Endgame for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran?
The Iranian president has promised a 'telling blow' against world leaders. But, says Con Coughlin, his recent nuclear posturing is an attempt to shore up his increasingly perilous position at home.
By Con Coughlin Telegraph
Published: 6:11AM GMT 09 Feb 2010
First came the announcement that Iran had successfully launched a space probe carrying two turtles, a hamster and a worm. Then its nuclear scientists announced that they would maintain their defiance of the West by ratcheting up the country's controversial uranium enrichment programme. Finally this was followed by yesterday's announcement from the Iranian Defence Ministry that it will shortly begin production of "advanced" unmanned drones that are capable of carrying out "assaults with high precision" against neighbouring states.
Every year since 1979, millions of Iranians have celebrated Dahe-ye Fajr, the 10 days of dawn, by proclaiming their loyalty to the Islamic revolution. The festival marks the period between the triumphant return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's founding father, from exile in Paris on February 1, 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic republic 10 days later. The festivities range from commemorative services held at Khomeini's mausoleum in Tehran's southern suburbs to political rallies proclaiming the revolution's achievements.
But this year the government of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used the festivities as a platform to issue a succession of headline-grabbing pronouncements. And just to make sure no one misunderstands Mr Ahmadinejad's intentions, the Iranian president has publicly warned that he will mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution this Thursday by delivering a "telling blow" to the world's leading powers, a message that hardly serves to reassure Western concerns about Iran's future intentions.
Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, yesterday responded by warning that the West should punish Tehran's latest act of defiance on its nuclear programme by toughening up the international sanctions regime, while in London the Foreign Office described Tehran's decision to start enriching uranium to 20 per cent, as opposed to the current level of 3.5 per cent, as a "matter of serious concern".
Iran's current level of enrichment only produces uranium that can be used in nuclear power stations. But by enriching uranium to 20 per cent Iran will be taking a significant step towards producing the highly enriched uranium that is used to make atom bombs. In addition, Iran has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that it intends to build another 10 uranium enrichment plants.
But before Western governments become too alarmed by Tehran's provocative stance, the regime's recent announcements need to be examined within the context of the country's deepening political turmoil, which many of Mr Ahmadinejad's political opponents confidently predict will surface again during Thursday's climax to this year's anniversary celebrations.
Ever since Mr Ahmadinejad was proclaimed the victor in last summer's hotly disputed presidential election contest, his regime has been besieged by angry protesters who claim his victory was rigged, and that his hardline conservative supporters are denying the Iranian people their proper democratic rights.
In the past the regime has been able to suppress anti-government protests through the highly effective expedient of relying on the brute force of the Revolutionary Guards, the guardians of the Islamic revolution. In both 1999 and 2003, the last time that the regime was seriously challenged by pro-democracy protesters, the demonstrations quickly subsided after the guards broke into student dormitories at Tehran University and hurled protesters to their deaths through the windows.
Similar tactics have been used to crush Iran's pro-reform Green movement, which materialised in the immediate aftermath of last June's elections after Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former Iranian prime minister who championed the interests of the reform movement, claimed he had been denied victory by widespread ballot-rigging. Iranian human rights activists claim that up to 500 people have been killed since the elections, a number that is set to rise after the regime last month announced it had begun executing political prisoners accused of participating in last year's protests.
But despite being the victims of the most repressive measures experienced in Iran since the heady days of the 1979 revolution, the Green movement shows no sign of dying down, much to the consternation of Mr Ahmadinejad and his supporters.
Part of the explanation for this is the fact that today's opposition movement has a far broader base than its predecessors. Previous anti-government protests drew heavily on student campuses for their support, whereas today's Green movement has the backing of Iran's prosperous middle classes – the bazaaris – who are as much outraged by Mr Ahmadinejad's woeful mismanagement of the Iranian economy as they are critical of his uncompromising political agenda.
As a consequence, it is no understatement to say that Iran is currently experiencing its most turbulent spell of political instability since Khomeini's triumphant return from exile in Paris. And, just as happened in 1979, the governing regime is deeply concerned about the outcome.
Certainly the regime is rattled by the Green movement's resilience, and the mounting confidence demonstrated by the protest movement in its attacks on government targets. Last weekend, Iranian dissidents briefly managed to post footage of a Revolutionary Guards' truck that was blown up in Marand, close to the border with Azerbaijan, as it was transporting tear gas, riot batons and shock grenades for use at Thursday's anticipated anti-government demonstrations. (Iran's ever-vigilant internet police have since blocked the link.)
There are also suggestions that the regime is resorting to increasingly desperate tactics to silence its critics, including staging the assassinations of prominent figures in an attempt to incriminate the West on charges of foul play. The murder last month of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, who was killed by a car bomb as he left his house for work, was originally seized on by the government as evidence of Western attempts to destabilise the country. Iran's foreign ministry claimed it had uncovered "signs of evil by the Zionist regime, America and their mercenaries".
But four weeks later a very different picture is starting to emerge, with opposition activists claiming that the government was responsible for the death of Dr Ali-Mohammadi, who was a prominent supporter of the reform movement and may have been about to defect to the West and reveal embarrassing details about Iran's clandestine nuclear project.
Nothing is more guaranteed to rally support for Iran's beleaguered government than the suggestion that foreign powers are trying to deny the country the right to develop nuclear technology, and by blaming the West for the scientist's murder the regime would have hoped to arouse the country's deep-rooted nationalist instincts, while at the same time disposing of a high profile opponent.
Mr Ahmadinejad is certainly not reticent about playing the nuclear card to counter opposition complaints about his government. On various occasions since he first became president in 2005 he has made threatening noises about Iran's nuclear ambitions to bring his domestic critics into line, and the regime's most recent announcements regarding uranium enrichment should be seen in this context.
The fact that Iran has neither the technical expertise nor the financial resources to expand its enrichment programme to the level outlined by its scientists at the weekend is of little concern to Mr Ahmadinejad. By making the issue the centrepiece of his agenda to celebrate the Islamic revolution's anniversary, the Iranian president is calculating that national support for the country's nuclear programme will outstrip that for the protest movement.
All of which makes Iran's recent nuclear posturing something of a challenge for Western policymakers. If Iran is serious about raising its uranium enrichment capability to a higher level, that will be further evidence that it has no intention of negotiating a peaceful resolution of its nuclear programme with the West. But if the West overplays its hand by implementing crippling sanctions against Iran in response, then it might rally support in the country behind Mr Ahmadinejad's regime, thereby denying the pro-reform movement the opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of the hardline conservatives.
For the moment, the best policy the West could adopt would be to refrain from any decisive course of action until the outcome of the current political turmoil becomes clearer. For all Mr Ahmadinejad's bluster, Iran today is facing the most critical moment since the 1979 revolution, and it will be the Iranian people, not the West, who will ultimately decide the country's fate.
'Khomeini's Ghost' by Con Coughlin is available from Telegraph Books for £8.99 plus 99p postage and packing. The first 100 copies ordered will be signed by the author. Please call 0844 871 1514 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk