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Why Iran lashes out at West

Is Iran pursuing a systematic strategy to provoke its enemies? It's not always that simple.

By Staff writer / December 4, 2011

Members of the Basij militia wait outside Tehran's Mehrabad airport to welcome diplomats expelled from Britain Saturday. All Iranian diplomats left Britain on Friday, expelled by the British government in response to protesters storming its embassy in Tehran, hardening a confrontation between Tehran and the West.

Caren Firouz/Reuters

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Baghdad

Amid rising clamor in Israel, the United States, and Europe to stop Iran's nuclear program – possibly with military action – a brief but incendiary news item emerged in Iran.

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It purported to quote from the last will of the architect of Iran's missile program, "martyr" Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, who died when a mysterious explosion hit a Revolutionary Guard base last month.

"Write on my tombstone: This is the grave of the one who wanted to annihilate Israel," the obscure Student News Agency reported on Nov. 30, in apparent contradiction of the official line that Iran's missile program is purely defensive.

The decision to publish Moghaddam's final sentiments just a day after hundreds of ideological basiji militants stormed the British embassy – tearing down the Union Jack, stealing portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, and temporarily trapping six diplomats – will be seen by some in the West as further justification for conflict, or at least far harsher sanctions.

What might appear to be part of a systematic strategy by Iran to provoke its enemies, however, may instead be the latest episode in a decades-long pattern of Iranian factions and even "freelancers" using violence and provocative acts to undermine rivals at home – even at the risk of making Iran more vulnerable to attacks from abroad.

Power struggle

The Nov. 29 attack on the British embassy has been cast by analysts as part of a power struggle between Iran's archconservative factions, with some trying to undermine President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"The argument that Iranians are very strategic is [wrong]. They are very tactical: They think very much in terms of the next move, and not where they want to end up," says Shahram Chubin, an Iran specialist based in Geneva for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

All critical debates in Iran today are among ruling but fractious conservatives, with almost no input from the emasculated liberal opposition, he says.

"There's no one to say: 'Hey, have we thought through what this means, because if we alienate the international community, and antagonize the EU all over again, won't we be more vulnerable to an Israeli attack?' " says Mr. Chubin.

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