The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ navy’s near-shooting incident with US Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 6 was a stunt staged by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Jan. 6, as much to boost his end of the controversy in Tehran over the national nuclear program as to hassle the United States.
Two days before the arrival of US President George W, Bush in the Middle East, five Revolutionary Guards Corps naval speedboats zoomed up to a US Navy convoy heading into the Persian Gulf through the strategic Strait of Hormuz. An Iranian sailor yelled: I’m coming at you and you will blow up in a couple of minutes.” The American ships were about to open fire when the Iranian craft turned tail.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources report that this bullying tactic, which President Bush advised Tehran from Jerusalem not to try again, was more calculated than reckless. Ahmadinejad is pushing a hard line on Iran’s nuclear program against his adversaries’ more cautious approach.
The question on the table in Tehran is this: Should the Islamic Republic freeze its covert nuclear activities and uranium enrichment processing for a given period for the sake of getting its nuclear misdeeds crossed off the UN Security Council’sl agenda?
The president says toughing it out with America reaps more concessions than moderation and restraint. As a case in point – and not the only one – he holds up the US National Intelligence Estimate, which absolved Iran of nuclear militlary activity from 2003, as proving that the Americans climb down in the face of intransigence.
No one in the Middle East buys Bush’s mantra: “Iran was a threat, is a threat and will be a threat,” as an upgrade of the NIE. American is seen to have opted out from getting to grips with Iran.
Another case supporting Ahmadinejad’s contention that recalcitrance pays was the quiet withdrawal of Washington’s objections to Moscow’s supply of nuclear fuel for the reactor the Russians are building in Bushehr. The Russians needed this assent to honor a contract and preserve the business credibility of their military and nuclear industries. Moscow therefore promised the Bush adminsitration to go along with UN Security Council sanctions against Iran providing they were not too stringent.
Grist for Ahmadinejad’s power mill in Tehran
The Iranian president uses these two episodes – plus the Strait of Hormuz incident – to drive home his argument that Tehran must not be afraid to stick to its nuclear guns. In fact, provocation is the name of the game. Iran is going ahead to build a second reactor. Without turning a hair, he is insisting that Iran must expand its forbidden producton of enriched uranium to reduce its dependence on foreign sources. The West’s chosen path of diplomacy to bring Iran in line with UN resolutions is so much water off this duck’s back.
In the corridors of power at home, his rivals are pushing hard against him as part of a developing power struggle in the Iranian leadership. It is spearheaded by the old antagonists, the sitting and former presidents, Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani; the former backed by IRGC chiefs, the latter by Ali Larijani, the purged nuclear negotiator and adviser to supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Rafsanjani camp advocates a temporary halt to the military and enrichment programs.
The positions inside the hard-line Ahmadinejad-IRGC camp are less cut-and-dried.
For the Revolutonary Guards chiefs, the nuclear arms program is paramount. It is their primary source of military and economic clout today and tomorrow.
For the president, political ambition overrides all other considerations; preserving the Islamic theocracy comes second, while the nuclear industry counts in third place as a means to an end, which is to hold onto the support of the IRGC and religious establishment.
If forced to choose, Ahmadinejad would give up on a nuclear bomb if its possession jeopardized the regime’s survival.
These nuances are of no use to the West as long as the extremist president sees no clouds on the horizon of the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran. He can therefore afford to devote single-minded attention to driving for a nuclear-armed Iran, while taking step after step to promote his political ambitions.
On the home front too, Ahmadinejad’s favorite weapon is brutally high-handed defiance.
He successfully cut through the red tape constraining the bodies responsible for high appointments in Iran to place his own vice president, Seyyed Ahmad Mousavi, in the key post of Iranian ambassador to Syria.
Placing his own man in the Damascus embassy
He did not bother to refer the appointment to Ayatollah Khamenei, although Syria is important as Iran’s only strategic ally, and the post carries military as well as diplomatic clout. The Iranian ambassador directs Iran’s terrorist surrogate in Lebanon, Hizballah, and controls its supplies of smuggled military aid through Syria.
When Larijani arrived in Damascus on Jan. 5 to take a hand in sorting out the Lebanese presidential crisis, he found he had been pre-empted. Syrian officials told him politely that they would rather wait a few days until incoming ambassador Mousavi takes up his post and discuss the matter with him.
Still less did the president consider consulting foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, the ambassador’s superior. He also caught the minister unawares by the Strait of Hormuz incident.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources reveal that, two weeks ago, Ahmadinejad and the IRGC chief Mohamed Jafari decided to stage the incident near the time of the Bush trip to the Middle East, again without referring to the supreme ruler.
They prepared the operation secretly at a Revolutionary Guards base on the small Oman Sea island of Larak, south of Qesm and opposite the Strait of Hormuz.
Larak has a large concentration of naval speedboats fitted with light cannons, some of them anti-air weapons, and heavy machine guns. They include boats rigged as torpedoes and packed with explosives for blowing up and sinking large vessels.
They sailed perilously close to the wind and only only withdrew moments before the US Navy warships would have opened fire. Their purpose was to show up the American eagle as a chicken.
Ahmadinejad once again presented his superiors, colleagues and rivals in the regime with a fait accompli which enhanced his prestige. They only found out about the president’s two coups from the media.