A Clash of Civilizations; the Real Crisis Isn't about Nuclear Weapons, but Iran's Determination to Reshape the Middle East in Its Own Image

By Taheri, Amir | Newsweek International, September 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Clash of Civilizations; the Real Crisis Isn't about Nuclear Weapons, but Iran's Determination to Reshape the Middle East in Its Own Image


Taheri, Amir, Newsweek International


Byline: Amir Taheri (Before the 1979 revolution, Taheri was editor in chief of Kayhan, Iran's most important daily. He is a member of Benador Associates.)

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. …

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