Lines in the Sand
America throws down the gauntlet to Iran in the lead-up to yet another war in the Middle East
By Kevin Uhrich 03/29/2012
Today, our political and military leaders tell us Iran is moving toward a calamity of global proportions, threatening to suck the rest of the world into war by insisting that development of its nuclear power capabilities is not geared toward building weapons. In response, denials by the country’s leaders have invited increasingly credible threats of pre-emptive strikes from neighboring enemy Israel and heightened fears among countries around the world, including the United States.
“The agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” states a report prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and reported on by CNN late last year. “After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
The IAEA report, according to the LA Times, states one of Iran’s alleged suspect activities included attempts by agents of the Iranian government to “procure nuclear-related and dual-use equipment and materials by military-related individuals and entities, and acquire nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network.” As a US official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Times, “This certainly gives more ammunition to those who are pushing for sanctions” against Iran. “I hope it doesn’t prompt Israel to launch a military strike.”
It didn’t. At least not from that time last fall to press time this week. But already under harsh economic sanctions by the United States and many of its allies, Iran faced even further penalties back then over an alleged attempt by Iran to hire a Mexican drug cartel hit man to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, at a Washington, DC, restaurant. The scheme, as CNN and other media have reported it, involved a connection to the Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard that formally answers only to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Today’s increasingly tense situation between Iran and the Western world is no much different than that of late 2011, only now President Obama, the man who brags about killing Osama Bin Laden and launched limited airstrikes against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi that resulted in the toppling of that government and Gadhafi’s death, is now declaring to the world that the time for diplomacy with Iran is running out. “As President of the United States, I do not bluff” Obama blustered in announcing that military options are among those being considered by the White House and the Pentagon.
Apparently the same hard-line attitude applies to similarly nuclear power-obsessed North Korea, as well. Just last week, before meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama visited South Korea — The New York Times noting Saturday marked the 100th day since the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il — and threw down the gauntlet to China, which Obama doesn’t believe has done enough to rein in its communist neighbor’s nuclear weapons ambitions, and Kim Jong-Il’s son and successor Kim Jong-un, indirectly telling him to “have the courage to pursue peace,” because more sanctions and hardships are in store if that doesn’t happen.
God and politics
To understand how Iran developed such a perilous relationship with the West at this time in world history, one must first look at the types of cultural influences and religious institutions that shape the lives of this oil-producing state’s 66 million people. We must also look — albeit briefly — at the country’s rich but turbulent social, political and military history, a record that includes four violent revolutions and a number of social revolutions in just more than a century.
First, governance. Iran is an authoritarian state, much like North Korea, with the government regularly cracking down on basic freedoms. Only it is an authoritarian theocracy, common in the ancient world but unique today. Ruled by a constitution enacted in December 1979, Iran’s is a unitary, semi-presidential, unicameral legislative-executive system in which laws are infused with tenets of Islam, a religion that citizens are expected to adhere to or else face harsh punishment prescribed by Sharia Law, or “God’s Law.”
Afghanistan between 1996 and 2011 — up to and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City — could be described as a theocracy, only one without a constitution, which relies on clerics to interpret local laws through the highly filtered lens of the Koran. Saudi Arabia also could be considered theocratic, only it is a nondemocratic monarchal theocracy in which the king acts as the supreme leader, laws are written and interpreted according to Islamic principles, and those laws are enforced by a “morality police” force. (In this country, think of the Federal Communications Commission jailing Janet Jackson for her infamous Super Bowl nipple slip, not merely fining the broadcaster.)
Much of Iran’s governance model may appear democratic on its face, inasmuch as popular elections are held for presidents and weak legislative officeholders, or Majlis, Iran’s version of a parliament. But the final word on all things legal, cultural and religious rests with Supreme Leader Khamenei, formerly Iran’s president from 1981 to 1989, who took over as supreme leader when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989.
