The madness that is Khomeinism has always had its method, which includes abject surrender when pressed too hard and brazen aggression when pressure is eased. There are signs that Iran's "Supreme Guide," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may be contemplating what he has called "heroic flexibility". (Image source: kremlin.ru)
According to an old adage, every crisis also contains an opportunity. And the current crisis between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States may be no exception. Intense sabre-rattling on both sides, combined with what one might call "diplomacy of gesticulations," have reignited interest in what was a half-dormant conflict. That renewed interest could be used for persuading both sides, and others interested in the "Iran problem", to re-visit the root causes of the conflict. And, having done so, try to find realistic ways of defusing the situation.
But before that could be done, a number of steps must be taken.
To start with, we must realize that the crisis in question isn't caused by any of the traditional causes of conflict between nation-states. Iran and the US do not have a border problem, they are not fighting over access to natural resources and do not seek to snatch market share from one another. Nor are they in conflict over the oppression of one side's kith-and-kin by the other. The two are not fighting over water resources, access to open seas or calculations about national security.
In other words, the conflict isn't a classical international one. The reason is that Iran no longer behaves as a nation-state but as a vehicle for an ideology. One might suggest that ideological aspect is also present on the American side, as shown by all the talk about democracy and human rights. However, as decades of Cold War with the Soviet Union -- as ideological adversary -- showed, the US was mostly successful in fitting the ideological aspect of the conflict into a frame of nation-state behavior.
In the case of the current conflict with the Islamic Republic, the US has on several occasions indicated that it could do the same, provided the ruling mullahs pursued their ideological fight against "American values" as a nation-state and through generally accepted standards of international behavior. The US never shared, let alone approved of, the Soviet Union's Communist ideology, but was capable of factoring it in as one element among many in a complex relationship. From Nikita Khrushchev onwards, Soviet leaders were ready to reciprocate that approach. They still said they wanted to "bury capitalism" and made ample use of black-arts and other shenanigans to advance their cause. However, all that was done within the parameters of "cold monster" behavior. In other words, the USSR was pursuing its ideological goals, which over time became less and less defined, by non-ideological methods. Where raison d'état demanded, ideology was ditched with few qualms.
In 1970, when Iran decided to establish diplomatic relations with "Red China" it did not demand that China cease to be Communist or even stop hosting dozens of anti-Shah Iranians who had traveled to Mao-istan to train as guerrillas. What Tehran demanded was for Beijing to stop arming Omani insurgents operating from South Yemen, then under Communist control, and to conclude a trade agreement with Iran. Two years later, the success of Iran's Chinese experiment encouraged the Nixon administration in Washington also to launch a process of normalization with Beijing, eventually leading to full diplomatic relations.
However, historic precedents may not always be applicable to every conflict situation.
And, on balance at this moment, I find it hard to imagine the Islamic Republic, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's weird leadership, ever sacrificing its ideological pretensions in order to advance the interest of Iran as a state.
Yet, although it is hard to imagine, provided the current level of pressure is maintained both by internal opposition and from the outside by its many enemies and adversaries, Iran may be forced to ponder other options besides destructive defiance.
The Second Imam has made a spectacular comeback within the Khomeinist establishment. Last month, a biography of him, written by an Arab author and translated by Khamenei, with a preface, was re-published and used as an excuse for extensive debates in the official media and intellectual circles. Last Tuesday, the Islamic Security Minister, Ayatollah Mahmud Alawi praised Imam Hassan's strategy as "divinely inspired". "The Imam of Ummah need not always rise," the minister said. "There are times when the Imam's kneeling is a source of inspiration for their followers."
There are other signs that Khamenei may be contemplating what he has called "heroic flexibility". The official propaganda machine is already geared up to claim victory for the Islamic Republic. The official news agency reported on May 21 that "the world is already hearing the sound of breaking of America's bones."
Another sign is that the date fixed by the "Supreme Guide" for Israel to disappear from the face of the earth has been extended to 2050. More importantly, we are now told that Israel's "disappearance" will come at the same time as "the end of America".
"Islamic Iran shall witness the fall of the Satanic and earth devouring America and the usurper Israel in 2050," General Hamid Abazari, one of Islamic Revolutionary Guard's strategists, assured an audience last week.
Should one regard all that as good news?
Not necessarily. The madness that is Khomeinism has always had its method, which includes abject surrender when pressed too hard and brazen aggression when pressure is eased. The challenge facing Iran is to get rid of that madness altogether as every episode of cheat-and-retreat makes the eventual cure that much more difficult. Contrary to claims by the pro-mullah lobby in Washington, the choice isn't between surrender to Khomeinist madness and full-scale invasion of Iran. Only when the threshold of tolerable pain is reached the "Supreme Guide" may well reconsider his options. We are not there yet.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.