Iran: Another paper tiger with no teeth

Iran: this emperor has no clothes

Americans too often swallow enemy propaganda at face value, subjecting us to knee-jerking manipulation by fiery orators. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with a few choice phrases, successfully elevates himself to the status of a Muslim “Hitler.” But this populist windbag is already losing his grip in Tehran, giving Washington a strategic opportunity we don’t yet appreciate.

While American neocons and Israeli hawks would bomb Iran today lest it continue enriching uranium, try viewing the situation less emotionally.

First, credible estimates say Iran won’t field any nuclear missiles for several years. If and when such a time comes, Tehran will be no more difficult to deter with the threat of massive retaliation — as in, “wiping off the map” — than anybody else in history. Nuclear-armed Israel, backed up by ever-present America, faces no more strategic risk than Western Europe did during the Cold War.

Extrapolating suicidal nations from suicide bombers is compelling rhetoric, but unsupported by history, which says two-sided nuclear standoffs are inherently more stable than one-sided superiority (Israel’s current advantage). As for sharing technology with bad actors, that’s far more likely if Iran remains an unrecognized nuclear power — like Pakistan.

Second, Ahmadinejad is no fuhrer. Iran’s president doesn’t control the military (the Grand Ayatollah does) and has no say over Tehran’s nuclear program (ditto).

When reformer Mohammad Khatami previously served as president, American hardliners dismissed calls to engage Iran, arguing the Grand Ayatollah held all the marbles. Now, despite the Iraq Study Group’s call for dialogue, these same hawks vociferously denounce the notion by citing Ahmadinejad’s fiery threats.

But recent events prove Ahmadinejad already has lost favor among the ruling mullahs, thanks to outrageous stunts like hosting an international conference of Holocaust deniers.

Last month the Majlis (Iran’s parliament), which has clashed with Ahmadinejad more than once, voted overwhelmingly to shorten his presidential term by 18 months, citing budgetary savings.

Also last month, Ahmandinejad’s cronies took a beating in local elections, including the influential Tehran city council race, where his successor as mayor, Mohammad Ghalibaf, won big. Iranian political analysts pick Ghalibaf to be Ahmadinejad’s main competition for re-election in 2009.

Most importantly, Ahmadinejad’s religious allies fared badly in the vote for the Assembly of Experts, a College of Cardinals-like entity that selects the next Grand Ayatollah once Ali Khamenei, currently under a deathwatch, passes from the scene.

That fix was in: Khamenei himself pre-emptively struck several Ahmadinejad allies from the ballot. Former president Ali Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad beat to become president in 2005, was overwhelmingly elected the Assembly’s new chief, making him a credible candidate to succeed Khamenei.

As George Bush might say, that was a “thumping defeat.”

Want more evidence?

How about a surly mob of Tehran’s college students forcing Ahmadinejad to cut short a speech last month?

Their chant? “Death to the dictator!”

Ring a few bells?

Even more telling is that Iran’s state-controlled TV reported the stunning protest.

Suffering the world’s worst brain drain and a birth rate that’s dropped through the floor, Iranian society is imploding before the world’s eyes, triggering a resurgent domestic reform movement that’s now aligned with pragmatic conservatives determined to arrest the nation’s downward spiral.

Externally, however, Iran is peddling influence across the region, quietly executing regime-building investment strategies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. Iran’s oil revenue is creating development all right, just not back home where increasingly angry Iranians want it.

Slap these dichotomous images together and you can’t help but wonder at the similarities between today’s Iran and the Soviet Union in the late Brezhnevian period: the blustery fagade of regional domination covering a system rotten to its spiritual core.

Sooner than we think, Iran’s Gorbachev-like figures will reveal themselves, not because we desire it, but because Iran’s rate of internal decay — so visible in its oil industry — will demand it. Remember, Gorby wanted to fix — not dismantle — the USSR. America’s approach to this looming transition should mirror Ronald Reagan’s with the Soviets: talk and act tough publicly, but privately seek out pragmatic opportunities for detente-like cooperation. This “soft kill” strategy has worked before.

Our dialogue with Iran should begin now, if for no other reason than any planned “surge” effort in Iraq is doomed to fail unless Tehran’s obvious countering efforts are somehow neutralized.

Larger strategic opportunities await, but only if we learn to see through the propaganda.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at) For more stories visit