While the Iranian government structure appears to be a mixed-presidential/parliamentary system, such hybrids can only exist in a democracy in which every eligible person cast votes and all candidates have an opportunity to run, not in an authoritarian regime where only those of a certain group are allowed to seek office. Here, suffrage is universal for men and women 18 and older, but candidates must be vetted by the country’s Guardian Council, which determines whether they are sufficiently Islamic enough to hold office. The glaring contradiction in all of this, of course, is that Iran, a state that professes to hate the West and Western values, has adopted a government loosely based on Western political systems.
The supreme leader, a position created after the Iranian Revolution in April 1979 and later that year written into the country’s new Islamic constitution, is designated as the highest ranking political and religious authority in the nation. One problem faced by Khamenei was that he was not an ayatollah, as prescribed by the county’s theocratic constitution. In order to accommodate his ascension, the constitution was revised and Khamenei was designated an ayatollah. (Something similar to this here might be a divided nation in 2000 asking our Supreme Court, members of which have administered oaths and taken oaths on Christian Bibles, to determine the next president through its constitutional authority.)
However, even as an ayatollah, Khamenei still did not possess the charismatic legitimacy of Khomeini (much as Kim Jong-un is no Kim Jong-il), or even the religious acumen of other clerics, according to author and political scientist Patrick O’Neill, and Kassem Nabulsi, a political science professor at Cal State, Northridge and Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
This lack of legitimacy, a value which can be derived by legislative, legal or traditional means, as well as through charismatic leadership, could prove to be problematic for Iran over time. With Khomeini dead, who would continue what 19th-century German political philosopher Max Weber called “the routinization of charisma”? In other words, how would the regime maintain its “monopoly of violence,” as Weber called it, over society if it could not clearly represent the ideals of a leader who died? The result of this mixing of politics, religion and personalities, as O’Neill writes “is a political system quite unlike any other, a mixture of institutions that seek to balance the word of man and the word of God.”
A tough fit
As in the United States and other presidential democracies, elected presidents in Iran serve four-year terms. The current head of the government is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in 2009 won a second term in a hotly contested election. The skewed results of the election caused rioting in the streets of Tehran and precipitated the killing, maiming and jailing of hundreds of innocent citizens by government forces. While the supreme leader is free to make unilateral domestic and foreign policy statements and decisions, it is the president’s job to execute laws and carry out policies, which Ahmadeinejad did with zeal in cracking down on protesters.
Members of the Majlis, directly elected by male and female citizens over 18, also serve four-year terms and possess a limited amount of power in lawmaking and budgeting. They have no power over the president and the supreme leader, but the 290 members of this unicameral body can legislate, select cabinet members and hold votes of no confidence on cabinet members.
Since laws in Iran are viewed as God’s law, not man’s, members of the Majlis are expected to legislate that way. When they don’t, those cases are forwarded to the 12-member Guardian Council, which consists of six lawyers nominated by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and appointed by the Majlis, and six clerics appointed by the supreme leader. They determine whether new manmade law is compatible with Islamic law. In addition to the Majlis, there is also the elected Assembly of Experts, which selects the supreme leader. (Think of the Roman Catholic Vatican, itself a sovereign Christian theocratic state, and the College of Cardinals electing a new pope.)
When a law is clarified by the Guardian Council and sent back to the Majlis for reconsideration, a third body, the Expediency Council, whose members are appointed to five-year terms by the supreme leader, decides. Decisions made by the Expediency Council cannot be overturned. When it comes to elections, the Guardian Council also has power to determine who can and who cannot run for public office based on the level of the candidate’s beliefs in Islam.
In the judiciary, the Supreme Court and a chief justice are appointed by the supreme leader to serve five-year terms. Since the law is infused with religious principles, members of the Supreme Court and the chief justice are clerics chosen for their knowledge of Islamic law. When it comes to local government abilities in this unitary state, authority is centralized in the capital, Tehran. Unlike our 50 federal sovereign states, leaders in Iran’s 30 provinces hold little if any political power.
Along with an inability to fit its governing structure with traditional ideological philosophies such as communism, liberalism, social democracy, fascism, and anarchism, modern theocratic states are particularly prone to creating conditions conducive to terrorism and promoting terrorist activities. Perhaps this is because some adherents of Islam may feel compelled to destroy non-believers, who are viewed as purveyors of modernity and threats to the religion’s very existence.
