The Tale of the Scorpion is an old Native American parable.
A scorpion was walking along the bank of a river, wondering how to get to the other side. Suddenly, he saw a fox. He asked the fox to take him on his back across the river.
The fox said, “No. If I do that, you’ll sting me, and I’ll drown.”
The scorpion assured him, “If I do that, we’ll both drown.”
The fox thought about it and finally agreed. So the scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim. But halfway across the river, the scorpion stung him. As poison filled his veins, the fox turned to the scorpion and said, “Why did you do that? Now you’ll drown, too.”
“I couldn’t help it,” said the scorpion. “It’s my nature.”
Amir Taheri (writing to Norman Podhoretz) believes he knows the true nature of the Iranian regime:
What is at issue here is the exact nature of the Khomeinist regime. Is it a nationalistic power pursuing the usual goals of nations? Or is it a messianic power with an eschatological ideology and the pretension to conquer the world on behalf of â€œThe One and Only True Faithâ€?
Khomeini built a good part of his case against the Shah by claiming that the latter was trying to force Iranians to worship Iran rather than Allah. The theme remains a leitmotif of Khomeinists even today. . . . Those who try to portray this regime as just another opportunistic power with a quixotic tendency do a grave disservice to a proper understanding of the challenge that the world faces.
But this is not new. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot also had their apologists who saw them as â€œnationalistsâ€ with â€œlegitimate grievances.â€
Okay, Sounds believable given the rhetoric we’ve been hearing for 25 years from the regime. But Taheri does not enjoy universal respectability regarding his opinions on Iran. He has been caught at least twice in making false charges about the Iranian government and some scholars accuse him of poorly sourcing his writings.
Even if we were to take Mr. Taheri’s analysis as truth, according to Michael Eisenstadt writing for the Strategic Studies Institute, a respected arm of the US Army War College, the idea that the mullahs are “an irrational, undeterrable state with a high pain threshold” is both “anachronistic and wrong:”
Within the context of a relatively activist foreign policy, Iranian decision makers have generally sought to minimize risk by shunning direct confrontation and by acting through surrogates (such as the Lebanese Hizballah) or by means of stealth (Iranian small boat and mine operations against shipping in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War) in order to preserve deniability and create ambiguity about their intentions. Such behavior is evidence of an ability to engage in rational calculation and to accurately assess power relationships.(“Deter and Contain,” pg. 225)
And herein lies the dilemma for American and western policymakers with regards to Iran and the regime’s desire to possess the ultimate insurance against anyone publishing insulting cartoons of Muhammad ever again. Just who are these guys?
As far as Taheri, I have found his insights into the regime affected by his obvious disgust for what the mullahs have done to his country. That said, his columns and writings in various publications have shown a light in some very dark corners of the Iranian government.
At its highest levels, the mullahracy is riven with factionalism. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei rides herd on at least 3 major centers of power; President Ahmadinejad conservatives, Ayatollah Rafsanjani realists, and Mohammad Khatami reformists. Of these, the most marginalized at the moment are the reformers, some of whom are actually under house arrest, including a couple of prominent clerics.
Rafsanjani, the canny, ex-president is making something of a political comeback after getting tossed from the presidency in 2005 by Khamenei who couldn’t take his gross corruption (Forbes named him one of the richest men in the world). He is now safely ensconced in the Assembly of Experts, elected last December on an anti-Ahmadinejad platform, and maneuvering his way toward the most powerful office in the land- Supreme Leader. Khamenei is rumored to be in poor health (he’s been on death’s door according to some for about 2 years).
To say that Rafsanjani is a “moderate” is ridiculous. He is as fanatical in his hatred of the United States and Israel as President Ahmadinejad. He may be more of a pragmatist, however, in that he certainly has a lot to protect in case of an attack by the US. Regardless, Rafsanjani is also perhaps the most ruthless character in Iranian politics. It is believed that he controls several para-military gangs who carry out murders and assassinations on his orders. Certainly, enough of his enemies have died for there to be questions asked.
He is at war with President Ahmadinejad and the conservatives not over dogma or ideology but because Ahmadinejad has purged the bureaucracy of Rafsanjani (and other long ruling mullahs) cronies who always managed to funnel a little something to their sponsors in the leadership in the way of kickbacks or sweet government contracts. For 25 years, first Khomeini and then Khamenei turned a blind eye to this corruption, realizing that it cemented the loyalty of the mullahs to the Supreme Leader’s throne.
But with the economy in the toilet and the people becoming cynical about the mullahs, Khamenei engineered the election of Ahmadinejad hoping the young fanatic would root out corruption and boost the economy.
It hasn’t worked. Ahmadinejad purged the ministries alright but he replaced competent technocrats with true believers who hadn’t a clue about how a modern state operates. The results were predictable; economic stagnation, higher unemployment, high inflation, and a decrease in oil productivity that would be much more noticeable if prices were any lower.
These then are the factions vying for control of the Iranian state – at odds over personalities, policies, and most importantly, who has the power.
Taheri and Podhoretz may very well be correct in their assessment of the way Ayatollah Khomenie believed more in pan-Islamism than nationalism. But does that still hold true today? Do these squabbling, greedy, kleptocrats really believe in Khomeini’s pan-Islamic vision?
It is impossible to say. And the question is can we afford to misjudge the true nature of the regime? Either way western leaders jump regarding Iran – bombing or deterrence – both choices are bad choices with catastrophe possible no matter what the decision might be.
If the Iranians don’t care about Iran, only Islam, deterrence will not work. And while bombing their infrastructure will set their program back a few years, what they will unleash in retaliation causes nightmares at the Pentagon, the State Department, and in the minds of any rational person.
But if the Iranian regime is not bound by the normal constraints of deterrence, what option do we really have? If they are able to acquire the ability to build a nuclear weapon and intend on using it, prudence dictates we try and prevent that eventuality at all costs.
On the other hand, what if the true nature of the regime is as posited by the Army War College? While the mullah’s worldview may be anachronistic and twisted, they nevertheless may very well respond reasonably to the threat of retaliation by the Israelis or the United States. In this case, they may have the bomb – but possess it only as a guarantor of the regime not as an offensive threat. If we chose to bomb, we would unleash Iranian retaliation when it was not necessary.
I think my rundown above of the factions in Iran shows there are probably both camps at large and are currently in a tug of war. The conservatives, despite poor performance by Ahmadinejad and electoral setbacks are still marginally in control. But Khamenei still has his finger on any nuclear trigger and while he sides with the conservatives on occasion, he has not been reluctant to slap Ahmadinejad publicly and put him in his place – as he did last summer when he had parliament pass a new electoral law that will shave around 14 months off of Ahmadinejad’s term.
The bottom line is that there really is no way of gleaning the true intent of the Iranian regime because of the shifting sands of power that has been the hallmark of the mullahs since Khomeini’s time. The American hostages were pawns in this game back in 1980 while the British sailors taken earlier this year also became hostage to the competition at the highest levels of the regime.
To bomb or not to bomb. There is only one right answer. And I’m glad I’m not going to be the one who has to make the decision.