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The Vietnam model
Ahmadinejad's remarks help cement the alliance with radicals in the Islamic world who in time of war would mobilize and attack the U.S., Israel, as well as any government that sided with the U.S.


November 7, 2005

In my previous article, I presented evidence which showed that Ahmadinejad's remarks on October 26 were shared by the president's sub-faction (Young Conservatives) as well as many in his faction (hard-liners).[1] The regime under the leadership of president Ahmadinejad has decided to pursue a "new" aggressive policy. In this article, I speculate on possible rationales behind the "new" policy.

How can observers present informed speculations about rationales of other actors? Perceptions of reality -- and not reality itself -- help determine one's behavior. Ideology is a potent lens through which one perceives and interprets reality. This lens also helps one decide what actions are appropriate or inappropriate. Thus to understand one's motivations, and possible courses of action, we have to study their ideology or worldview.

To understand why individuals or groups choose one course of action rather than another, we need to understand THEIR ideology, motivation, perceptions, ideals, fears, and hopes. This capacity is called empathy (not to be confused with sympathy). Empathy is the capacity to understand the feelings and thoughts of others. To do so, we need to pay careful attention to their words, to the tone and emotions that their words carry, as well as to the unspoken body language that they display.

In addition, we have to pay attention to their histories. This is not to say that every word spoken by a politician reflects their true intentions. In fact, politicians lie and engage in propaganda. An astute analysis should attempt to distinguish words of propaganda from words that may reflect the actual motivation of the politician.

In addition to the choice of words, we should pay attention to the historical and political analogies that one uses to portray current issue. Such analogies should be taken seriously because when one chooses a particular analogy instead of another, one also chooses how to view reality, and what solution is most likely to be undertaken, although one may not verbalize the solution at earlier stages of a conflict due to political reasons. For example, if one uses the analogy of "Vietnam" to describe the U.S. war in Iraq, then that person is likely to view the American sacrifices in blood and treasure as wasteful (and American intervention as immoral), and present the solution as withdraw as soon as possible.

However, if one uses the analogy of "WWII and the fight against fascism" to describes the U.S. war in Iraq, Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups, then he or she would be more likely to view the American sacrifices as necessary, and any withdraw not only as invitation to disaster but also as immoral and unethical. In other words, the words and analogies one uses, reflects how one perceives the situation and clues to how one may try to resolve the situation. [2]

In his most important speech since he became president, Ahmadinejad addressed the UN General Assembly on September 17. [See]

Although it must be safe to assume that his speech writers must have worked on this speech, nevertheless, he must have added his own words to the final text. These words signify not only his mindset but also those of his inner circle. In this very short speech (only 10 pages), Ahmadinejad uses the word "aramesh" translated as "tranquility" or "tranquil" a total of 11 times. The speech is also peppered by words such as "justice," "despair," "insecurity," "security," and "fear." He uses the phrase "durable tranquility and peace can only be built on justice and spirituality" twice explicitly in addition to having implied it on several more occasions.

The speech begins with: "Today we have gathered here to exchange views about the world, its future and out common responsibilities towards it. It is evident that the future of the world is intertwined with its current state and the prevailing trends, which exhibit signs of hope and despair." The speech ends with the apocalyptic "O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one [the 12th Imam], that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace. O Lord, include us among his companions, followers and those who serve his cause."

Instead of presenting proposals to resolve the regime's nuclear stand-off with the IAEA, the speech concentrated on attacking the United States and Israel and included conspiracy theories about 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was the content of the speech that pushed members of the Board of Governors of the IAEA to vote for a harsh resolution against the regime. For our purposes, however, a content analysis of the words of his speech should indicate the following:

* Ahmadinejad and his inner circle have an intense feeling of insecurity and lack of tranquility. This is not an individual psychological assessment, rather it is a political condition or problem felt by Young Conservatives and hard-liners. This is in part due to the American threat of regime change.

* Ahmadinejad's inner circle think that they have reached a fork on the road that would either provide despair and hope. The "despair" is in part the American military domination in the region, and Israel. And "hope" is faith and spirituality which is repeatedly said to be the solution of many problems. The speech explicitly states that they can "influence the future of the world" by their actions. The notion that they can influence the events by the actions is repeated several times including the use of a Koranic verse. There is a clear call to action to change the world. This call to action was also the main slogan in Ahmadinejad's campaign, which is the main slogan in his website. In Farsi the slogan reads: "Mishavad va Mitavanim." An English translation would read: "It is possible and we can do it."

