The most dramatic way a mullah can show anger is by throwing his turban on the floor. This is what Iran’s President Muhammad Khatami, a junior mullah, did the other day as he stormed out of a meeting of the Expediency Council, the Islamic Republic’s highest decision-making organ.
The council, headed by the wily former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, continued the session, signaling the fact that Khatami may have become irrelevant.
According to the official media, the cause of the turban-throwing shenanigan was a decision by the Expediency Council to double the budget of the Council of Guardians, a constitutional body through which hard-line mullahs have vetoed Khatami’s timid attempts at reform for the past five years.
Our sources, however, insist that the turban-throwing scene was prompted by a heated exchange between Khatami and Rafsajani with regard to Iran’s position toward a U.S.-led change of regime in Iraq. The two men had clashed on the subject last month at a session of the High Council of National Defense that failed to produce a common strategy.
Iran’s decision-making elite, consisting of some 100 mullahs and their non-clerical protégés, is divided into two camps with regard to Iraq.
One camp, led by former prime minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi, with Khatami as figurehead, could be labeled “accommodationist.” Its main argument is that Iran’s best interest lies in a partnership with the United States in toppling the Iraqi regime.
Saeed Hajjarian, Khatami’s chief strategist, recently explained the accommodationist position in a long article.
“Change in Iraq has become inevitable,” he wrote. “And it is clear that we can neither stop nor go against it. We must thus go along with it and seek two things: a guarantee that the next regime in Baghdad will not be hostile to Iran, and a guarantee that we are not [Washington's] next target.”
Hajjarian asserts that the time to make a deal with the Americans is now because Washington cannot be sure of how things will turn out in Iraq.
“Once the Americans have won the war and have their man ruling Baghdad, they would have no need of anyone, least of all we in Iran,” Hajjarian wrote.
The accommodationist analysis is shared by a majority of the members of the Islamic Majlis, the pseudo-parliament whose members are elected by the people from an official pre-selected list.
Facing the accommodationists is the faction one could call “the confrontationists,” led by Rafsanjani. The “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, who lashed out against the U.S. in an address to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards on March 11, represents the public face of the faction.
Khamenei’s chief foreign-policy adviser, former foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, recently spelled out the confrontationist position in a series of speeches, interviews, and articles in Iran.
“The American Great Satan will never accept an Islamic system. It is coming to Iraq to complete its encirclement of our Islamic Republic before it moves against us. To help the Americans conquer Iraq easily would be suicidal for our revolution.”
Velayati claims that the U.S. has two aims in the Middle East: preventing the destruction of the “Zionist entity” and control of Arab oil.
Unlike the accommodationists who foresee an easy American victory, the confrontationists believe that U.S. involvement in Iraq could become “the beginning of its end.”
“Iraq is a swamp,” Khamenei said in his address to the guards. “The Great Satan will get caught in that swamp; and that will speed up its inevitable collapse.” In a recent article Velayati spelled out a strategy aimed at “confronting the Great Satan in a number of fronts.”
Iraq will be one front. Iran has concentrated the so-called Badr Brigade, named after the Prophet Muhammad’s first major military victory, along the border with Iraq. The brigade is a 10,000-man force of Iraqi Shiite guerrillas. On March 14 some of the men organized a highly publicized parade inside Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iran also has a 6,000-man Kurdish force, known as the Hezbollah of Kurdistan, and positioned astride the border close to Sardasht.
The accommodationist faction supports the so-called Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) led by Ayatollah Muhammad-Baqer Hakim Tabatabi, who lives in Teheran.
The confrontationists for their part have close ties with two other Shiite groups: the Hizb al-Daawah (“Party of the Call”) and the Islamic Labor party, both of which have headquarters in Damascus.
Another front, according to Velayati, will be Afghanistan, where Iran has forged close ties with Ismail Khan, the “emir” of Herat, and is arming the Hazara Shiites in Bamiyan and Maydan-Shahr. Still another front could be Azerbaijan, where Iran has won influence in the Talesh region on the Caspian Sea.
Ironically, Iran’s allies in Azerbaijan are Sunni Muslims opposed to the Shiite majority whose leaders have opted for a pro-American foreign policy complimented by close ties with Turkey. Iran also has considerable influence in Armenia, where, in tandem with Russia, it helped Armenian forces capture the Azerbaijani enclave of High Karabagh a decade ago.
Velayati insists that Iran should avoid direct confrontation with the U.S. He recommends “the lighting of countless small fires here and there” designed to stretch U.S. forces and, in time, persuade American public opinion that Pax Americana in the Middle East is not worth the price.
The major front Velayati envisages will be opened against Israel. Iran is speeding up military supplies to the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.
According to Teheran sources the Lebanese Hezbollah is already in possession of over 10,000 rockets of various descriptions. These include Fajr III and Fajr IV, upgrades of the Soviet-designed Katyusha, with improved ranges of between 50 and 70 km. Although fairly unsophisticated weapons — the rockets lack a proper guiding system — they could, nevertheless, wreak havoc if used in large numbers in a compact and densely populated area.
To prepare for the reactivation of the anti-Zionist front Teheran played host last month to a large delegation of Palestinians from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Rafsanjani told his guests of “new opportunities for the destruction of the Zionist entity.” He claimed that a combination of “massive and repeated martyrdom operations” could create “a new situation” if combined with the opening of a “second front” in Lebanon.
The accommodationists reject such strategies as dangerous. “The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be good news for everyone, the Iraqis, the Iranians and the entire Muslim world,” says Ali-Muhammad Abtahi, an assistant to Khatami for parliamentary affairs.
“The end of Saddam must be the start of a period of peace and understanding in the region, not of new adventures.”
The fight between the accommodationists and the confrontationists has split Shiite religious opinion with regard to Iraq.
Most senior Iraqi and Iranian ayatollahs have issued fatwas approving an alliance with “the Americans infidel” to get rid of Saddam. These include Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani (in Najaf, Iraq) and Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Muhammad Shirazi (in Qom, Iran).
Mullahs linked with the confrontationist faction, however, have issued fatwas urging alliance with “the infidel Saddam and his Baathists” against the U.S. Among these mullahs are Muhammad-Hussein Fadhlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah, and Taqi Muddaressi, a Syrian-backed Iraqi mullah.
Hassan Rouhani, a junior mullah who is secretary general of the High Council of National Defense, says that Iran should be prepared for “preemptive action” to forestall U.S. attempts at using force against the Islamic Republic.
“The Americans will not dare think of a full-scale military invasion of Iran,” he says. “But they will certainly use soft war and low intensity tactics to topple our regime. We must, therefore, be ready to take preemptive action. The most effective way is to open new political and military fronts against Israel.”
For the time being then, the confrontation camp seems to be in the ascendant. It is not only gathering wood for the “many fires” envisaged by Velayati, it is also speeding up Iran’s nuclear program in the hope of having an “effective deterrent” within two years, the period needed before things become clear in Iraq.