At Large

Persian Ego Rules

The driving force in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

By 10.9.09

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While there is great speculation on whether or not Iran will achieve the ability to create deliverable nuclear weapons in various time frames, the reality is that Iran's leaders are wallowing in the attention they receive as key players in global affairs. They don't care about what is said, just so they remain the center of world interest.

Persian national ego is as much a driving force in Iran's foreign and defense policy as is the leadership's desire to politically and economically dominate the Middle East. These ambitions are symbiotic. The irony in this is that it is exactly what the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi also had as his goals. In fact, it was under his regime that the construction of Iran's first nuclear power plant was begun at Bushire -- in spite of being on a seismic fault line!

The essential underpinning of Iran's foreign and defense policy is a prideful belief that the country's ancient imperial heritage justifies its existence as the dominant power in the Middle East. This egocentric concept is buttressed by a belief in dissimulation as a religiously justifiable methodology in its strategic operations. 

What then further flows from the nearly mystical manner of making political choices? To begin with, one must remind oneself that behind the protective cover of Persian Shia pragmatism is acceptance of the principle of taqiyah. It's a simple yet overarching guide, well known but too often overlooked: Dissimulation to protect the faith and the defenders of the faith is not merely an accepted practice, but can be essential to the furtherance of the faith. (One of the citations most often referred to is Quran- III, 28)

When the anti-Ahmadinejad riots began after June's disputed elections, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had an excellent chance to toss the questionably re-elected president to the wolves -- an old Persian custom. Instead Khamenei steadfastly supported this aggressive and opinionated onetime Tehran mayor. It seemed like such a poor political choice when the crowds would have eagerly adored the Islamic leadership for the righteous removal of Ahmadinejad.

The answer lies in the essential character of Ahmadinejad and how that is perceived by the Supreme Leader. Iran's bumptious little president believes totally in the divine right of Persian leadership. Muhammed Ahmadinejad is completely loyal to Shia Islam and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This loyalty and the fealty that flows from it is the ultimate test of usefulness for the Supreme Leader. It wasn't even a close call in choosing to support the outspoken president over his far more sophisticated competitors 

Underlying Tehran's need to have Iran nuclear armed is the continuing egotistical -- some say paranoiac -- belief that the world outside of Persia wants to take it over. The theme that Russia desires warm water access has been played for years. The evolution of a global petroleum-based economy has been used as an argument to support claims that Western industrialized nations want Iran for its oil and gas. One way or another, Iran has been seen by its leadership as the jewel that attracts.

At the same time as it carries this sense of self-importance, Iran is bedeviled by concomitant inadequacy. The country has vast oil and gas reserves but has to import gasoline. Shia Islam has a history of extraordinary religious scholarship, yet 25% of Iran, its greatest exponent, is illiterate. While advanced jets are serviced everyday at Iranian airfields, the basic mode of transportation in the countryside is horse or donkey-drawn.

The nations with which Iran deals know full well the principles by which Iran is guided. Actually Tehran has been quite straightforward, contrary to the guidance of taqiyah. Iran's leadership openly has announced its belief that Israel is an evil state that must be removed from the map. Exactly how and when is the only thing still left in the shadows. Holding this threat over the head of the Jewish state and the United States satisfies quite well the ego of Persia. And that's what really counts for Tehran.

Iran's operational plans incorporate not only lying about the country's nuclear weapon development, but it is on this basic dissimulation that the defense system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is built. There is, therefore, no logical reason to accept anything that Tehran says, officially or unofficially. In consequence Western defense planning for dealing with Iran must accept the fact that Iran sooner or later will arm itself with nuclear weapons. The Persian ego demands it!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.