January 24, 2007 -- CONFRONTATION or accommodation? As the U.N. Security Council's latest deadline for the Islamic Republic draws closer, that perennial question of Iranian politics is back at the center of debate in Tehran.
The confrontationists, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believe that the Bush administration, in its sunset phase, won't dare launch any major military operation against Iran. The most Bush can do is to order air and missile attacks on Iran's nuclear installations.
That would damage the project, perhaps setting it back by a year or two. But it would also, in this view, enable the revolutionary faction within the Khomeinist regime to marginalize its conservative rivals and consolidate its hold on power.
Once the U.S. attack is over, Ahmadinejad would produce TV footage of babies torn apart by American bombs and old widows weeping over the ruins of their mud huts. The president, who seeks the leadership of a global anti-American front, would claim victory simply by pointing out that he is still around. The tactic worked for the Lebanese Hezbollah last summer, as the group claimed an "unprecedented victory in the history of Islam" over the "infidel" after it survived the Israeli invasion.
So confident is Ahmadinejad that the United States has become a toothless tiger that he has ordered a series of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to test the Americans.
In Afghanistan, the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces are Iran-based, has moved onto the offensive against British forces in several places. At least two pro-Taliban warlords, Mullah Jalaleddin and Haji Akbar, have visited the Iranian city of Mashhad to coordinate future tactics against NATO forces with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Expect Tehran to heat things up in Afghanistan just before the Security Council ultimatum in March.
The Khomeinist leaders have also decided to test the Americans in Iraq. The latest attacks killed U.S. and U.K. soldiers in Karbala and Basra, two Shiite cities that had been calm for the past two years. This was a message to Washington that the Islamic Republic's clients in Iraq could open dozens of new fronts against the U.S.-led multinational force.
Tehran has also ordered the Mahdi Army militia, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, to disperse its forces throughout central and southern provinces. Hundreds of Iranian-controlled gunmen are moving out of Baghdad, heading for Diwaniyah, Nasseriah, Karbala and Najaf - partly to escape the expected U.S. attack on their stronghold, the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, but also to prepare new positions for anti-U.S. operations.
Tehran has also speeded up arms deliveries to its clients in Lebanon, with an eye on using any confusion created by a U.S. attack on Iran as a cover for seizing power in Beirut. The plan is to set up a Committee of Public Safety - headed by the Chistian ex-Gen. Michel Aoun but effectively controlled by Hezbollah.
Ahmadinejad's strategy is inspired by the Shiite doctrine of "relaxation after hardship." This is based on the theory that the Hidden Imam tests the faithful by subjecting them to exceptional hardship at moments of his choice, but always ends up by closing the chapter with a new era of relief.
Applied to the present situation, the theory envisages a series of U.S. air and missile attacks that would cause hardship but would end by giving the Khomeinist revolution a new lease on life as a force that defied the "Great Satan" and survived.
If Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah could become an all-time hero of Islam simply by staying alive after triggering a mini-war with Israel, imagine the status that Ahmadinejad could claim once he has "defeated and humiliated" the only remaining superpower. Wounded but alive, Ahmadinejad would claim the leadership of the Muslim world in a global struggle to change the destiny of humanity.
As always, however, the Khomeinist leadership is also trying to dangle the carrot of accommodation in front of its enemies. It has dispatched several emissaries to spread the message that the Islamic Republic seeks a dialogue with Washington to resolve all mutual problems.
The first to hear the message was Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber. Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of the Islamic Republic and a leading "accomodationist," dropped in with a vast retinue for what he described as a vacation. He wanted Kuwait to open a secret channel between Tehran and Washington.
When the Kuwaitis showed no interest, Tehran turned to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, Muhammad-Javad Larijani, head of Iran's High Council of National Security, visited Riyadh to deliver a message from the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei to King Abdullah. This was the first time Khamenei had sent a personal message to the Saudi ruler - but the Saudis decided not to get involved.
Tehran's next move was to float the story of a so-called Grand Bargain offer it had made to the Bush administration in 2002. A one-page document, bearing no official insignia or signature, was circulated in various European capitals (often with the help of the French) showing that Iran had made an offer to America that someone like President Bill Clinton would have embraced with passion.
The Khomeinists have also knocked on the doors of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Karzai has remained noncommittal; Talabani has promised to do all he can to persuade Washington that Tehran's offer is genuine.
The first we heard of the "Grand Bargain" was last spring when two members of the British House of Lords, with business connections to Rafsanjani, made the rounds with the argument that the United States should encourage "the moderates" in Tehran to isolate Ahmadinejad. One way to do that was to show that Washington was prepared to make a deal with Iran provided "the moderates" led by Rafsanjani resumed command in Tehran.
Confrontation or accommodation? Three decades after the mullahs seized power, the question remains at the heart of the Islamic Republic's strife-ridden political life.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.