Policy debate rages in Tehran, leaving Gulf tranquil

The present lull in the Gulf waters is the result of an extensive war strategy review by Iran's Supreme Defense Council, observers and diplomats agree. According to a generally well-informed Iranian source in Tehran, the Council's members are at pains to agree on a strategy in the wake of the United States show of force in the Gulf on April 18 and the US decision to extend naval protection to all neutral ships in the waterway.

President Hojatolislam Ali Khamenei opposes any compromise with Iraq and the US. Mr. Khamenei insists that recent attacks by the US and Iraq should be responded to by military means.

Parliament Speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, for his part, voices his concern at the high number of casualties new land offensives against Iraq and a confrontation with the US would involve.

But the source said that Mr. Rafsanjani has over the past two years suffered a series of setbacks and his influence may be on the wane.

``Rafsanjani was involved in the Iran-contra affair. In early March this year he tried to convince the Iranian population that missiles fired by the Iraqis at Iranian cities were not entirely Soviet-made, which later proved to be wrong.

``Also, Rafsanjani refused to break off diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia after the Mecca tragedy, which in retrospect was a mistake,'' the source added. He was referring to the death of some 400 people during the Muslim pilgrimmage to Mecca last year.

A senior Iranian diplomat in West Germany, reflecting the hardline view, commented: ``The Islamic Republic has traditionally been against the internationalization of its war with Iraq. But it is now confronted with a de facto coalition made up of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the US. A growing number of Iran's politicians believe that we would in the long run benefit from a general flare-up in the Gulf because when the entire region will be ablaze all those coward Arab monarchs will be the first to call for a large negotiation in the course of which we will obtain the downfall of the Iraqi regime.''

While refraining from using the word ``terrorism,'' the diplomat added, ``We have many friends throughout the world who are ready to lend us a hand in our fight against the United States and its allies in the Gulf.''

A Brussels-based Iranian diplomat, who in the past often expressed views more moderate than those of his colleagues, now says, ``I was among those who for years insisted that we maintain relations with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait at any cost. But those countries kept on bankrolling Iraq's war efforts.

``The recapture of the Faw Peninsula by Iraq was launched from Kuwaiti territory and the Saudis humiliated us twice: First they slaughtered our pilgrims in Mecca. Second, they abruptly severed their diplomatic ties with us. It's time for those two countries to pay a military price for their deeds.''

A European diplomat just back from Tehran said it is hard to predict whether Iran will make good its threats. But he pointed out that its revolutionary leaders have always shown a fondness for suicidal strategies. Thus they may be tempted to engage in a head-on confrontation with the US Navy despite its superior firepower.

``The Islamic Republic has committed itself to winning the war against Iraq and its survival may be linked to this victory,'' the diplomat said.

``Also, all of Iran's present leaders are aware that if their regime falls down, they'll face the prospect of being executed. They feel they're with their back to the wall. They might be tempted to play their last card which is the internationalization of the war.''

Iranian exiles are more skeptical. Explains a man who carefully follows his country's political life, ``We have an Iranian proverb that says: He who lifts a heavy stone is unlikely to throw it. Islamic leaders' harsh rhetoric may just be a sign of their impotence.''

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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