It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be among you tonight. I cannot help but recall some wonderful memories of my first trip to your beautiful country, some 32 years ago! I thank you for the opportunity you have given me to share my thoughts and perspective on a topic that rightly preoccupies the world.
My country Iran, under the tyrannical rule of a theocracy, has unfortunately become a source of premonitions and fear rather than inspiration and hope. I shall begin by describing the background to current state of affairs. It has to do with the build-up of a strategy which I call “politics of Shiite hegemony”. In a quick sketch I shall also describe the various building blocks connected with this strategy prior to proceeding to demonstrate how the clerical regime has abused the advantages it has gained as a result of this strategy.
Iran of today and yesterday
Let me preface this presentation with a word about what remains uppermost in my heart and mind: My country Iran. Here, I should like to draw a clear line: As a nation-state and as a people, Iran and Iranians should not be confused with the clerical regime, and what it projects. Iran’s multi- millennia culture has suffered from the fundamentalist yoke, but is alive and defiant. Its strength has conditioned and reshaped the paradigm the Islamist regime had hoped to impose and perpetuate. This distinction is essential both for understanding Iran’s behavior as well as the dynamics it generates in the region.
Late in August this year the Osnabrueck Symphony Orchestra from north-western Germany travelled to Tehran and played Beethoven and Brahms in Roudaki Hall – Tehran’s famous opera house. The previous year it was the Tehran Symphony Orchestra which had performed in Osnabrueck. This cultural exchange – a banal event in all other circumstances – was remarkable in some respects. If it evoked surprise and curiosity, even criticism in some quarters, for me, it was a comforting vindication of what I just said. But let me develop this thought just a bit more.
Western classical music, to be sure, is not part of traditional Iranian culture, and yes it’s elitist. But the fact that the Tehran symphony Orchestra and the Roudaki Hall have survived the vagaries of these past three decades is yet another evidence that the forces of darkness, the cult of death, martyrdom and superstition has not conquered the spirit of our nation.
We have seen more glaring examples of this reality in international film festivals, in world sport events, and still more in the unconquerable spirit of our women and in the daring defiance of our youth. Women have stood for their rights in a cult that prefers to relegate them to an inferior status as a household object. Our youth have defied and derided a regime which is not mindful of their future but is obsessed with the hereafter. The Iranian youth keep defending their right to live their age and the epoch in which they are born; that is to say in a world flourished by science and learning, and not mourning and martyrdom.
People may have forgotten what that revolutionary paradigm might have looked like. At the onset of the Islamist revolution, in the shadow of kangaroo courts and massive executions, music of all kinds were banned from the airwaves. The universities were closed down and subjected to most vicious purges. The darkest names, the grisliest figures in our collective memory became the icons of the revolution; they were exulted and canonized.
The core clique that dominated the revolution was of the same ilk as the Jihadists whom the world is now so familiar with. They came to power with a single-minded will to destroy past achievements and remodel our society after their medieval moulds. But Iran was and is a nation with a proud history and culture which in 1979 had behind it more than half a century of relentless and widespread reconstruction efforts. Yes, a theocracy was imposed on our nation, but it could not fully escape the imprint of that multi-millennia culture. This is one reason why Iran of today is the scene of stark contrasts, and its polity is so rife with complexities and contradictions.
The Make-up of the Strategy of Shiite Hegemony
How did this state of mind resonate in regional politics, and more broadly in the international sphere? Let me first recall that thirty years ago Iran was still a force of stability in the region. Iran, under the previous regime, had succeeded to strike a balance between the principle of good neighborliness and its strategic concerns in the context of the cold war. Iran had aligned itself with America and the West for historical and geo-strategic reasons, but relations with the USSR were also friendly and productive. The old dispute with Iraq over a common stretch of waterway had amicably been resolved. So was an old claim of sovereignty over Bahrain. In the Persian Gulf, Iran saw to the safe flow of maritime commerce and the security of waterways. In Oman, Iran had intervened to help the sultanate quell a radically inspired insurgency.
With the oil industry finally under full national control and the oil price optimized, my late father had held high ambitions for the future of our country. During the two decades before 1975, per capita income in Iran grew faster than in Turkey, while keeping pace with South Korea. By 1975, the level of per capita GDP in Iran had far exceeded those attained in Korea and Turkey. But the task remained unfinished, and in the zeal to achieve more and faster, a number of fatal errors were committed. This was the Iran that the revolutionaries inherited.
