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Outside View: Iran first or religion first

By M.D. NALAPAT, UPI Outside View Commentator

TEHRAN, April 30 (UPI) -- If we strip away the verbiage, during the 1990s only three countries in the Middle East publicly supported those Palestinians who see violence as the way to win back the land lost since 1948 to Israel. These were Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Since 2003 Iraq has changed tactics, while Syria seems interested in a "cold peace" with its Jewish neighbor. Only Iran remains committed to ending the Jewish state, an important reason why the United States -- and privately most of the European Union -- holds that it cannot be trusted with the uranium reprocessing technology that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.

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While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets live coverage on international networks, in reality he and his team report to the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who directly appoints the heads of key ministries such as interior, defense and foreign affairs. Both the Expediency Council (set up to oversee legislation) and the judiciary report to Khamenei and not Ahmadinejad, as do the Revolutionary Guards, the police and the military.

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Since the Khomeini revolution in 1979, those in power in Iran see as their objective the assumption of leadership of the Muslim "ummah," or diaspora. This despite the fact that more than 80 percent of believers are Sunni -- and hence opposed to the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran -- and that most holy sites of the Muslim faith are in Saudi Arabia, with even the primary Shiite sites located in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Leader's circle expects that vigorous backing of the hard-line Palestinian cause of extinguishing the state of Israel can be their ticket to support from Muslims worldwide, leading in time to a pan-Islamic entity with Iran at its core. To these zealots, the sacrifice of Iranian interests through confrontation with the United States and the European Union is a price worth paying for the chance of becoming the vanguard of the fastest-growing faith in the world.

There is therefore neither irony nor bluff in the numerous statements from Tehran about the elimination of Israel, an objective constrained only by the obvious limits set by Iran's own military and other weaknesses.

Clearly, an Iran run by a religious establishment operating in accordance with the apocalyptic philosophy of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini will meet both U.S. and EU unwillingness to permit any activities that could lead to the development of weapons of mass destruction, despite the numerous pacifist statements coming out of Tehran.

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The focus of the religious establishment on Israel is not popular with any of the other sectors of Iranian opinion. When the liberal cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected president, there was hope that Iran would move away from rule by the "ulama," or religious establishment. However, even the "liberal" Khatami Cabinet contained fewer technocrats than the previous "conservative" one of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Since then, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the scales have moved even further away from non-religious experts to those having close links with the ulama.

The new president, following the precedent set by U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, regularly converses with the Almighty -- although in his case, divine diktat seems to be arriving via the Supreme Leader, who must clear his major policy initiatives the way India's Sonia Gandhi does in the case of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

As president, Khatami meekly accepted the overlordship of the clerics, giving way on most policies except cosmetic ones, such as permitting women to loosen the Wahhabi dress code adopted under Khomeini -- a relaxation that has now been reversed. The media remained under clerical control, as did the judiciary, the police, the military and the state sector in industry, which controls 80 percent of the national income.

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In the presidential election that took place a couple of years ago, it was not the liberals but Iranian nationalists who emerged as a force, largely uniting behind Rafsanjani. However, in the final lap it was the frugal Ahmadinejad and not the super-rich Rafsanjani who won, thus ensuring the continued absence of a challenge to the clerical establishment headed by Khamenei.

Since then, a bad economic situation made worse by mismanagement under Iran's mullahcracy has resulted in a shift of public opinion toward those who favor an "Iran first" rather than a "religion first" policy. This group would downplay support to the Palestinians in favor of an entente with the West. Its positions are articulated by political scientists such as Hermidas Bavand, who told this columnist that a struggle against Israel on behalf of the Palestinians should not be treated as a vital interest of Iran.

However, on the question of nuclear technology, Professor Bavand is one with the religious establishment in saying that the reprocessing of uranium and the generation of nuclear energy "is a right under the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) that Iran cannot give up." Of course, an Iran run by its nationalists would be a very different country from the one now being administered by those dreaming of an Islamic empire led by Tehran.

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Clearly, rather than the liberals, it is the Iranian nationalists -- a potent force since the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq by the Shah in 1953 -- who have the public support needed to challenge the monopoly of power enjoyed since 1979 by the clerics. This allows the adoption of a nuanced negotiating position by the United States and the European Union, who could make it clear that it is the present state structure in Iran that is the obstacle to permitting the country to enrich uranium.

A surgical strike against nuclear facilities -- if not accompanied by attacks on population centers or economic targets -- may result in a sharp meltdown of support for an establishment that would have its military weaknesses revealed. Although the regime is deadly against its own people, Iran has a relatively feeble punch against NATO. A NATO strike that targeted only specific nuclear sites would be very bad news for the mullahcracy.

However, should Israel join in such an operation, it would have the effect of unifying the population along religious lines and converting the regime in Tehran into a potent force in the entire Arab "street." It is small wonder that those in power in Tehran are praying either for peace or for Israel to join with the United States and its allies in a surgical strike that would leave ordinary life in the country unaffected.

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(Professor M.D. Nalapat is director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University in India.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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