A Clash Of Civilizations

Eight years ago a pirated translation of Samuel Huntington's celebrated essay "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order" appeared in Tehran. The publisher received an order for 1,000 copies, half the print run. "We wondered who wanted them," recalls Mustafa Tunkaboni, who marketed the book. The answer came when a military truck belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arrived to pick up the books. Among the officers who received a copy was Yahya Safavi, now a general and commander in chief of the Guards. Another went to one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former Reserve officer in the Guards who is now president of the Islamic republic.

Iran is grossly misunderstood in the West. Given headlines in Europe and America, you would think that the crisis in relations is about nuclear weapons. But the real cause is far broader: Iran's determination to reshape the Middle East in its own image--a deliberate "clash of civilizations" with the United States. This is bound up with a second misconception about Iran, the idea that the regime is divided between "conservatives" who oppose accommodation with America and the West, and "moderates" more inclined to return their country to the community of nations. The real power in Iran, punctuated by the ascent of Ahmadinejad as president, is now the Revolutionary Guards.

During the past few years, the Guards have in many ways become the government. Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a former IRGC officer, says this new military-political elite has staged a creeping coup d'etat. While former president Mohammad Khatami traveled the world trying to impress Western audiences with quotes from Hobbes and Hegel, the Guards built an impressive grass-roots network throughout Iran and created two political-front organizations: the Usulgara (fundamentalists) and the Itharis (self-sacrificers), each attracting a younger generation of military officers, civil servants, managers and intellectuals. In 2002, the network captured the Tehran city council and elevated Ahmadinejad as mayor. Two years later he emerged as the Guards' presidential candidate, besting former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a midranking mullah-cum-businessman who represented the fading old-guard mullahs.

Ahmadinejad's victory is the beginning of the end of the clerics' dominance. He is the first non-mullah to become president since 1981. The holder of a Ph.D., he is also the best educated of the six Islamic presidents so far. His humble background and populist discourse have won him a genuine base, especially among the poor who feel let down by corrupt religious leaders.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, if anything, he can be expected to be a far more formidable enemy of the West--and of America in particular. A month ago General Safavi declared before an audience of senior naval officers that Tehran's mission was to create "a multipolar world in which Iran plays a leadership role" for Islam. Recently Ahmadinejad announced one of the most ambitious government mission statements in decades, declaring that the ultimate goal of Iran's foreign policy is nothing less than "a government for the whole world" under the leadership of the Mahdi, the Absent Imam of the Shiites--code for the export of radical Islam. As for the only power capable of challenging this vision, the United States is in its "last throes," an ofuli (sunset) power destined to be superceded by the toluee (sunrise) of the Islamic republic. Geopolitical dominance in the Middle East, the tract unequivocally stated, is "the incontestable right of the Iranian nation."

Westerners might be tempted to dismiss this as rhetorical saber rattling. It is not. Iran has always played a leading role in Islamic history. It is one of only two Muslim nations never colonized by the Western empires. It occupies a central position in the "Islamic arc" stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. It has the largest economy and the strongest military in the Muslim world; it sits atop vast pools of rapidly appreciating oil wealth. The only other Muslim country capable of rivaling it--Turkey--has decided to abandon the Muslim world and join the European Union.

The stage is thus set for a confrontation with the United States. Iran is confident it can win, and history hasn't given it much reason to fear otherwise. Student radicals like Ahmadinejad watched in 1980 as the United States did nothing but issue feeble diplomatic protests over the seizure of its embassy. They saw Ronald Reagan fulfill Ayatollah Khomeini's notorious dictum--"America cannot do a damned thing!"--when Lebanese suicide bombers recruited by Tehran killed 241 Marines near Beirut in 1982. Bill Clinton talked sanctions but then apologized for unspecified "past wrongs."

Even George W. Bush's war on terror, which initially worried the mullahs, has turned to their strategic advantage. Enemies on either side--the Baathists in Baghdad and the Taliban in Kabul--are now gone. The expulsion of Syria from Lebanon under U.S. pressure has left Iran as the major foreign influence in the country. Bush's advocacy of democracy has undermined Washington's traditional allies--and Iran's rivals--like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "The Americans have their so-called Greater Middle East plan," Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei said in a speech recently. "We, too, have our plan for the region."

Now comes the nuclear issue. The EU recently broke off negotiations after Tehran resumed its uranium-conversion program, even as the International Atomic Energy Agency last week released a report concluding that traces of uranium found in Iran two years ago came from contaminated equipment supplied by Pakistan--a finding that will figure large when the U.N. General Assembly takes up the issue in September. Meanwhile, America has yet to develop a coherent policy on Iran, aside from standing aside or criticizing others attempting to cope with the fast-emerging threat.

The prospects for resolving the nuclear standoff are not good. The new Iranian elite feel free to speak openly because they are convinced America will soon depart the region. Iran's strategy will most likely be to wait Bush out, stalling on the negotiations while bleeding America to the maximum in Iraq and Afghanistan, working to prevent a settlement in Palestine and sabotaging U.S. hopes for a democratic Middle East. Iranian-sponsored surrogates could try to seize power not only in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Azerbaijan and some Persian Gulf states. As for Washington, neocons may dream of regime change from within--but the chances of that happening, particularly with the Guards' hold on the military and security forces, are almost nil.

The situation is not hopeless. Deft diplomacy could produce a measure of detente. That would not grow out of some "grand bargain" of the sort Clinton hoped for, whereby Iran would forswear its nuclear program or sponsorship of terrorism in exchange for better relations and a security guarantee from the United States. Instead, it would be more a mini-bargain over issues on which Washington and Tehran can hurt each other. Such a course was not workable before, chiefly because Iran's religious leadership was divided among factions that sabotaged each other's policies. But with the Guards in command, a dialogue may be possible.

The problem is that Tehran feels no pressure. Thanks to rising oil prices, Iran is earning almost $200 million a day and can now throw lots of money at social and economic problems. More important, the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign will soon heat up, diverting attention from problems abroad that American voters (and policymakers) would prefer to ignore. In the meantime, Iran will either have, or would be close to having, its first atom bombs. The next American president may find himself in the unenviable position of either offering Iran an even grander "bargain" or facing a much bigger war against a much larger adversary than either Afghanistan or Iraq. Professor Huntington, meanwhile, might want to ponder the law of unintended consequences.