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Defense & Foreign Affairs
Strategic Policy

Founded in 1972. Formerly Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily. Volume XXIII, No. 66 Monday, June 27, 2005

Election of Ahmadi-Nejad to Iranian Presidency Accelerates Confrontation With West; Suppresses Internal Opposition

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, and Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS. The election to the Iranian Presidency — in a narrowly-defined poll for a slate of radical Islamist candidates — of extremist Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Mayor of Tehran, in the second round of the Iranian Presidential elections on June 24, 2005, did not in any way change the strategic direction of Iran; the underlying objectives and nature of the clerical leadership remain as they were: hardline Islamist and committed to strategic confrontation with the West.

However, the election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad to the Presidency strips away the mask of normalcy which would have been maintained a little longer had former Pres. Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani been returned to the post. As a result, the election accelerates the pace and nature of confrontation between Iran and the West.

The election of Ahmadi-Nejad consolidates, in a undisguised manner, the power of “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamene’i, and — given Ahmadi-Nejad’s background as a hard-line Islamist and Pasdaran security official, a participant in the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, known for his torture and assassination of opponents — streamlines and accelerates the movement of the leadership in (a) the quest for a strategic victory for the Islamist-jihadist trend over the US through the war-by-proxy in Iraq, (b) the construction and deployment of an indigenous military nuclear capability as the guarantor of the mullahss’ survival in power, and (c) the destruction of all formal semblances of political strength of so-called "reformist" politicians.

It was significant that, out of the votes which were actually cast in the two-round Presidential election, the pro-reformists voted for Rafsanjani, who has been one of the leaders of the movement to strengthen Islamist government and to maintain strategic hostility toward the US and Israel. Rafsanjani’s call for a new modus vivendi between the US and Iran was not undertaken out of any new appreciation for stable, or normal, international relations between Iran and the US, but rather to remove the US pressure for change within Iran.

The fact that the highly-controlled election process1 instated Ahmadi-Nejad as President showed that Khamene’i felt sufficiently secure and strong that he did not even feel the need to buy the time which Rafsanjani’s election would have bought the clerical leadership. Now, the Khamene’i/Ahmadi-Nejad face of Iran is unvarnished, and not what the European Union (EU) leaders or the temporizing elements within the US political arena wished to see.

Apart from polarizing Iranian-Western relations, the election of Ahmadi-Nejad to the Presidency also helped further polarize political feelings within Iran. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs sources inside Iran — sources who have unfailingly reflected the underlying mood of the population in the past — reported on June 25, 2005, that there was a feeling inside the country that would welcome even a US military strike against Khamene’i as a trigger to allow a popular uprising. This is a new sentiment inside Iran. Until now, the feeling has been that Iranians could and would handle the change of power in the country. Now, with Ahmadi-Nejad, the feeling was that the suppression of political opposition inside the country would rise from the draconian to absolutist if the clerical leadership could possible achieve it.

The election ended the political influence of Rafsanjani, and Khamene’i used the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) to achieve this, and to put Ahmadi-Nejad into the Presidency. In that regard, the Pasdaran was a third element, and it was dominated by Khamene’i to defeat Rafsanjani. Now, however, the power blocs at the top, effectively, are just the Khamene’i camp and the Pasdaran. And while the Pasdaran leadership is absolutely answerable to Khamene’i, its rank and file are increasingly disenchanted with the path of Iranian society, and have — like many even in the powerful Ministry of Intelligence & Security (VEVAK) — begun exploring how they could assist in the overthrow of the clerics.

In essence, then, with Rafsanjani’s camp gone, the power struggle could move to Khamene’i versus the Pasdaran, even though it is likely to be some time before this comes into the open.

Throughout this, the one internal group which has retained its honor in the eyes of the Iranian public has been the Armed Forces, even though the Armed Forces leadership is politically appointed and answerable to Khamene’i. Now, while the Ahmadi-Nejad Administration begins seeking out and destroying internal political leaders, it cannot yet risk dismembering or neutering the Armed Forces — particularly if there is the chance of a military confrontation with the US — and this leaves the Armed Forces and Pasdaran units potentially able to confront the clerical rulers.

