To escalate or not to escalate? In Tehran's ruling circles, these days, that is the question. The question has come up in response to the resolution passed by the United Nations' Security Council in the dying days of last year, imposing a range of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Tehran's initial reaction was to dismiss the resolution as "unimportant and ineffective". President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it "a piece of worthless paper", indicating that he might just live with it.
Read from almost any angle the resolution is, indeed, a paper tiger, if that. It looks more like a sop to an aggrieved Bush administration than a serious attempt at exerting pressure on a regime that feels it is in the ascendancy as a future regional hegemon and more. Ahmadinejad's initial reaction was right on spot. In any case, Ahmadinejad has based his strategy on avoiding a direct confrontation with the United States until President George W Bush leaves office. This is because he believes that Bush, who has imposed regime change in two of Iran's key neighbours, is an atypical American leader, and that whoever succeeds him will revert to the traditional US policy of ducking confrontation.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic has its own internal political dynamics- one often ignored by analysts abroad. Ahmadinejad has built his entire reputation on his promise to transform the Islamic Republic into the "core power" of a new bloc of Muslim nations capable of taking on the "infidel" West and ending its centuries' long domination of the world. Thus, he cannot allow the humiliation inflicted upon him by the UN, no matter how mild, to go unanswered. His political foes, including the business-mullahs of Tehran, are already jeering at his pusillanimity.
"We cannot be treated this way," says Hashemi Rafsanjani, leader of the business-mullahs who has vowed in private to destroy Ahmadinejad's political career.
The business-mullahs had lobbied hard to make sure that their own private assets abroad would not figure on the list of Iranian assets frozen by the UN. Thanks to efforts by Russia and China, which have substantial commercial ties with the business-mullahs, the Security Council modified the text of the resolution to that effect.
Beyond the symbolic moves already announced, it is unlikely that the Islamic Republic will take any drastic measure in response to the resolution before the issue is fully debated in the closed circles of the establishment. Even then, the final word would come from the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi whose position was reinforced in last month's election of the Assembly of Experts. (In that election Ahmadinejad failed to secure the extra seats that he needed to replace Khamenehi.)
Khamenehi has always been a cautious player by instinct. In 1989, he even had the courage to challenge, albeit briefly, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's murder fatwa against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. (He quickly changed tack when Khomeini attacked him in public by saying he should return to the seminary to learn his theological lessons better!).
More importantly, Khamenehi has no particular dog in the domestic political fight at present. He is safe for at least another eight years- that is to say until the next election for the Assembly of Experts. And, reports that he is building up his son as a possible successor can be dismissed as malicious Tehran rumour. Awakened Ahmadinejad would suit Khamenehi's interests just fine, but not if that is achieved through a major international crisis that could threaten the very existence of the regime.
By avoiding further escalation, Khamenehi could confound the advocates of regime change both inside and outside Iran. At the same time he would achieve the Islamic Republic's goal of building the "surge capacity" that it needs to build nuclear weapons if and when it so decides. The weak resolution passed by the UN provides ample scope for endless diplomatic manoeuvring for the next five to six years, the time span that the Islamic Republic supposedly needs to fully master the military aspects of the nuclear technology.
As always since the Khomeinist revolution of 1979, the interests of Iran as a nation-state are not always identical to those of Iran as the embodiment of a revolution. The interest of Iran as a nation-state at this juncture dictates a prudent and proportionate response to the UN resolution with the clear intention of avoiding further escalation.
Te interest of the revolution, however, is to show that the Islamic Republic can give as food as it gets. As Ahmadinejad said before the resolution was passed, the Islamic Republic would bestow "double punishment" on those that defied it.
Under the compromises that made the resolution possible, Iran's response will be assessed within 60 days. And that coincides with the end of the biggest annual festival of radical groups that Tehran has hosted since 1980. Leaders of virtually all revolutionary movements- from the Peruvian Shining Path to the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, and passing by a dozen residual Stalinist parties in Europe and Latin America, will gather in Tehran to pay tribute to Khomeini and coordinate their strategies for fighting "American Imperialism."
Known as the 10 Days of Dawn, the revolutionary jamboree this year hopes to attract a number or prominent anti-American and anti-Bush figures such as Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, and anti-Bush activists such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.
Can Ahmadinejad appear at such a feast and claim the global leadership of the anti-American movement while his administration is seen in to be in retreat against the "Great Satan"? Would Ismail Haniyah of Hamas continue to believe Ahmadinejad's promise of wiping Israel off the map when the Iranian leader is seen unable to protect his own nation's interests?
Paradoxically, the business-mullahs, often portrayed by their Western lobbyists as " moderates" or even "reformers" are the ones currently pressing for escalation. Their strategy is clear: further escalation would plunge Iran's already ailing economy into full crisis, demoralise Ahmadinejad's radical base, and open the way for the return of the business-mullahs to power within the next two to three years, if jot earlier.
Iran is already feeling the psychological effects of a still hypothetical escalation. In the past two week, Iranian Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia have been shocked to find out that the Iranian currency, the rial, is no longer accepted by moneychangers there. Worse still, the Iranian rial is also disappearing from Iraqi markets where it has fallen by almost 20 per cent against the Iraqi dinar.
All that means that Tehran would now have to come up with dollars or euros to finance its clients and agents throughout the region, especially in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf.
The argument used by the business-mullahs is simple: avoiding escalation could mean slow economic strangulation for the Islamic Republic. Thus, it is better to raise the stakes now and force a resolution one way or another as quickly as possible. And it that means the end of Ahmadinejad's dream of creating an " Islamic Superpower", so much the better.
As in so many other junctures in the past quarter of a century , Iran is once again reaching a point at which interests as a nation clash with the interests of the revolution that has captured control of the machinery of state. For ran as a nation not to be harmed it is essential that the Khomeinist revolution die its inevitable death. Ahmadinejad is ready to sacrifice Iran as a nation at the altar of the revolution. The business-mullahs are ready to sacrifice both at the altar of their interests. Khamenehi's attitude remains a mystery. For. In his position, he is supposed to represent both the nation and the revolution.