Confronting the New Nasser in Iran

By June 19, 2006

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 18

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The President of Iran presents more than a nuclear threat to the world. His successful defiance of the international community is beginning to galvanize Muslims throughout the world behind a radical vision of puritanical Islam that rejects the liberal democratic model. In responding to this new Nasser, the international community might recall the original Nasser’s ability to turn military defeat into political victory in 1956, as well as Nasser’s rhetorical excesses that led to his humiliating defeat in 1967. Ahmadinejad’s fortunes will have significant implications not only on the future of the region but on the civil war within Islam.

Washington is increasingly coming to the view that the new leadership in Iran wishes to provoke a confrontation with the US. Ahmadinejad calculates that with President Bush bogged down in Iraq, the US will blink.

The New Nasser’s Global Appeal to Muslim Fence-Sitters

Washington is reluctantly but surely coming to a view about the current president of Iran. Whether or not he holds ultimate power within Iran, he has been given a platform by the kingmakers in Iran to be the new Nasser. What made the original Nasser so threatening to the West and to the region was his transnational appeal.

Almost fifty years ago, Nasserism swept away the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq and destabilized Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and eventually Libya and Sudan, among others. Ahmadinejad’s new Nasserism intends to turn the Islamic world and non-aligned movement against the West and to create an anti-NPT groundswell that calls for disarmament of existing nuclear countries. He evokes populist support by calling the status quo a nuclear apartheid. But the dispute that Iran has picked with the international community is not primarily about nuclear weapons. Those weapons are a means to an end. The Iranian firestorm is nothing less than an assault on liberal democracies of the West.

Where the nuclear issue fits into the wider picture is that by gaining a nuclear capability, Ahmadinejad can say to the Muslim world: we are the equal of the West not by emulating their weak liberal democracies, but by returning to the faith, and the way of the Prophet. His recent letter to President Bush recalls the Prophet’s letters to the neighbouring Persian, Byzantine and Ethiopian empires, offering them a chance to accept Islam or be conquered. Ahmadinejad, too, offers a black and white choice: liberal democracy or puritanical Islam.

If Ahmadinejad can somehow prevent the West from confronting Iran, he will have shown the fence-sitters in the Muslim and non-aligned world, and also among the politically awakening Muslims in Europe, that you can win by defying America and the West. Fence-sitters like a winner.

Ahmadinejad Rallies the Radicals in the Region

What will be the impact on the region of a triumphant Ahmadinejad? Already we are seeing it. Hamas is taking an extreme position against recognizing Israel, an utterly absurd and irrational position that only makes sense in this era of the new Nasserism filled with rhetorical illusion. Palestine Islamic Jihad continues to launch suicide bombing attacks. This is an organization that is wholly supported by Iran. It has launched all nine suicide bombings since the hudna or cease fire between Hamas and Israel over a year ago.

Hezbollah will be emboldened and Lebanon’s democratic evolution will be retarded. Bashar Assad’s Syria, Iran’s closest ally, is arresting Syrian dissidents with little fear from the international community. Iranian operatives are smuggling more sophisticated missiles into Iraq to shoot down British and US helicopters and blow up their vehicles.

All this is happening now. What will happen if they get the bomb? For starters, a Middle East nuclear arms race will break out. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Syria may seek to complete their nuclear fuel cycles. Already a dangerous place, the Middle East will become exponentially more dangerous. A nuclear Iran will intimidate the Arab Gulf states with an adverse impact on the unimpeded and free flow of oil to the world, the credibility of the IAEA, non-proliferation, and possibly, the post-World War Two international security system.

If Iran is successful in its current strategy of brinksmanship, it could galvanize Muslims throughout the world and populist members of the non-aligned movement like Venezuela into a global anti-Western and anti-American movement. Ahmadinejad’s recent international forays to Indonesia and elsewhere to mobilize radical Islamic support should leave no doubt that this new Nasser intends to ride the crest of a global Jihadist tsunami against the West.