Khamene’i and Ahmadi-Nejad are clearly aware that what has been lacking in Iran to catalyze the population has been a charismatic leader, and any such leader who attempted to emerge in the country would be quickly destroyed. That means that the leadership or inspiration of any domestic uprising by the population and Armed Forces/Pasdaran would need to be an external Iranian, and one who had not been tarnished by corruption or plausible allegations that such a leader was merely a catspaw of, for example, the United States. But what has been striking about the information emerging from sources inside Iran during May and June 2005 has been the fact that Iranian intellectuals and bazaaris (businessmen) have said that they would welcome someone whom the US respects and would bring about good, meaningful relations with the US, and that they would accept a US military strike to “break open” the clerical fortress.

“Khamene’i has taken a big gamble,” Shahin Soltani, an Iran affairs analyst based in The Hague, was quoted as saying on June 25, 2005. “He has circled the wagons to be in a better position to face the growing crisis over Iran. But he has alienated not only Hashemi Rafsanjani, but many senior clerics who don’t want to see all the power concentrated in the hands of the ultra-conservatives. This massive alienation leaves him in a vulnerable position, despite the success of his strategy to put his man in the presidential office.”

This process may be accelerated by the fact that the Khamene’i/Ahmadi-Nejad ruling bloc would move quickly to take Iran from the status of de facto military nuclear power to de jure military power; that it would rapidly accelerate aid to and direction of operations in the Levant by HizbAllah; that it could well accelerate operations within the Balkans (particularly Kosovo, Bosnia, and southern Serbia) to prepare for operations against the West in the event of war; and that it would certainly accelerate and strengthen its involvement in the Syrian political process, to shore up the Bashar al-Assad leadership by empowering Bashar’s staunchly pro-Iran brother Maher al-Assad, and brother-in-law Assaf Shawqat, as the real powers behind the throne.

Iranian officials are aware of the fact that the tenor of discussions has risen during recent months in Washington, Europe, and Israel, about the possibility of an “Osirak-type” military operation to destroy as much as possible of Iran’s military nuclear asset base. Iran learned from the successful Osirak raid by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) against Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 to diversify its nuclear research facilities and nuclear weapons-launch sites. Many of these would be relatively immune to conventional air strikes against them, and Iranian intelligence officials have almost certainly been working for the past decade and more to implant disinformation within the West, and particularly the US, about the locations of Iranian nuclear research/production facilities.

The Iranian strategic weapons capability — its R&D facilities, its production facilities, and its launch/operational assets — are hydra-headed, and could not easily be destroyed by one round of air and cruise missile strikes, even if there was precise and incontrovertible intelligence about the targets. Given the extent to which the highly-rated Iranian intelligence community has attempted to penetrate the West since 1979, it is almost certain that a large percentage of the present targeting information on Iranian strategic weapons sites is disinformation.

This means that any attempt to decapitate Iran’s strategic weapons capability would need to focus more on the command-and-control function; in other words, it would need to target the Khamene’i/Ahmadi-Nejad/Pasdaran leaderships. The question is moot as to whether the US leadership would attempt such a “decapitation” of Iranian strategic capability without provocation or casus belli. The Iranian leadership until now has been unwilling to provide a “smoking gun” which would trigger a direct US response. Instead, by taking the line of political ambiguity, favored by Rafsanjani, the clerics have ensured that world opinion would work against any US attempt to strike directly at Iran.

The Ahmadi-Nejad election starts the process of removing that “ambiguity”, and the self-confidence of the Khamene’i camp is such that it may now be willing to directly trigger a confrontation with the US.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 20, 2004: Iran’s Clerics Attempt to Regain Control of Strategic Confrontation With US by Forcing the US Into a Direct War.

This is not a new policy within the Khamene’i leadership, but has been maturing for some time, as the Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report of August 20, 2004, noted:

The Iranian clerical leadership on August 18, 2004, escalated attempts to force a confrontation with the United States. This demonstrated that the clerics were ready, after 25 years of covert and indirect warfare against the US, to risk a direct conflict between US and Iranian forces in Iraq and inside Iranian territory; indeed, it is clear that the clerics now seek such a war, and are determined to force it to occur.

Tehran’s objective is to force the US to respond in such a fashion that the event would galvanize Iranian popular support around the Administration, reducing significantly the chance that the clerical leadership would be overthrown by a US-encouraged Iranian public movement.

The debate now, in Tehran/Qom and Washington, Jerusalem, London, and elsewhere, is what such a confrontation would in turn trigger. Iranian officials are very fatalistic about the possibility of an Osirak-type strike on Bushehr and other nuclear sites. "I have been living in the power station for nine years, and, certainly, I think of an attack,” Ibrahim Zadeh, chief construction engineer of the Bushehr power plant, recently told the Milan Corriere della Sera. And if the bombs fall? "We have waited 30 years," Zadeh answered, "and it would take much fewer to rebuild everything."

