Iran's Agenda / What Counts More: Style or Substance?

There was no miracle, and it is doubtful whether anyone expected one. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated yesterday what he has been saying for a year now: Iran is entitled to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and therefore, it will carry on with its nuclear program. He is not afraid of international sanctions, because he is convinced that these will never materialize.

He assumes that a disagreement exists between the United States and most of the other Security Council members, because, like everyone else, he heard Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's statement that there was no place for imposing sanctions on Iran. Indeed, the head of the Iranian Atomic Agency, Ghulam Reza Aghazadeh, has not altered his plans; he will visit Moscow next week in order to hold meetings on the construction of the reactor in Bushehr. Iran paid Russia nearly $1 billion for this project.

Ahmadinejad is also aware of the fact that no opposition will emerge domestically, certainly not so long as Iran stands firm against the "American dictates." The only opposition group that is active right now is one that is trying to improve the standing of women in Iranian society. Ahmadinejad, who emerged from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard, enjoys complete political support.

With its coffers overflowing, Iran pays cash for most of its imported goods. In addition, massive deals are due to be signed with China, India and Japan. China receives about 14 percent of its oil imports from Iran. From Ahmadinejad's point of view, this is the time not to halt Iran's nuclear program, but to move on to a new phase of negotiations with the West over its package of incentives.

It is true that there are reports of disputes within the Iranian administration, and of individuals that oppose Ahmadinejad's bellicose style. Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who currently heads an important committee tasked with assessing national interests, is of the opinion that the main reason Iran's nuclear program has come under attack is Ahmadinejad's style. After all, the nuclear program existed back when he was president, and also when his successor, Mohammad Khatami, ran the show. In neither case was there international alarm.

Ali Larijani, chairman of Iran's National Security Council and the country's negotiator with the west, ran against Ahmadinejad for the presidency. He thinks that with the "right" form of diplomacy, it will be possible to continue the nuclear program and also benefit from the incentives offered by the West. He does not think that a clash is inevitable.

These are only two examples of the differences of opinion. However, none point to an ideological difference; rather, the dispute is over tactics. Therefore, Ahmadinejad can further the agenda to which he has been committed since the day he joined the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard: to turn Iran into a power equal to any in the West, collect the historical debts that Iran believes it is owed by former imperial powers, and also settle accounts with the U.S. for the shah's regime.

In every one of his speeches, documents (including a letter sent to President George Bush last May) and interviews, Ahmadinejad never fails to mention his burning ambition to transform Iran into an equal among equals. This is what nuclear capability will do for Iran. More than its technological benefits, more than its deterrent value, what nuclear capability will do is force other powers to approach Iran as an equal. To a great extent, he is reminiscent of Saddam Hussein after Iraq took over Kuwait. He believes that if Iraq could withstand sanctions for 12 years, Iran can do the same by building up an economic safety net among Asian states.