This new Nasser should be of deep concern to Europeans as Europe’s problems in integrating its 20 million Muslims have not escaped Ahmadinejad’s attention. As Amir Taheri noted in a recent article, “Ahmadinejad believes that the liberal-democratic model of market-based capitalist societies has failed and is rejected even in its traditional homeland. He has been impressed by the recent riots in France, where the extreme left provided the leadership, but the Muslim sub-proletariat much of the muscle in the streets.” Ahmadinejad’s success will fuel separationist tendencies among European Muslims at the expense of integration. Again, those sitting on the fence will join a winner.

On Shoving Aside Ahmadinejad: 1956 or 1967

Washington views a policy of accommodation very warily. Accommodation – any tolerance of the views espoused by the president of Iran – is seen by the radicals as weakness and a sign of lack of resolve. Iran today is something like the Germany of 1937 and 1938. When Hitler took policies that seemed reckless, the professional German generals like General Beck wanted to launch a coup. But after Hitler’s diplomatic success at Munich, they were undermined. General Becks are surely biding time in the Iranian elite, waiting for a misstep by the brash president. But Ahmadinejad’s ability to cow the international community and galvanize the crowds at home and abroad by defying the West and America appears to strengthen him internally and squelch his rivals. Iranians are becoming deluded by his rhetoric just as Egyptians and the wider Arab world were deluded by Nasser’s rhetoric in May 1967. We all know what happened to Nasser in June. Call it a reality check.

The US has offered to negotiate directly with the Iranian government to reach a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program, provided that Iran suspends work on disputed nuclear activities. Iran would like nothing better than to turn its defiance of the IAEA and the international community into a bilateral dispute between the Iran and the US, as that would enable them to play David vs. the Goliath super power. A good reason for the US to be wary about face-to-face talks is that diplomatic negotiations that enhance the status of the current leadership also undermine the forces for democratic change within Iran. It may not be a good idea to negotiate with a regime that for the last 28 years has been mistreating the Iranian people.

The Islamic Republic of Iran bullies by force internally as it is likely to do externally if it gets the bomb. The US does not want to legitimize Iran’s current leadership and, in particular, the new Nasser’s rants. Many within the Administration still believe that with resolve and unity, the international community might not only prevent Iran from going nuclear, but also create the conditions that will accelerate the evolution of liberal democracy in Iran.

As the US loses patience with the diplomatic minuet Iran is playing, American strategists should remember that they are dealing with a wily populist. The surging Nasser in 1956 managed to turn a military defeat by British, French and Israeli forces into a major diplomatic and popular victory. The international community, and especially the US, must assert a robust policy in a way that not only prevents Iran from completing the nuclear fuel cycle but also humiliates Ahmadinejad so that he cannot credibly claim victory.

The Wider Stakes within Islam

If the puritanical Islamic Republic of Iran gets a hold of the bomb, it will be able to undermine the last 400 years of Arabs and Muslim history, where Arabs and Moslems looked to the West as the path to modernity. A victorious Iran in this dispute will not only cause a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it will affect seriously the civil war going on within the Islamic world between the modernizers and the puritans. It will undermine the liberal reform movement from Egypt to Jordan to the Gulf States, to the fledgling democracy in Iraq, to the new democracies in Turkey and Indonesia, to the nascent Euro-Islamic thinking that synthesizes western liberal values with modern Islam.

What hope will there be for liberal Muslims in the face of this Islamist tsunami if Iran shows it can win through defiance? Iran cannot be allowed to win, not just for the sake of the post-1945 international security system but for the sake of more than a billion Muslims who want to embrace a forward looking future rather than go backwards to the 7th or 8th century.

We are talking about competing visions here. For the long, slow evolution toward liberal democracy to continue so that a benign future in the region may take hold someday, the radical vision offered by Ahmadinejad must be derailed.

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Jonathan Paris

Jonathan Paris is a London-based political analyst and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.