I would like to dwell a little on foreign policy choices made at the onset of the regime, and its effects on regional dynamics. It will be seen that these decisions were not driven by national interest, but by ideology. Much of the choices made were underpinned on an ideological hostility towards the United States and Israel. Indeed, ever since the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran and the taking of hostages in November 1979, “militant anti-Americanism” has been the cornerstone of the clerical regime’s foreign policy agenda.
Driven thus by a xenophobic claim to faith, the regime has moved quickly from its very outset to assert its Shiite identity by acting swiftly to mobilize Shiite communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere. The so-called “Shiite Crescent” label has only recently come to the vogue but there is nothing new about it.
The first target in Iran’s strategy of Shiite hegemony was Iraq. When he came to power, Khomeini set out to replicate the Islamic revolution in Iraq. His ambition was to supplant the Baathist regime by an Islamic government modeled after the government he had himself established in Iran.
The events that subsequently ensued, starting with Iraq’s aggression against my country in September 1980, are a matter of record; suffice it to say that, despite the very great sacrifices of the Iranian people which had succeeded in turning the tide against the Iraqi invaders by 1982, Khomeini refused the substantial offers of peace with reparations – and its attendant glory – in the vain pursuit of the same goals that had been at the heart of the conflict: Liberating Shiite holly places and establishing an Islamic Republic in Iraq. Six years and hundreds of thousands more Iranian casualties later, he realized he would not achieve that goal. In the end, his allegoric “chalice of venom” speech put an end to the longest conventional war in the century, and one of the bloodiest.
As a result of Khomeini’s obstinate intransigence, Saddam Hussein had emerged from the eight-year war with Iran feeling stronger. Perhaps it was this notion of self delusion that impelled him to embark on a losing gamble in Kuwait. In any event, his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 created a chain of events which has brought us to the present day situation that we face in Iraq and the region.
It is no secret that policies pursued by Washington since the invasion of Iraq in April 2003 have created a new paradox. At least some of the objectives Iran had sought but could not obtain through eight years of war have now been attained as a consequence of American failures in Iraq. As a result, no one today disputes the fact that Iran exercises real influence in Iraq and that some of the current movers and shakers in the Iraqi government are figures who have a long history of collaboration with the Islamic leadership in Tehran.
In Lebanon, the creation of Hezbollah was the second important building block that has now given shape to this now much talked about “Shiite Crescent”. Unlike what is often assumed, Hezbollah was not a product of Lebanon’s demographic diversity and injustice to the Shiite community. Long before Hezbollah came into existence another Shiite entity under Imam Musa Sadr was active in Lebanon. AMAL, as that movement was known, was not just a politico-military outfit but was involved in social and community-based projects on behalf of Lebanese Shiites.
The revolutionary regime in Iran was looking for a surrogate in Lebanon, and AMAL did not fit the bill. Consequently, as of the early 1980s, the regime’s henchmen – operating out of Damascus – set out to create a new entity that was launched in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. To supplant AMAL as the main Shiite movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah needed plenty of funds for its social projects, maintenance and training of its militia and other expenses which are currently estimated conservatively at half a billion dollars per year. Their benefactor was no other than the clerical regime in Tehran which was able to solicit the tacit support and assistance of Syria as well.
A third element in the make-up of the strategy of hegemony has been the support of non-Shiite Arab extremist groups involved in Jihad against Israel. Again, the main Palestinian movement Fattah, headed by the likes of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, was seen as secular and ineffectual. Having over the years courted various extremist factions, the Islamic regime has today ended up embracing HAMAS and Islamic Jihad.
Finally, to service its illusion of grandeur, the clerical regime has seen fit to embark on a clandestine nuclear weapons program in disregard of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as the interest and security of the Iranian people. It has now been clearly established that, apart from keeping nearly two decade of secret activities under wraps, the Islamic authorities had also clandestinely shopped for centrifuges and weapon designs in the black-market with the help of such people as the nuclear entrepreneur, A.Q. Khan, who is now under house arrest in Pakistan. When the extent of the regime’s nuclear program was eventually disclosed in 2003, the regime’s response was to pose as an innocent victim of bullying by the United States and others, whom they accused of wanting to “deprive Iran of it inalienable rights to explore atomic science for peaceful purposes.”
