The great wall between Iran and the U.S.
Posted Dec 12, 2008

The great wall between Iran and the U.S.

By Mahan Abedin

As the Iranian revolution enters its fourth decade, the country’s real leaders, the Shi’ite clerics who control the commanding heights of government, can be forgiven for reminding the world of their achievements.

In their 30-year quest to consolidate, widen and deepen the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the high priests of the Islamic Republic have secured an impressive list of achievements; from steering the country towards political and economic independence, and securing a solid core of a highly dedicated


grassroots support base in the process, to achieving geopolitical dominance in the Middle East.

But arguably their biggest achievement has been to emerge as the most serious and effective anti-American force in the world. Simply put, in the global arena, the United States does not recognize a bigger ideological and security threat than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But the high priests of the Islamic Revolution have paid a heavy price for their consistent and unabashed opposition to American power in the Middle East and beyond. And every major political, strategic and economic indicator points to the direction of ever-escalating costs, as the Islamic Republic enters into the fourth decade of its confrontation with the “Great Satan”.

As a basic rule, the more powerful and influential the Islamic Republic becomes, the stakes rise further still, thus fanning the global confrontation with the United States. The geopolitical rise of Iran in the past decade has been unprecedented in the modern history of this embattled nation.

Not since the late 18th century has Iran been able to project such power in the region and beyond. To the clerics who control the destiny of the Islamic Republic, this phenomenal rise is a direct consequence of the 1979 Revolution, but a more dispassionate analysis could not fail to tie this geopolitical success to the mistakes and follies of Iran’s arch nemesis.

With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, there is now more talk than ever about a thaw in relations and a gradual process of engagement leading to normalization of ties. Anyone with a good grasp of the nature of the Islamic Revolution - and more importantly a good understanding into the nature of the men at the helm of the Islamic Republic - coupled with a firm knowledge of the tortured history of Iranian-American ties in the modern period, would dismiss such talks out of hand.

Nevertheless, there are signs on the horizon pointing to a breach in the “wall of mistrust” - to borrow a term from the lexicon of Iran’s rulers - separating the two sides. To Iran’s rulers, this prospect holds both peril and promise; on the one hand they risk undermining the very fabric of the revolution, but on the other hand they gain invaluable space to pursue their inexorable geopolitical rise.

The illusion of Obama
Ebrahim Asgharzadeh is one of the more enigmatic products of the Iranian Revolution. A key leader of the students who attacked and occupied the American Embassy (or the “Den of Espionage” as he would call it) on November 4, 1979, (a saga that lasted 444 days and humiliated the United States), he is one of the most interesting ideologues of the Islamic Revolution.

More rooted in the leftwing and egalitarian ethos of the revolution - but nonetheless Islamic to the core - Asgharzadeh represents the faction in the revolution which has an uneasy and reluctant relationship with the dominant theocrats. Moreover, Asgharzadeh is probably the most determined and effective anti-American ideologue in the contemporary world. Nearly three decades after the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, Asgharzadeh is a more determined opponent of American hegemony than ever.

In an interview with the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Asgharzadeh claims that the Iranian Revolution poses a permanent and fundamental contradiction to American interests. [1] Asgharzadeh knows what he is talking about. He played a lead role in reconstructing shredded confidential US Embassy documents that exposed the full range of US manipulation in Iran for over 25 years.

To understand the anti-Americanism of men like Asgharzadeh, the serious student must delve deeply into the murky and exploitative relationship between the United States and post-1953 Iran. The Fars News Agency’s Vizhenameyeh Sheytan-e-Bozorg (The Great Satan Special) is a good place to start insofar as it documents the thoughts, actions, worries and aspirations of the most anti-American faction in the Islamic Republic.[2]

Iranian anti-Americanism is not limited to the supporters of the Islamic Revolution. It spans the entire political spectrum, linking diehard leftwingers with nationalists and even some remnants of the overthrown monarchy. The United States may have reduced the Pahlavi monarchy to a mere puppet, but that hasn’t stopped key supporters of the former regime from resenting American power. Iranian anti-Americanism is particularly fierce, deep and complex. An exposition of its many facets and origins is beyond this essay, but suffice to say that the US Central Intelligence Agency’s role in overthrowing the nationalist and democratically elected government of Dr Mohammad Mossdegh - which set the stage for 25 years of American domination in Iran - drives much of the resentment and animosity.

The Islamic Revolution added a religious ingredient to the mix, but hardcore ideologues like Asgharzadeh have always been careful to divorce their anti-Americanism from excessive rhetoric and emotional readings of history. Theirs is a resentment of American hegemony based on the reality of American power in Iran, the wider region and beyond.

This cold and calculated mentality helps explain the enduring influence of this faction within the impossibly complex architecture of power of the regime. Broadly speaking, the anti-American faction is part of the Islamic left, which encompasses diverse forces, ranging from the Association of Militant Clerics (whose founding member is the powerful Mehdi Karrubi), former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (widely recognized as the most leftwing leader in the regime) and his supporters and former president Mohammad Khatami and his diverse range of so-called “reformist” supporters.

But Asgharzadeh and the original group which seized the US Embassy and brazenly highlighted the impotence of American power to the world have been careful to steer clear of the fluid (and sometimes treacherous) factional politics of the Islamic Republic. In the past 30 years they have eschewed positions of real power (which would have exposed them to ruthless factional squabbles) for semi-secret consulting and research jobs. Nonetheless, they remain crucially influential and have access to the top people of every key institution in the country; from the leadership, the presidency, the IRGC, the Ministry of Intelligence and down to the Tehran municipalities (where they advise on anti-American street murals).

