Incredible though it may sound there are signs that Tehran may be preparing for a military confrontation with the United States, and has convinced itself that it could win.
The first sign came last June with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of the Islamic Republic, an event that completed the conquest of all levers of power by the most radical elements of the establishment.
Since thenIran Readying for Conflict With US the revolutionary factions have conducted a little publicized purge of the military, the security, the civil service, and state-owned corporations and media.
The most significant purges have affected the military high command.
Among those replaced are the defense minister, the commander-in-chief of the regular army and his four deputies, 11 senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and five commanders of the paramilitary Mobilization of the Dispossessed. Some of the purged officers have been "parked" in a mysterious new organ called "The Defense Guidance Commission" attached to the office of the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi.
The minister of intelligence and security and the minister of the interior, who controls the police and the gendarmerie, have also been replaced.
Another sign that Tehran may be preparing for war is the appointment of military officers to posts normally held by civilians, such as governors, mayors and directors of major public corporations.
But, perhaps, the surest sign yet is the military build up under way in the five provinces bordering Iraq. The region, with a population of 20 millions, has been put under the control of the IRGC which has also taken over units of the regular army, including the 88th Division, and the border police. Iran is estimated to have 250,000 troops in the area, its biggest military build-up since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.
One of the first acts of the new Cabinet led by Ahmadinejad was to approve an "emergency" fund of $700 million to be disbursed at the discretion of "the supreme guide" for "sacred defense purposes."
The new administration has also decided to speed up defense disbursements under a five-year plan approved by Khamenehi last year. The plan aims at doubling the military budget by 2010. But it now seems that, thanks to rising oil revenues, most of the plan could be completed by 2008.
In the past few weeks top regime figures, including Khamenehi and Ahmadinejad, have made a series of unscheduled visits to Mash'had, Iran's second largest city. One curious fact revealed during these visits is that a bunker-like structure to house the "supreme guide" is being completed close to the "holy shrine" of Reza, the eighth imam. The complex could also house the top echelon of government, including the president, the Cabinet and members of the Islamic Majlis (Parliament).
The choice of Mash'had is not accidental. The city is located 1,000 km from Tehran and thus as far as possible inside Iran from American fire power in Iraq and the Gulf. The US is also expected to shrink from attacks against the Mash'had bunker for fear of collateral damage to the "holy shrine" of the imam a few hundred yards away.
The summer's comings-and-goings in Mash'had have provoked rumors that Khamenehi plans to appoint Abbas Va'ez Tabasi, the mulla who runs the eighth imam's foundation, as "deputy supreme guide", just in case!
The belief that the Americans would not attack sites close to "holy shrines' has also led to the creation of a massive new military base at Fadak, a suburb of the "holy city" of Qom where the eighth imam's sister is buried, south of Tehran. Work on the base that covers an area of 7.2 square km started in August.
Piecing together the bits of the jigsaw one may guess the outline of Tehran's scenario for what it believes is an inevitable clash with the US:
• The diplomatic tussle over Iran's nuclear plans goes to the Security Council that will fail to take a decision thanks to Russian and Chinese vetoes.
• The US, after much huffing and puffing launches air strikes against Iran's nuclear installations. (Tehran loves Israel to also participate because that would give the Islamic Republic a better claim to be fighting on behalf of Islam as a whole.)
• Iran retaliates by ordering the forces it controls inside Iraq to attack American and British troops. At the same time the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah launches massive rocket attacks against Israel while Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, whose leaders spent the past month in Tehran meeting Khamenehi and his aides, organize a wave of suicide operations against Israel from Jerusalem and the West Bank.
• The US and its British allies, stationed in southern Iraq, launch a three-pronged attack, from Shalamcheh, Hamroun and Shatt Al-Arab to seize control of Khuzestan, the province that accounts for 70 percent of Iran's oil production.
• Iranian Special Forces attack Iraq from the Zaynalkosh salient, south of the Kurdish provinces, some 80 km from Baghdad's first defenses in Ba'aqubah.
• Hazara Shi'ites strikes against Kabul, the Afghan capital, from Maydanshahr while Pushtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the remnants of the Taleban, some of whom are under Iranian protection, attack across Afghanistan.
• The Americans and their allies attack Khuzestan.
• Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz.
• The Americans attack the Iranian provinces of Kermanshahan and Kurdistan.
• US-led forces attack across the Mandali-Ilam axis. The Iranians retreat to the Zagross mountain range, the first line of Iran's natural defenses. (To fight along the Zagross the IRGC is building new bases at Khorramabad, Pessyan, Borujerd, Zagheh and Malayer in the province of Luristan. The bases would assure the logistics of a quarter of a million troops, and provide temporary shelter for half a million refugees from the border. These bases will complement older ones further west, at Sahneh and Kangavar. )
• Oil prices top $100 and the global economy plunges into a crisis.
• Americans launch cruise missiles against "regime targets" in Tehran. But the regime is already in Mash'had.
• Global TV networks air images of "indiscriminate carnage" and "wanton destruction" in Iranian cities.
• The Security Council meets in emergency and orders a cease-fire while the American media and Congress revolt against President George W Bush and his "pre-emptive" strategy.
• Anti-Bush marches in Washington and dozens of other cities with Hollywood figures and other celebrities calling for Bush to be overthrown.
• Bush accepts a UN-brokered cease-fire and withdraws his forces.
• The Islamic Republic emerges victorious from what Ahmadinejad sees as "a clash of civilizations."
• The Americans leave Iraq and Afghanistan as Bush becomes a lame duck for the rest of his presidency.
• The Islamic Republic gains new domestic legitimacy and proceeds to crush its opponents as "enemies of the nation and of Islam."
• Iran can speed up making its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles without being harassed by Washington.
• Iran becomes "the core power" of a new "Islamic pole" in a multipolar system with China, the European Union and Latin America, Under the Bolivarist leadership of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez emerging as other "poles".
• Bush's successor acknowledges Iran's new status and sends Bill Clinton, who apologized to Iran for "our past misdeeds" in 2000, to Tehran to offer another formal apology on behalf of Bush's successor and offer Ahmadinejad "a grand bargain".
• The Islamic Republic is now free to proceed to address what Khamenehi has described as its "greatest historic task" which is the destruction of Israel.
Sounds outlandish? Well, it is. The Islamic Republic is a fragile structure in a zone of political earthquakes. Logically, the last thing it should want is war. Nevertheless, former President Muhammad Khatami has warned that Tehran may be boxing itself into a position in which it will either have to surrender or fight.