How Do We Deal with Tehran?

Two new books on Iran and its nuclear ambitions raise the question of how the West should respond

Amir Taheri

As the Obama administration prepares to engage Iran diplomatically, a number of questions dominate the debate on how to deal with Tehran’s revolutionary regime.

Should the Western democracies accept Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who denies the Holocaust happened and calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, as a legitimate negotiating partner?

Is Ahmadinejad the real decision-maker in Tehran? Is the Islamic Republic truly determined to develop nuclear weapons? What motivates the Khomeinist leaders and militants? Is there any way in which the outside world could avoid confrontation with Iran?

These and many other questions are raised in two new books on Iran as it marks the 30th anniversary of the Khomeini revolution.

Con Coughlin’s new book, Khomeini’s Ghost: The Iranian Revolution and the Rise of Militant Islam (Macmillan), proposes to answer the crucial question of who has the final word in Tehran. He identifies the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khameini – rather than the President as the final decision – maker in the Islamic Republic and thus the ideal negotiating partner for Obama.

“The powers entrusted to the Supreme Guide…compare favourably with those claimed by Europe’s fascist dictators…with the added benefit of claiming divine inspiration.” After the Supreme Guide, Coughlin suggests the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG), the parallel army created by the mullahs to protect the regime, as key in shaping Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.

One of Britain’s best-known Middle East correspondents, Coughlin draws on years of direct contact with Khomeinist movements. He shows how Khomeinism, a radical doctrine based on Shia Islam, has influenced and, in some cases, rejuvenated militant movements within Sunni Islam, too. Coughlin rejects the claim of many self-styled Iran experts who have insisted that militant Shia cannot enter even into tactical alliances with Sunni radicals. According to Coughlin, by 9/11, “The links between al-Qaeda and the IRG went back nearly a decade, and there was evidence that Iran might have had some involvement in the September 11 attacks.” Moreover, Imad Mughniyah, Lebanese Hizbollah’s terrorist mastermind, “accompanied the 9/11 hijackers on their flights between Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and had meetings with Saudi Hizbollah, which had links with the hijackers, the majority of whom were Saudis”.

Coughlin maintains that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard was responsible for training Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda fighters in special camps in Sudan, run by the Quds Force, an elite IRG unit set up to “export the revolution”.

He writes: “Apart from continuing to build Hizbollah’s operational infrastructure in south Lebanon, one of the Quds Force’s most notable early successes was to establish an alliance with the Sudanese regime of Hassan al-Turabi. A Sunni Muslim, al-Turabi was keen to develop links to any radical Islamic government, even a Shia regime like Iran. Soon afterwards, Osama bin-Laden moved to Sudan and contacted the Iranians through al-Turabi. Iran and al-Qaeda were prepared to pool their resources, co-operating in terrorist operations.”

The 9/11 Commission’s Report has suggested contacts between Tehran and al-Qaeda, without offering specifics. Coughlin expands on this, providing a detailed description of the deadly alliance against the US.

Coughlin depicts Khomeinism as a movement that has been at war against the US from day one of the mullahs’ rule. He dismisses claims that diplomacy could persuade Tehran to change its policies on any of the key issues that have led it into conflict with its neighbours as well as the West.

Coughlin writes: “From Khomeini through to Ahmadinejad, Iran has maintained its uncompromising devotion to its unique expression of revolutionary Islam, no matter how much hostility from the outside world. And so long as the heirs to Khomeini’s revolution maintained their iron grip on power, the Islamic Republic of Iran would continue to uphold the banner of radical Islam and proclaim its defiance of the rest of the world.”

The only way to appease the regime is to surrender to it. Even then, it is almost certain that the more radical elements in Tehran, such as Ahmadinejad, who dream of world conquest in the name of Islam, would demand more.

While the historical background of the regime takes up more than two-thirds of the book, it is the part dealing with current issues that deserves special attention. (In fact, Coughlin gets many details of Khomeini’s biography wrong. For example, Khomeini was not “a poor student from a remote area of southern Iran” but instead came from a reasonably well-to-do family in Khomein, a small town in north-central Iran, about 120 miles from Tehran.)

Coughlin refutes some popular misconceptions about the regime. For example, apologists for the Islamic Republic claim that it never had a strategy to develop nuclear weapons or that, even if it did, the whole programme started after Khomeini’s death. Coughlin, however, shows that Khomeini personally ordered the launch of the programme after some of his commanders, backed by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who acted as the ayatollah’s adviser at the time, argued that they needed the bomb to win the war against Iraq as the first phase of a grand plan to conquer the Middle East.

Coughlin writes: “In 1983, a special unit devoted to nuclear research and technology was set up by the Guards and located in a suburb of north Tehran…Mohsen Rezai, who had assumed overall command of the Revolutionary Guards in 1981, revealed that the regime had allocated a budget of $800 million for the bomb programme.” Around the same time, Rezai told an Iranian nuclear scientist who later defected to the West that Iran needed to “arm itself with anything needed for victory, and we need to have all technical requirements in our possession to even build a nuclear bomb, if and when needed.”

