel attacked and inflicted a huge defeat on him.

Saddam Hussein thought he could score points in the Arab arena and at home by seizing Kuwait, making himself the Arab world’s leader, plus getting many billions of dollars from that oil-rich little country. He miscalculated. A U.S.-led coalition attacked and inflicted a huge defeat on him.
For Ahmadinejad, then, ideology and miscalculation are major factors. They will continue to be major factors if Iran gets nuclear weapon.

But of course, as with Nasser and Saddam Hussein, there are shorter-run calculations. Three are important:

Domestic popularity. This is always a basic factor with Middle Eastern radical regimes. Not all Iranians will support Ahmadinejad and many hate the regime. But among the 20 percent hardcore and perhaps 50 percent total who can be mobilized, they may cheer Ahmadinejad. Iran is strong, its enemies are weak, and its leadership is courageous. America, the Jews, and the West are satanic. Rally to the Islamic regime!

Regional popularity. Iran’s regime is seeking to be leader of the Muslim world and the leading power in the Middle East. But in doing so it has two very big problems: Iran is mostly Shia Muslim; most Muslims (especially Arabs) are Sunni Muslims. Iran is mostly ethnically Persian; Arabs are Arab. How to overcome these barriers? Iran already has Arab and largely Sunni allies--Syria, Hamas, Hizballah—but that’s not enough. So by becoming the leader against America, the West, and Israel, Iran hopes to override these problems. Who cares if we are Persian and Shia, Ahmadinejad says, we are the true Muslims doing what your governments aren’t doing.

Global popularity. While this is a miscalculation, Ahmadinejad and other regime leaders believe that this kind of behavior can make them popular throughout the world. This includes not only Muslim-majority countries but also the Third World and even the West. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel magazine [see source below] Ahmadinejad said that he believed most Germans also hated Israel and wanted to see it wiped out. Certainly, there is reason for him to believe such things.

Some better-informed regime leaders view Ahmadinejad as a disaster. The problem is that the top leadership is backing him, and thus his words and actions do represent the regime. The June elections will almost certainly return him to office for more years, years during which Iran will get nuclear weapons.

There’s one other extremely important point on which Ahmadinejad is misunderstood. It is true that he does not control the government. The most powerful man in Iran remains the supreme guide, Ali Khamenei. But Ahmadinejad, allied with powerful current and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers, is building his own apparatus. In the future, he could well emerge as the uncontested leader of Iran. For the moment, though, it is enough that he has the regime’s backing.

Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders—though not all—believe the West is weak and cannot respond to their aggression. They are not, as sympathizers portray them in the West, trembling people motivated by fear of external attack. Clearly, Iran has legitimate security concerns. But the real threats are heightened by their own behavior. If they were in fact so frightened they could change policy and reduce the threat. Some regime leaders, though not those in control right now, advocate just such a policy. Unfortunately, the West hasn’t helped them enough by making that threat more credible through denunciations and effective sanctions.

So here’s the bottom line: by failing to oppose Iran more effectively, the West is unintentionally encouraging it to be more extremist and dangerous. By failing to help relatively moderate Arab regimes, the West is making them more susceptible to having to appease Iran. By pressuring and criticizing Israel, the West is encouraging Iran’s regime to believe it can be destroyed.
Not a pretty picture. But neither is that of the would-be fuehrer being an honored guest at UN meetings. No wonder Ahmadinejad and his backers believe that theirs is a winning bet.

For more on Ahmadinejad’s interview with Der Spiegel, see http://www.gloria-center.org/blog/2009/04/President-Ahmadinejad-East.html.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org/

1 comment:

  1. Dear Barry,

    Thank you for helping to make the world a saner place by making your analysis publicly accessible.

    Chazak v' amatz,
    DemoCast & Joo-Tube.com


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