"Hit us and we shall hit you ten times harder!" This is how General
Muhammad-Ali Jaafari, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has responded to speculation about a
possible attack by the United States and/or Israel on Iran's nuclear
Jaafari replaced General Yahya Safavi last year after the latter
made a speech in which he implicitly warned the mullahs that Iran's
military was not ready for war against far more powerful enemies.
Those familiar with Iranian military capabilities know that it is
Safavi's sober assessment, and not Jaafari's bluster, that reflects the
The problem is that Jaafari can make his claim because he, and his
political masters in Tehran, are convinced there would be no military
action against their regime.
In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then newly-minted President of
the Islamic Republic and darling of the IRGC, unveiled a strategy based
on the assumption that once George W. Bush is out of the White House,
the United States would bite the bullet and accept a nuclear-armed
Islamic Republic as "regional superpower" in the Middle East.
Two events convinced Ahmadinejad that his strategy was correct:
--The first came in May 2006 when the Bush administration, then at
the nadir of its unpopularity because of the situation in Iraq, joined
the line of supplicant Europeans begging Tehran to negotiate a deal.
That unexpected shift in Washington's policy produced the opposite effect.
Far from persuading Ahamdinejad that this was a good time to defuse
the situation, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's attempt at nuance
and multilateral diplomacy convinced Tehran that the Americans had
--The second event that confirmed Ahmadinejad's belief that
"America cannot do a damn thing" came with last year's National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Using a language of obfuscation, the NIE
claimed that Tehran had abandoned key aspect of its nuclear programm in
2003. The NIE undermined the whole case brought by the International
Atomic Energy Agency against the Islamic Republic. Whatever one might say about Ahmadinejad, one thing is certain: he
plays an open hand. He is convinced that the US does not have the
stomach for a fight and that Bush is the last American president to
even dream of pre-emptive war.
He thinks the dominant mood in the US, and the West in general, is one of pre-emptive surrender.
Ahmadinejad may well be right: there is not going to be any war against the Islamic Republic.
Here is why: as soon as there are tangible moves, not just threats,
leaked through The New Yorker's investigative reporters, that could
threaten the existence of he Khomeinist regime, Tehran will announce a
temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program in accordance
with three United Nations' Security Council resolutions.
Such an announcement will instantly defuse the situation, break the
diplomatic coalition created by Bush, and, possibly, even inspire Nancy
Pelosi to praise Ahmadinejad as a man of peace. To launch a war against
Iran in such a situation would become politically impossible, even if
John McCain is president.
A temporary suspension would not undermine Iran's plans to build a
"nuclear surge capacity" - that is to say producing all that is needed
for making atomic warheads without actually manufacturing bombs.
Iranians, inspired by 3,000 years of history, know the value of
patience. They are not in a hurry. They know that weaving a Persian
carpet sometimes takes years.
In 2003, Iran did announce a suspension of its uranium program.
Now, however, we know that even during that suspension, Tehran was
working on other aspects of its nuclear project.
This time, the regime might accept another temporary suspension only if its own survival is at stake.
Taking measures that might hurt the people of Iran won't do the
trick. The mullahs are as concerned about the welfare of their people
as Saddam Hussein was about that of the Iraqis and Robert Mugabe is of
the Zimbabweans. Sanctions already imposed by the UN make life more
difficult for the average Iranian but have little effect on the regime.
This means that the Islamic Republic will not, indeed cannot, offer
any concessions unless faced with the prospect of regime change.
Ahmadinejad has said as much, albeit in different words.
He has castigated his predecessor Muhammad Khatami for accepting
suspension in 2003 when the regime was not in danger. Khatami says he
did so because at the time, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in
Iraq, he feared that the Americans might make a right turn and march on
Tehran as well.
In other words, it was fear of regime change that persuaded the
mullahs to accept suspension five years ago. As soon as that fear was
gone and Bush appeared to be headed for a political lynching in his own
country, the program was resumed at an even faster pace.
The way Western politicians talk about it, one gets the impression
that the Iranian nuclear issue is a quirk of the mullahs that could be
fixed with the threat of sticks and promise of carrots. It is not.
The Iranian nuclear issue has three layers.
The first concerns he power struggle in Tehran. Ahmadinejad has
built his macho image on this issue. If he backs down he will be
The second layer concerns the regime's strategy for hegemony in the
Middle East. The Islamic Republic needs tactical "nuclear parity" to
guarantee it won't be attacked with nuclear weapons as it proceeds to
drive the Americans out of the Middle East, help destroy Israel as a
Jewish state, and impose Khomeinism on the Arabs in the name of Islamic
The third layer concerns the regime's ambitions, spelled out by
Ahmadinejad and others, to create an international coalition to
challenge the global system dominated by the United States.
Ahmadinejad has already promised anti-American regimes in Latin
America "full support and protection" against the "Great Satan" in
Washington. Iran is already laying the foundations for an armaments
industry in Venezuela. One day a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic may
extend its nuclear umbrella to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay,
Ecuador and, why not, even Cuba.
The Islamic Republic has been at war against the United States and
the international system it leads for almost 30 years. This has been a
low intensity war because the US and its allies have shied away from
full-scale confrontation. The US has shown it has lots of power but not
the courage to use even a fraction of it. The Islamic Republic's power,
on the other hand, is "tiny," as Senator Barack Obama has noted. But
the mullahs have been prepared to use that "tiny" power in full, with
already devastating effects.
The issue is not how to avoid war with the Islamic Republic. It is
how to end a war that has been going on for almost 30 years.
As in all wars there are three ways to end this one: surrender, make a deal, or win.
Amir Taheri's new book "Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution" will be published in the autumn.