Tehran is determined to develop a nuclear arsenal and would not hesitate to use it if and when it deemed it necessary to advance its strategy of global domination, maintains Coughlin. The message to President Obama is clear: the mullahs would never abandon their nuclear ambitions in exchange for any “carrots” that Dennis Ross, Hillary Clinton’s newly-appointed envoy on Iran, might imagine.

Coughlin also portrays Khomeini as the godfather of Islamist terror and directly responsible for scores of kidnappings, assassinations, suicide attacks and a range of “low-intensity operations” against the US and its allies.

The author links the Khomeinist regime to virtually all terrorist operations in which Muslims have been involved in the past 30 years. Broadly speaking, this might well be true if only because the Khomeini revolution and its tactics, especially suicide attacks, have inspired radical Islamists of all persuasions. In some cases, however, Iran’s involvement is less than certain. The Lockerbie tragedy of Pan Am flight 103 is one example. Coughlin is categorical that the operation was “commissioned” by Tehran’s mullahs. However, years of British and American investigations, followed by a trial that also took years, identified Libya as the guilty party.

According to Coughlin, there is Khomeinist involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He notes: “Tehran took the view that its own strategy of fuelling the insurgency [in Iraq] by all means at its disposal was working. The longer the United States and its allies were bogged down in Iraq, the less likely they were to act over Iran’s nuclear programme.” He adds: “By the spring of 2007, senior Nato commanders found compelling evidence that the Revolutionary Guards had set aside their traditional antipathy towards the Taliban and were supplying them with roadside bombs and rockets to attack Nato positions, particularly British forces deployed in southern Afghanistan.”

As Coughlin shows, the real question is not whether or not to go to war against Iran but how to end the war that Iran has been waging against the US for three decades.

Emanuele Ottolenghi’s book, Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb (Profile Books), deals with Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability and its consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East.

Ottolenghi, an Italian scholar who also writes a monthly column for Standpoint, shows that the Iranian programme has all the hallmarks of a scheme designed to produce nuclear weapons. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is unable to say so with certainty, while successive US administrations have been unable to produce a “smoking gun”. In fact, one American National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), published in 2007, even suggested that Tehran might have abandoned key aspects of the programme.

The key powers have tried to deal with the problem by kicking it into the long grass.

Ottolenghi shows that the European Union has done so by initiating endless talks with Tehran. The idea is that as long as one is talking, one need not worry. The Americans have tried to deal with the issue by periodical threats and the imposition of largely symbolic sanctions. President Obama has just extended sanctions on Iran for a year, presumably absolving himself from doing anything else on the issue for a further 12 months. He has also announced that he would follow President George W. Bush by sending an emissary to the forthcoming talks between Iran and the so-called 5+1 group – the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany.

The Russians feel no need to do anything, hoping that, if the mullahs do real mischief, the Americans will deal with it. The Arabs are caught between a rock and a hard place. They fear a nuclear-armed Iran but are unwilling to help stop the bomb by defying the mullahs and risking retaliation. Instead, they are launching their own nuclear programmes, thereby contributing to a new era of proliferation. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria and Egypt have already announced nuclear programmes, ostensibly for civilian purposes. In effect, everyone hopes the problem will just go away.

Ottolenghi, however, believes the issue will not go away, suggesting three certainties.

First, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear project has a military dimension, although it is quite possible that the Khomeinist leadership has not yet ordered the making of nuclear bombs. But there is no doubt that it intends to do so and is preparing all that is needed for doing so.

Second, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the regime will have a devastating effect on the wider Middle East’s balance of power. At the very least, it could trigger a new nuclear arms race in the region.

Third, contrary to growing popular view among experts and policymakers, Ottolenghi believes that the bomb project could be stopped.

It is this part of the book that analysts and policymakers would find of most interest. He suggests practical measures designed to raise the threshold of pain to a point at which the mullahs would feel that abandoning their quest for the bomb might be their least bad option.

Ottolenghi rejects “blanket sanctions” as counter-productive. Instead, he suggests a policy of targeted or “smart sanctions” designed to hurt the regime and trigger behavioural change.

He assumes that the Obama administration might be reluctant to confront the Islamic Republic in a meaningful way. Obama has offered Iran unconditional talks, a process that could eat up the whole of his four-year term without producing tangible results. This is why Ottolenghi calls on the Europeans to devise a policy of their own for stopping or, at least, slowing the programme.

“This is the hour of Europe,” the author suggests. “European negotiators have tried the paths of compromise, concession and conciliation, dialogue (both critical and constructive) and accommodation for long enough. Now, before the capitals of Europe learn the earth-shattering news of a successful nuclear test in Iran is the time to demonstrate that Europe’s soft power can be transformative.”

Dr Ottolenghi’s book is a wake-up call for Europe. After all, a nuclear-armed Khomeinist regime is more of a threat to nearby Europe than it could be to the distant US.

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