It’s generally agreed upon that political violence has many sources: institutional motives, in which cultural, corporate, religious and political institutions encourage violence by constraining people and limiting freedom, much like North Korea; ideational motives, in which notions such as religious fundamentalism (as exists in Iran) play a role; and individual motives, in which psychological or strategic reasons may lead to violence. Political violence may also be the result of hostility to modernity and feelings by adherents that they are waging “cosmic war,” with soldiers who see themselves as fighters in “a struggle between the righteousness of faith and its enemies [modernity], in a war that transcends space and time,” as Professor O’Neill puts it.
One illustration of the hostility to modernity theory includes Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian heir to billions in wealth derived from oil sales and leader of al Qaeda. Bin Laden abandoned the modern world to live in impoverished Afghanistan and wage war in Allah’s name against America, “The Great Satan,” as the United States has come to be known by both members of the Taliban in Afghanistan and government leaders in Iran.
Another example involves Mohammad Atta, another Saudi and one of the leading terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks, who had been immersed in the modern world and educated in Hamburg, Germany, before flying a hijacked jet into one of the Twin Towers — two of America’s mightiest symbols of corporate power and military dominance.
Absence of wealth also does not seem to play a role in the thinking of terrorists motivated by religious, cultural and racial reasons, in either the Middle East or the West. Case in point: Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for blowing up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 167 people. McVeigh was directly influenced by the writings of William Pierce, a college professor and author of “The Turner Diaries,” who eschewed traditional Christianity for its increasing association with Judaism, or “the global Jewish conspiracy,” and advocated a type of “cosmotheist” faith in which a purified white race represented “a form of superior evolution on the road to unity with God,” as Professor O’Neill describes it. “The Turner Diaries” advocated the violent overthrow of the United States, and McVeigh, a former US Marine, adopted these beliefs as his own. Whatever money or material wealth that any of the abovementioned criminals possessed was devoted to accomplishing the goals of the “cause,” all of which ultimately involved one faith attaining superiority over other faiths.
Now let’s look at Iran’s culture, history and economy for some insight into the perilous foreign relations issues facing the country and how its leaders might deal with them.
Century of change
One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Iran adopted the name Iran in 1935. Millennia prior to that, it was known as Persia. The nation turned to democracy in 1906, following the Persian Constitutional Revolution and established its first parliament under a constitutional monarchy.
In 1925, after overthrowing the Qajar Dynasty, Reza Khan became Shah, monarchal ruler of Persia. In fact, Iranians today view themselves as being different from their neighbors in the Middle East, largely because the country is not Arab; it is mostly ethnically Iranian, or Persian. Seven percent of the population is Kurd, 24 percent is Azeri, and only 3 percent is Arab. Fifty-one percent is Persian. When it comes to religious beliefs, 89 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, with 9 percent claiming to be Sunni Muslim and 2 percent claiming to be Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Baha’i. This ethnic and religious dominance has led to a strong sense of nationalism that pervades Iranian culture.
A coup d’état orchestrated by Great Britain’s Winston Churchill and the United States in 1953, Operation Ajax, as the Eisenhower administration dubbed it, led to the arrest of duly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and the installation of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — Reza Khan’s son. At that moment, Iran became an authoritarian monarchal regime. In the early 1960s, the government strove to quickly Westernize Iranian society while cracking down on dissent using the Shah’s brutal intelligence agency, SAVAK, in what came to be known as “The White Revolution.” It is, in large part, the relative deprivation experienced by Iranians during this drive to modernize that led to the revolution in 1979. People believed that with modernization would come more freedoms and more equality, but that did not happen, sparking social unrest, especially among young people, and general unhappiness with the miserable state of things ultimately culminated in the overthrow of the Shah’s regime.