While this right is recognized under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, its exercise has never been unconditional. In fact, Article IV of the NPT stipulates that this right should be exercised in conformity with the two main premises of the Treaty: namely, non-production and non-acquisition of nuclear weapons. Today, however, the international community is expressing its serious concerns because all objective indicators point to a conclusion that the clerical regime is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons in order to ensure the continuation of its bloodstained rule at home, and the sealing of its hegemony in the region.
The Iranian regime’s disingenuous pretences about need for nuclear fuel independence are also in stark contrast to Iran’s dependence on hydrocarbon sources of energy. The regime in Iran has only just begun to tackle the scandalous situation of petroleum imports and subsidies. Almost 30 years into the clerics’ rule, Iran – of all places – imports 40% of its daily consumption of refined petroleum products from abroad. At a time when the country is so dependent on such a large quantities of gasoline imports for its day-to-day mundane needs, it is simply hilarious to watch regime figures pontificating about the country’s need for independence in the nuclear fuel cycle – particularly at a time when not even a single reactor has become operational. This ostrich-like posturing of course fools only the fools.
Islamic Republic and Politics of Shiite Hegemony:
Now I would like to turn to the central theme of regional politics, and see how the clerical regime makes use of the assets that it has acquired by design or default.
It can be seen from what I have just outlined that the clerical regime has made use both of “soft power” – namely radicalization and manipulation of Shiite communities in the region – as well as “hard power” through heavy spending in armaments, including of course the very expensive nuclear weapons program, while at the same time retaining two parallel fully-fledged armies in the shape of the country’s regular armed forces and the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps” or IRGC, whose nefarious involvements in extraterritorial adventures in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan has been the subject of so much discussion in the past several months.
Moreover, through its recent calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and its outright denial of the holocaust, the clerical regime has today firmly established itself as the dean of the region’s so-called “rejection front”. Not even Syria is quite in the same league, while its ideological offspring, Hezbollah, has lent credence to this pretension. It goes without saying that this kind of provocative posturing does have its appeal to large segments of frustrated Arab and Moslem citizens across the globe.
Hezbollah has indeed played a triple role, all of which suit and cater to the interests of Tehran’s theocracy: Firstly, Hezbollah has created a strategic buffer against Israel not just for the rest of Lebanon and Syria, but significantly also for Iran. Invariably, the summer of 2006 battles in southern Lebanon were seen as a proxy war between Iran and Israel, and by extension with America. According to most analysts, in any plan for a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, Hezbollah is no doubt a factor that will need to be reckoned with.
Secondly, thanks to Iranian petrodollars, Hezbollah maintains a gigantic welfare machine for the Shiite community.
Finally, by the same token, Hezbollah has become a domineering political force in Lebanon acting to sap the country’s independence in favor of Syria, and preventing the more moderate political factions. Recent tragic events in Lebanon once again brought to light the vicious designs orchestrated by Iran against the democratically elected government of Lebanon.
The clerical regime’s leadership of “the rejection front” is more pronounced in Palestine. The mullahs support HAMAS in its face-off with Al-FATAH and in its defiance of Israel. Other radical Palestinian groups who refuse to acknowledge Israel have equally been supported. The clerical regime thrives in the current impasse and would want to perpetuate it. As long as peace in the Middle-East remains elusive, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, HAMAS and other clients of Iran and Syria could claim legitimacy among the Arab masses from which Tehran’s theocracy gains political mileage. If peace finally is achieved, the clerical regime would be nobody’s hero outside a strictly sectarian setting.
In Iraq, the situation is equally complex. Iran drew unhoped-for dividends from the American venture in Iraq. As I already pointed out, forces that some 27 years ago were unleashed by Khomeini to overthrow Saddam Hussein and replicate the Islamic revolution are now in position of influence or power. But challenges to the ascendancy of the new Shiite-based ruling circle are taunting and relentless. There are Baathist remnants, dispossessed of power, who joined the disgruntled Sunni tribes in an insurgency to restore themselves to pre-eminence; there are the Al Qaeda linked insurgents who seek to oust Americans and the Shiite parvenu in order to gain a foothold. Some regional powers are concerned about Iran’s influence and Shiite ascendancy at the expense of the Sunnis. Within the Shiite factions also an undercurrent of enmity and resentment is palpable. Different rival militia groups attached to Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) or Muqtada al-Sadr have been engaged in infightings in a quest for ascendancy. They have penetrated the security forces and are involved in daily acts of kidnapping and murder.