However, Tehran is determined not to risk such an attempt to decapitate the Iranian nuclear/strategic weapons capability and command and control, even when it is likely that such a strike would not fully destroy either the weapons capability or the command and control mechanism/leadership. Instead, Tehran is considering the capitalization on the US-Israeli threat as the justification for a unilateral escalation of the war-by-proxy with the US in order to force a strategic decision through a myriad of terrorism and insurgency. Moreover, while it is likely that the US would insist that Israel remain militarily uninvolved in such a strike, for fear of triggering a broader Muslim-Israel conflict. It seems clear from a reading of available indicators that Iran intends to make the destruction of Israel, rather than a confrontation with the US in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, the primary objective of the regional eruption.

Thus, unless there is a US/Israeli strike, Iran would refrain from directly striking at Israeli targets and US regional targets, including basing facilities in Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Instead, Iran would escalate activities of the myriad of Islamist-jihadist groups inside Iraq (both Shi’a and Sunni), and may even move militarily to enter parts of Iraq (either to protect Shi’ites in distress and/or strike at the support infrastructure for the Khuzestan insurgents). It would also escalate activities with regard to Iraq from Syria, and move to consolidate/secure its grip on power in Syria. This may also include the initiation at this stage, or later, of HizbAllah assets in Lebanon against Israeli targets, including the unleashing of major missile attacks from the Beqa’a against Israel and launching a spate of major terrorist attacks at the heart of Israel by Iran-sponsored Palestinian groups in the PA.

Since Israel would retaliate against such attacks, Tehran would be able to present the regional conflagration as Islam’s jihad against US-Israeli presence in the region and for the establishment of true Islamic regime throughout the Middle East. Given the existing radicalization and incitement throughout the Middle East, there would be a groundswell of support for such a jihad to the point that most Arab governments would have no choice but join the jihad or risk violent overthrowing.

Under such conditions, Iran would have an “excuse” to move additional troops into areas adjacent to the Iraq border (although it already maintains large forces there, still ranging from between 100,000 to 200,000), in preparation for US land operations against Iranian oil-producing areas in Iranian Khuzestan. Iranian sources have indicated that discontent is already rising in this predominantly Sunni/Arab area of Iran. There are some seven-million Iranian Sunnis, and not one Sunni mosque in the country. The Shi’a leadership in Tehran/Qom is increasingly concerned — particularly because of the polarization in Iraq between the sects — with suppressing the Iranian Sunni population, especially given their occupancy of key oil-producing areas.

Some analysts have said that they would even consider a US temporary occupation of the Khuzestan oil-producing areas if it was a tool to deprive the cash-rich clerics of their ability to suppress the Iranian population. But quite apart from Iranian sentiment on this, it remains unclear as to whether the US would consider a land occupation of any part of Iran at this time, given the pressures on US forces in Iraq and elsewhere.

At the same time, it is known that leaders in Iran and North Korea have considered the prospect of a major escalation of US military pressure against one or both countries, and that they have coordinated their response to a US attack on either one of them. A US attack on Iran would be expected to result in an immediate degradation of the security situation with regard to North Korea, possibly including a North Korean nuclear "demonstration” and other actions. In a report on September 22, 2003, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily noted:

... [T]he Iranian clerical leadership has only two strategic assets: nuclear weapons and control of terrorism. [Emphasis in original.] Equally, to support these capabilities, Iran’s clerics depend absolutely on the DPRK for strategic missile capabilities and to help distract the US from focusing on Iran; and on a web of alliances with a range of radical Islamist terrorist organizations and governments which fall outside the mainstream modern trading nations.

Moreover, it is clear that the Israeli Government would, if faced with an overwhelming missile attack from Iran, retaliate immediately and directly against Iran, regardless of the wishes of the US. Israeli sources have made this clear. However, it would be expected that the Israeli ballistic missile defense (BMD) network, supported by pre-placed additional units of US Navy Aegis sensors and additional low-level Patriot PAC III anti-missile missiles, would contain most Iranian strategic weapons attacks. However, it should be assumed that the Iranian strategic missile attacks would be accompanied by saturation attacks by shorter-range ballistic missiles, many of them primitive and unguided systems, from HizbAllah in Lebanon, and from formal Scud-type launch facilities in Syria.

