June 12, 2007 -- IN Persian mythology, no warrior worth his salt would enter battle before indulging in a good dose of rajaz. Put simply, rajaz translates as boasting.
The term, however, encompasses other meanings. The hero steps into the battlefield, draws his sword, swirls several times and then stops to address the adversary who has likewise taken up position. He might recite an ode recalling the martial deeds of his ancestors. Or he might declaim a satirical sonnet mocking the enemy.
In the modern military lexicon, rajaz functions as psychological warfare.
Against that background, recent statements by several key figures in the Khomeinist leadership can be seen as rajaz. These figures appear to have bought into President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's theory that a limited war against the United States is inevitable and that, once fought, will result in the Americans running away, leaving Tehran to set the agenda for the Middle East and even beyond.
What's odd, however, is that the Islamic Republic's top brass apparently don't share Ahmadinejad's belief that a duel with the United States would be short and sweet, let alone that it would end with Tehran's victory.
Take Gen. Yayha Safavi, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He has devoted his recent statements to reminding everyone that the Islamic Republic's military machine isn't prepared for a major war with the United States and its regional allies. To be sure, Safavi repeats some of the childish slogans about "humbling the Great Satan" and turning the Middle East into "the graveyard of global arrogance." If one reads between the lines, however, his message is clear: Provoking a major war could be suicidal for the Islamic Republic.
Defense Minister Muhammad Pour-Najjar, another senior Revolutionary Guard officer, echoes that message. In Tehran last week, he claimed that, if attacked, the Islamic Republic could launch "a storm of missiles" against U.S. interests in the region. But he didn't promise "the clear victory" (fatah al-mobin) that Ahmadinejad has hinted at on occasions. By rajaz standards, Pour-Najjar's statement sounded more like a cryptic call for avoiding war.
As if on cue, a similar message has come from Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the former defense minister and current chairman of the High Council of Strategic Defense. Shamkhani, also a Guard commander, has gone out of his way to deny reports that the Islamic Republic intended to launch missiles against Oman, Bahrain and Qatar, Persian Gulf states that host U.S. military bases. Shamkhani's intervention is significant because it appears to be aimed at countering one of Ahmadinejad's principal threats against Iran's neighbors.
The only senior Revolutionary Guard commander who echoes Ahmadinejad's rajaz is Brig.-Gen. Muhammad-Baqer Zulqadr, the deputy Interior minister for security and the bete noire of liberals in Tehran. In a speech over the weekend, Zulqadr boasted about the Islamic Republic's arsenal of missiles and claimed that the new generation of Shahab-III missiles has a range of up to 1,200 miles. Even Zulqadr, however - regarded as the most radical Guard commander - dropped hints that it wouldn't be in the Islamic Republic's interest to provoke an unequal war.
Why should Revolutionary Guard commanders anxiously distance themselves from Ahmadinejad? After all, the radical president, himself a former IRGC member, was their handpicked candidate in the presidential election of 2005.
Ahmadinejad's political rivals, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the mullah whom he defeated, claim that the Revolutionary Guard filled the ballot boxes to ensure its candidate's victory. Rafsanjani also claims that the Guard engineered Ahmadinejad's victory to strengthen its hold on Iran's state-dominated economy. Guard commanders now account for a good part of Iran's entrepreneurial elite. Some analysts believe that the IRGC has replaced the Shiite clergy as the wealthiest stratum of Iranian society.
Muhammad Khatami, the mullah who preceded Ahmadinejad as president, had prepared a massive privatization program aimed at transferring state-owned assets worth $18 billion to private companies controlled by mullahs and their partners in the bazaars. The idea was to limit the IRGC's economic clout and restore the balance of economic power in favor of the clergy and the traditional merchant classes.
Ahmadinejad has redesigned the privatization scheme in order to enable the Revolutionary Guard to secure a major share. The IRGC feels grateful for the favor - but not to the point of endorsing his strategy of provoking war with the United States.
The Guard's commanders prefer a strategy of low-intensity operations and proxy wars against the United States and its regional allies, notably Israel. Shamkhani has described the strategy as one of "bleeding the enemy slowly over a long period."
Low-intensity operations and proxy wars sap the morale of the enemy without giving it a pretext for using its superior military might against the Islamic Republic. There's no guarantee that any full-scale war wouldn't transmute into regime change.
The Guard has a more specific cause for concern. It knows that, in case of a major war, it would be the principal target of U.S. attacks. The Americans could leave the Iranian regular army intact while dismantling the Guard's network of bases and strategic assets. The Guard's destruction could leave the "mullahrchy" defenseless and vulnerable to a power grab by the regular army in alliance with the political opponents of Khomeinism.
Iran might become then another Iraq, as far as the United States is concerned. But Ahmadinejad and his IRGC backers could end up where Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist cohorts did.
We're faced with a paradox. The Revolutionary Guard is behind almost all of the mischief that the Islamic Republic has accomplished in the region in the past 25 years. Right now, however, it's the key opponent of full-scale war with America. Its commanders, smoothed by years of power, are not as idealistic - which is to say, as suicidal - as Ahmadinejad.
The question is whether the Revolutionary Guard could act in time, perhaps by forcing Ahmadinejad's ouster, to prevent what it regards as the worst-case scenario for the regime.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.