By 1979, Khomeini, who was always openly hostile toward modernization, and other religious extremists successfully led opposition forces against the Shah, who by then had been hounded into exile in Panama. That year, 52 American embassy workers in Tehran were kidnapped and held captive for 444 days. In the meantime, the United States became friendly with Iraq, openly supplying it with weapons in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration, shortly after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni and our ally at the time, started a bloody eight-year war with his contiguous neighbor, killing hundreds of thousands, many with chemical weapons.
Of course, we now know that the US was also illegally selling arms to Iran at that time, the revenues of which were used to fund the administration’s covert war against then-Marxist Nicaragua government. Ironically, Nicaragua today is considered a democracy, one headed by none other than former Sandinista dictator-turned-elected president, Daniel Ortega. If anything shows brutal regimes can indeed change, it’s Nicaragua, which has its problems with corruption and crime but is still considered by political experts to be a free country.
According to reports in newspapers published around the world, Iran has consistently insisted that its nuclear power program is for peaceful purposes. And Ahmadinejad recently repeated that assertion, criticizing the nuclear watchdog agency’s report as a “fabrication.”
“They are all armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons but, quite unashamedly, they accuse Iran of trying to acquire nuclear weapons,” CNN quotes the politically conservative Ahmadinejad’s response to the report. “Know that this nation will not retreat an iota from its [position].”
It appears Iran, too, is heavily armed and prepared for war. According to globalsecurity.org, Iran’s military consists of an army, a navy and an air force with a combined estimated 545,000 active-duty personnel. Along with those forces, there are other paramilitary organizations, such as the 120,000-member Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, and the Quds Force, the “special forces” supposedly used in the alleged assassination plot of the Saudi ambassador. According to cia.gov, the country has more than 4 million men and women ready for immediate military service.
With Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or a country’s total measurable wealth, at around $480.3 billion, a GDP per capita at purchasing-power parity (ppp), measuring the ability to buy such items as housing, at more than $950 billion, average citizens of Iran appear at first blush to be fairly comfortable, earning an average of more than the equivalent of $12,200 a year. In emerging democracies, a minimum GDP per capital at ppp of $6,000 is enough to maintain a democratic regime for several years. Iran’s score on the Gini Index, which measures income as it relates to household purchasing power, is not that bad, either, on a par with Japan and Russia. And Iran’s score on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), which looks at the overall outcomes that wealth produces, taking into consideration such things as adult literacy, educational enrollment, as well as GDP, is within range of China, Brazil and neighboring Russia, according to the CIA Web site.
Judging by those factors, as well as the size of the Iranian military and Ahmadinejad’s belligerent statements, it appears Iranian leaders feel they have both the capacity to deliver basic public goods and services for its people, if only nominally in some areas, and the political autonomy to wage war — ideas made possible largely through oil production revenues.
Clearly, the nation is militarily strong. And its people are imbued with a strong sense of nationalistic pride, infused with a strong and oft-professed hatred of its Jewish neighbors. Many of its citizens are possessed of a fundamentalist religious tradition that frames an increasingly hostile modern Western world in terms of good and evil. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the now highly isolated Iranian government would employ non-state actors — this time allegedly in the form of a Mexican drug cartel hit man — to perform an act of terrorism, an act of war, in trying to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador on American soil. Or should it?
Remember, it was the CIA — which takes orders from the US supreme leader, the president, both head of state and head of the government who is also commander in chief and swears allegiance to our Constitution by placing his hand on a Christian Bible — that first told of the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador. This is the same CIA that helped pull off Operation Ajax back in 1953. And let’s also not forget that agreement on Iran actually pursuing nuclear weapon capability is anything but universal.
As Pasadena Weekly columnist John Grula recently explained, as “a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has every right, according to the terms of this treaty, to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This is what Iran says it is doing, and so far inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have not found any evidence that Iran has enriched uranium beyond 20 percent. Such lowly enriched uranium can be used for generating nuclear power and creating medically useful isotopes. To build a nuclear weapon, uranium must be enriched to at least 90 percent,” Grula wrote in his March 15 piece, “Reality, insanity and Iran.”