Ultimately, the key to Tehran’s ability to wage a strategically significant wider war without the overt intervention of the Iranian Armed Forces is to ensure that at least Syria and HizbAllah became overtly involved. Therefore, the sole key to forestalling Iranian strategy short of a US attack on Iran is to deprive Tehran of access to Damascus. Toward this end, the US would need to ensure that it had itself taken care of the transition of power in Syria, to ensure that Bashar al-Assad and the pro-Iranian leadership were overthrown, but not that power moved out of the hands of the ‘Allawites and into the hands of the even more radical Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. This almost certainly necessitates support of the pro-Western faction of the Assad family, led by Rifaat al-Assad, currently in exile in Europe.

Moreover, to be effective in moving against the Iranian clerical Administration, the US would need to be prepared to identify and support a totally clean political alternative to the clerics in Iran. Given the suppression of internal opposition now, and increasingly in the future, such a leader would have to be out of Iran and in exile, and yet have strong links into the Iranian military and non-governmental lites. This is a harder task, and virtually only one such candidate exists: the leader of the nationalist Azadegan movement, Dr Assad Homayoun, currently in exile in Washington, DC.

Suggestions, being promoted to the US Congress by (or, in some cases, on behalf of) the Iranian extreme-left opposition group, Mujahedin-e-Khalq, that it should be removed from the US list of terrorist organizations, should be seen in the appropriate historical context. Mujahedin-e-Khalq was initially funded by Soviet intelligence organizations as one of the movements to start an Iranian revolution against the Shah, to end US influence in Iran. In this, it was successful, and only turned to opposition to the new Government of Iran when the clerics literally took over the revolution started by the Soviets through Mujahedin-e-Khalq and the Fedayeen-e-Khalq. On its break with the clerics, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq fled into exile, basing its forces in Iraq, where they were funded by former Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein.

US support for the Mujahedin-e-Khalq would be counter-productive; the group is fundamentally as anti-US as it is anti-clerical; moreover, it was a key instrument in disrupting the Government of the late Shah of Iran, who — as can now be seen in hindsight — was modernizing, stabilizing, and democraticizing Iran more efficiently and fairly than any other force had been able to do.

Footnotes:

1. That the election process was not “free and fair”, or representative of the electorate, is a given. Out of 1,014 candidates, eight were selected by the Council of Guardians (directly controlled by Khamene’i); one subsequently withdrew, leaving seven candidates. In the voting process, Khamene’i used the Council of Guardians and other mechanisms to rally the election process in favor of Ahmadi-Nejad. Neither of the front runners in the run off — even accepting Iranian Government statements, or reports by foreign journalists supplied with information by the Interior Ministry — achieved more than around six-million votes, out of a voting eligible population number of some 49-million. The new President, therefore, was elected by 12 percent of the eligible voters, at best, and only around six percent of the total population. And even if those officially-sanctioned figures are correct, the known coercion of voters skewed the process still further. That the process was manipulated was also addressed by Rafsanjani. In a statement released on June 25, 2005, Rafsanjani accused State institutions of “using all available means in an organized way and illegally interfering in the elections”, noting: “If God’s wrath takes revenge, it will not be directed at the Iranian people and the Islamic revolution, but against the real criminals, who will be punished.”

See also:

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, September 22, 2003: Iran at Watershed: Clerics’ Survival Depends on Taking the Offensive.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, June 10, 2005: US Citizens Running for President in June 17, 2005, Iranian Elections, But Strategic Outlook Remains Unchanged by Election.

Defense & Foreign Affairs archival material also includes:

October 31, 2002: Iran’s Ballistic Missile and WMD Programs: The Links to the DPRK.

November 19, 2002: DPRK Acknowledges Possession of Nuclear Weapons, Confirming Consistent GIS/DFA Reporting. Possibility of Link to Saddam’s “Surprise Weapon”.

December 12, 2002: Special Reports: Iran’s Military Nuclear Capability, Highlighted by Exclusive 1992 Report, Now Critical Part of Persian Gulf Strategic Planning.

January 9, 2003: Iraq, Iran, North Korea and WMD: Threat Activated.

February 11, 2003: Iran, as Predicted by GIS, Announces its Nuclear “Poison Pill”: Acknowledges Domestic Nuclear Self-Sufficiency.

April 28, 2003: DPRK Declaration of Nuclear Weapons Capability and Will to Use Highlight Deliberate Cover-Up by US Clinton Administration and Also Directly Impacts Current Iran Situation.