From an ideological and strategic point of view, the election of Obama must be seen in the context of the Iranian Revolution’s enduring challenge to American hegemony. Moreover, the US does not show any signs of coming to terms with the losses it suffered as a result of the revolution and its aftermath. More to the point, America’s 30-year campaign against the Iranian Revolution - and specifically against legitimate Iranian geopolitical and economic aspirations in the region and beyond - has further heightened “the wall of mistrust” between the protagonists. Any “thaw” is likely to prove tactical, but the real question is whether the Iranian side is willing to accommodate a succession of tactical “thaws”.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad: A bitter disappointment
In the past three-and-a-half years, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has surprised friend and foe alike. He has proven to be far more shrewd and intelligent than initially thought and has stamped his personality onto the institution of the presidency.

The last point is particularly unsettling to the high priests of the Islamic Revolution since they prefer to perpetuate the association between leadership and membership in the clerical class for as long as possible. Ahmadinejad - as a non-cleric - has always posed a latent threat. This has come to the fore with his highly idiosyncratic and unconventional leadership style which tends to eschew tradition and protocol for instant demagogic gains.

During his term in office, Ahmadinejad has managed to alienate every key faction, including some of his own support base. His saving grace has been the strong support of the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who admires Ahmadinejad’s tenacity and strength of character. This may sound counter-intuitive - Khamenei is after all at the helm of the clerics who control Iran’s destiny - but the Supreme Leader has an idiosyncratic, albeit uncharismatic, leadership style of his own.

In a nutshell, Khamenei is much more in tune with the Hezbollahi grassroots of the regime than with the secretive group of clerics who pull all the important strings. Grasping the relationship between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei requires a deep understanding into the nature and dynamics of factional politics in the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad has proven to be most surprising in the sphere of Iranian-American relations. Single-handedly he has broken the biggest taboo in revolutionary Iran. Previously any mention of establishing or normalizing ties with the “Great Satan” brought a sharp rebuke from various ideological forces and often led to a humiliating retreat (and occasionally downfall) of the individual proposing normalization.

But Ahmadinejad has talked openly of direct talks with the president of the United States. Moreover, he has made four high-profile visits to the US (to address the United Nations General Assembly in September) where he has interacted extensively with American society. Furthermore, high-ranking Iranian diplomats have come face-to-face with their American counterparts in Baghdad to discuss the future of Iraq. All of these developments are unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. And they make the core ideological forces of the revolution extremely nervous.

There is even talk of setting up an American consulate in Tehran or enabling a small Iranian-American lobby organization (the so-called American Iranian Council) to set up shop in the city. These developments have brought a sharp rebuke from the anti-American faction, with Forouz Rajaifar (a prominent female student who was involved in the seizure of the embassy) warning that reopening the US Embassy in Tehran prepares the ground for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. [3]

Moreover, Massoumeh Ebtekar (the most high-profile female student who participated in the seizure of the embassy and who served as vice president during the Khatami years) categorically rules out any friendly relations at this juncture. [4] The underlying issue isn’t blind hatred of the United States, but the potential consequences of taking any steps (however minor) that point towards eventual normalization. Ahmadinejad - as intelligent and shrewd as he is - does not possess the depth of insight and knowledge and far-sightedness to manage this process. This is the primary reason why he has lost the support of the anti-American faction, which initially welcomed him, albeit reluctantly.

A world without America
As the Iranian Revolution enters its fourth decade, it is abundantly clear that the issue of the United States is more important than ever, even more so than the initial tumultuous days of the revolution. This makes it more important than ever for the leaders of the Islamic Republic to clarify their position vis-a-vis the United States and specifically American hegemony.

Justifying perpetuating the “wall of mistrust” based on the fear that the United States seeks to overthrow the Islamic Republic can no longer constitute a rational basis for the formulation and implementation of policy. No one doubts that the United States and its allies seek to overthrow the achievements of the Iranian Revolution, but then again no one intimately involved with Iranian affairs can seriously think that the post-revolutionary system can be undermined (let alone overthrown) by external machinations.

The Islamic Republic is a regime of powerful institutions and as a major ideological force in the world it commands the loyalties of a very large and highly dedicated grassroots base. The notion of “regime change” has always been a myth, and one that has been consistently exploited by the security apparatus of the regime. But it is time to move on.

As they contemplate their relations with the “Great Satan”, Iran’s rulers must prioritize long-term ideological and geopolitical goals over short- to medium-term political gains. While full normalization is out of the question (and would in any case take decades to bear fruit) any thaw in any aspect of this complex file will have profound consequences for domestic and international policy. Iran’s rulers take pride in projecting their country as the only authentic and serious counter to American power in the world.

There is an element of hyperbole and self-righteousness in these statements, but nevertheless they attest to a global strategic reality. One only has to listen to how American officialdom (from the president down) has spoken about Iran in the past 30 years to understand just how seriously the Americans take the Iranian challenge.

More broadly, Iran’s rulers need to adapt their anti-Americanism to the realities of the 21st century. The anti-American faction of the regime has so far taken great steps to dissociate Iranian anti-Americanism from other forms of anti-Americanism; ranging from Latin American “anti-Gringo” counter-cultures to the anti-Americanism of the European environmentalist movement. If envisioning a world without America entails striving for a multipolar international system that is more orientated to tacking global problems, then the Islamic Republic must critically appraise aspects of its own history, lexicon and ideology.

In the final analysis, if the Islamic Republic is serious about becoming one of the great powers of the 21st century, then it must adopt a post-modern attitude and actively engage with all major international forces, barring of course the “Great Satan”.

1. For the interview, click here (in Farsi).
2. Click here.
3. Click here.
4. Click here.

Mahan Abedin is a consultant to independent media in Iran. He is also director of research at the Center for the Study of Terrorism, a London-based strategic and security think-tank. He edits Islamism Digest, the center’s monthly journal.

(Source  -  Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)  Reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.