How do the ruling mullahs in Tehran exploit the situation in Iraq to their advantage? The first point to consider is that in the mullah’s psyche the instinct of self preservation is paramount. From this perspective, their first priority should be to get the American forces out of Iraq, and Afghanistan for that matter. The strategy to achieve this is simple! Prolong the current state of chaos and mayhem beyond the patience of the American public and the life-span of the current administration. To achieve this goal, the number of the American casualties in Iraq should go up; hence the supply of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) and funding and training of various insurgents to exhaust the American will to continue with its mission in that country.
The second priority is to ensure an enduring foothold in Iraq and perpetuate the Shiite ascendancy. The current Shiite ruling circle under prime-minister Maliki – in spite of having undisputable ties with Iran – could not fully be relied on as a long-term ally. The clerical regime is therefore seeking to build up a bogyman modeled after Hezbollah to act as its surrogate in any future civil war, thus ensuring the preservation of Iran’s influence in Iraq. Who other than Mugtada al-Sadr could fit the bill? The recent pull out of al- Sadr ministers and deputies from Maliki’s coalition is a clear indication of the rift, not just within the coalition, but also between Maliki and the Islamic Republic. It should further be noted that among the main Shiite poles of power, only al-Sadr fully subscribes to Iran’s objective of getting American and allied forces out of Iraq.
There are similar policies and patterns, albeit on a smaller scale in Afghanistan, but in the interest of time I shall forego entering into that aspect.
Does the “Shiite Crescent” and the politics being built around it make Tehran’s theocracy a great regional power? There are some analysts who argue that Iran has already emerged as a regional super power. As always there are some elements of truth in any hype, but in my view, such a premise is fundamentally faulty and flawed.
The sheer size of Iran and its geo-strategic location no doubt imparts on Iran the status of a major regional power. This is a country of 70 million inhabitants spreading over 1.6 million square kilometers which includes the entire northern shores of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The current problem is that the clerical regime has sought to impose its hegemony beyond what is inherent in its geo-strategic profile. This has in turn generated a strong current of opinion that advocates both engagement and negotiations with the regime.
Nonetheless, today there are clear signs that the politics of Shiite ascendancy and regional adventurism pursued by Tehran is starting to backfire. In the opposite horizon, a new arch – that of a Sunni alliance led by a number of key Arab countries – is starting to emerge. Today, this confrontation is becoming more evident in places like Iraq and Lebanon where, armed with Arab funds and other material support, the Sunnis have started to copy the kind of structures the Shias have been developing in the past two decades.
Negotiating with the Islamic Republic:
Prior to concluding my remarks, let me say a few words about dialogue and engagement with the clerical regime. While such an approach is, as I just said, being advocated by a main current of opinion, there is another extreme who argue for the military option in the shape of military strikes, even all-out war. I have time and again expressed my firm opposition to any military solution. Moreover, the current talk of war could alienate public opinion inside my country and even unite it behind a much despised regime. Iranians in their great majority have friendly feelings towards the United States and the West. Therefore, it is important that they should not be let down.
There is no doubt that dialogue must be privileged in all circumstances. But those who confuse the process with purpose and view negotiations as a panacea are in for disappointment. Henry Kissinger once rightly pointed out that “diplomacy never operates in a vacuum;” it succeeds when the parties arrive at a frame of mind or at a realization that the risks involved in non-negotiation outweigh benefits of preserving one’s original position. The process of give-and-take that results from negotiation is incidental to that paramount realization.
Have the ruling mullahs reached that mental threshold? The answer in my judgment is negative, although a resolute global strategy – short of resort to military action – could transform the current mindset. A few years ago we saw such a transformation in the attitude of Colonel Muamar Qaddafi in Libya.
But here, I want to emphasize the following: I should like to strongly point out that no durable settlement of dispute with the Islamic Republic can ever be achieved, should that settlement be reached at the expense of the Iranian people. In clarifying this point even further, I must stress that while Iran’s nuclear ambitions are at present, the focus of international attention and scrutiny, most Iranians are hoping that the current level of unprecedented pressures will not only help end the current threat which the clerical regime is posing to regional and international security, but to also usher in a new era where notions such as freedom, democracy and human rights are all fully adhered to by a responsible government that is both of the people and committed to the future welfare of the people.
My country, Iran, is youthful in its demographic properties, rich with a multi millennia culture and an alive and vibrant society. In our defiance of the ruling theocracy, my compatriots need and deserve all the moral help and support they can get in order to bring about fundamental change by establishing a system of governance that is in keeping with the imperatives of our time: a secular democracy in place of the current ruling theocracy.
I thank you for your patience.