“By the way, and to put this all into proper context,” Grula, who is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists, pointed out, “It is the case that Iran’s primary nemesis, Israel, has never signed the NPT and over the last several decades has secretly amassed a nuclear arsenal of 50 to 100 warheads. No IAEA inspector has ever been allowed to examine an Israeli nuclear facility. In sharp contrast, IAEA inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities are commonplace.”
Wherever the truth may actually lie, Iran’s leadership has certainly made enough bellicose, jingoistic statements to at least lead people to believe it has enough confidence in its military to risk, perhaps even invite a US-led attack. An act of terrorism as audacious as killing a Saudi diplomat in the US capital, if true, would provide a clear indication that Iran might also be willing to use nuclear weapons provided it had the technology to build and then deliver a bomb to an intended target. If Iran is prepared to risk open warfare with the United States, this shows us chances are likely high that it would also consider using nuclear weapons on its regional enemies, Israel the most prominent and justifiably paranoid among them. Then again, could all this just be a fabrication dreamed up by our government to justify a pre-emptive attack?
Economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the US and the United Nations since 2006 over Iran’s nuclear program are definitely being felt as a destabilizing force on the country’s economy. But they apparently are having little to no effect on the country’s willingness to do away with its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program. As the Christian Science Monitor explained in a story last fall, revenue from crude oil exports of about 2.5 million barrels a day “serve as Iran’s main source of income and foreign exchange, with earnings from oil sales deposited into National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) accounts held in banks overseas. Revenues are then transferred to the Central Bank, which converts them into rials, Iran’s currency, and deposits them into the state’s Treasury’s accounts for allocation into the state budget.”
Since oil export revenues are Iran’s primary source of foreign exchange, monetary policy makers inside the Central Bank “are finding it increasingly difficult to facilitate foreign currency transactions and regulate the depreciation of Iran’s currency. ‘Not only do they get less oil income,’” an analyst told the Monitor on condition of anonymity, “‘but their ability to manage the exchange rate gets constrained as well.’”
Sanctions in this case are a double-edged sword. Iran provides 5 percent of the world’s total oil output. And with oil prices now at more than $100 a barrel, the US, with a presidential election looming, and Europe, embroiled in its own financial catastrophes, can ill afford more rising gas prices. If the question of more sanctions for Iran had come before the UN Security Council, as the Obama administration had hoped last fall, it is unlikely it would have gotten any support. Security Council members China, which gets 10 percent of its oil from Iran, and Russia, which also gets oil from Iran and is now saying more sanctions pose a threat to global security, stood against the idea back in October, according to The Associated Press.
“The fact is, the world needs Iranian oil and Iran needs to sell its oil. We are locked in a stalemate,” Jamie Webster, a senior analyst at the Washington-based consultants PFC Energy, told The AP.
One question now is whether increased sanctions will push Iran further into an economic corner, forcing it to retaliate somehow against the West or Israel. Yet another question might be whether Iran will change, much as Nicaragua changed regimes, and discontinue its nuclear program in order to make more money from oil and ease world tensions. This option seems unlikely, considering Iran recently launched a satellite into space — much as North Korean is preparing to do next month, threatening to throw that portion of the planet into red alert — and has developed rockets capable of reaching Israel.
Then again, are we simply being tooled by our own government, which clearly has no problem attacking other countries under either false political pretenses or the aegis of “pre-emption” — the Bush Doctrine — into believing Iran really is a bona fide threat to “our way of life,” one that just happens to be sitting on top of one of the world’s richest oil deposits.
If there is one thing about Obama that has surprised opponents and supporters alike it’s been his willingness, even eagerness, to engage other nations militarily. The problem here is Iran is a religiously unified, largely homogeneous and well-armed country that won’t be kicked around military as easily as Afghanistan and Iraq were initially. In those two cases, it took eight years to get most of our troops out of Iraq, and we’ve been in Afghanistan for more than 10 years, still with no end in sight.
There are a number of “preventive” options — covert, political, economic, diplomatic — that remain for both the United States and Israel in their dealings with Iran. But at what point does the potential of yet another terrorist or even nuclear attack become “too great to ignore,” leaving only the military option on the table and compelling an assault that could quickly turn into World War III?