* The speech portrays a view that is not only starkly black-and-white but also is utterly false. Ahmadinejad's sentence, repeated twice, that "The Islamic Republic of Iran is a symbol of true democracy" could be dismissed either a pure propaganda or the utterance of someone who is totally disconnected to reality. Ahmadinejad's uses the terms "justice" and "injustice" 23 times in this speech. Considering the fact that the fundamentalist regime is one of the most unjust and oppressive regimes in the world, which routinely brutalizes its own people, Ahmadinejad's obsessive use of this term requires further analysis. Even former members of the oligarchy such as Akbar Ganji, Hojatolislam Abdollah Nouri, Hojatolislam Mohsen Kadivar, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri have tasted a little of fundamentalist "justice."

For the president of the fundamentalist regime to discuss justice is like Hitler to discuss human rights, or a KKK member to discuss civil rights. To use the term "apartheid" is so bizarre for the president of a regime that classifies its subject into "khodi" [of one's own] and "gheir-e khodi" [not of one's own] where the latter is denied any political rights and civil liberties, while members of the former may be allowed to run only if a group of 12 in the Council of Guardian would consider them loyal members of the fundamentalist oligarchy. What these show is that the Young Conservatives hold a view of the world and themselves that not only is starkly black-and-white but also is the reverse of the actual reality.

* Finally, the speech ends with an apocalyptic wish and expectation. Had this been expressed in isolation, it could have been dismissed as a religious signing off of a devout man. However, as soon as Ahmadinejad returned back to Iran, a series of news leaked that showed the mindset of Ahmadinejad and his inner circle.

On September 21, Iran daily reported that in the First Seminar on the Doctrine of Mahdaviyat [relating to the arrival of the 12th Imam Mehdi], Ahmadinejad said: "The only ideology that is responsive to human's needs is the [maktab entezar] ideology of expectation [of Mehdi], and its flag-bearer is the Islamic Republic of Iran." Ahmadinejad added: "Instead of implementing the ideology of development which is based on materialism and liberalism, we should pay attention to the ideology of [entezar] expectation, and from this perspective we can define our domestic and foreign relations... In this kind of society all the programs of the government are based on the ideology of expectation. {my translation}[See]

A week later, ISNA reported that "Ahmadinejad said that the Islamic government has no duty other than creating the conditions for the arrival of the 12th Imam." {my translation}[See]

In an explosive article published in Entekhab (associated with Rafsanjani), it is reported that in a meeting of the Cabinet, the First Vice President Parviz Davoodi, proposed to the members of the Cabinet that in the way that they had signed a compact with president Ahmadinejad, they should sign a compact with the 12th Imam. The ministers agreed and wrote a compact and each signed it. Because in an compact there are two sides, one of ministers said that one of them should take this compact to the 12th Imam. The Cabinet chose Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Safar Harandi to deliver the compact to a well in Jamkaran. Jamkaran is a village outside Qom. It has a mosque, which it is claimed that about 1,000 years ago, the 12th Imam told a local man to build. There is a well, where visitors drop letters and money and ask the 12th Imam to provide them with some need. The Jamkaran shrine (mosque and well) has its own official website at

The pro-Rafsanjani Entekhab writes: "The most important issue to contemplate is that some of the extremist figures close to the president constantly talk about the creation of conditions for the arrival of the 12th Imam and explicitly connect this pre-condition to the issue of Iran's nuclear file. Based upon confirmed and accurate reports, in different private meetings they have emphasized that resistance to world pressures and insistence on the right to develop nuclear power is one of the ways to create the condition for the arrival of the 12th Imam." {my translation}[See]

The above report propelled Majles member Ali Zadsar Jirofti, t write an open letter addressed to Ahmadinejad and ask the president to clarify whether he "regards himself to have been chosen by the 12th Imam"? {my translation}[See]

Ahmadinejad and fellow Young Conservatives came to executive power due to their victory in the June 2005 election although several of their members were placed in positions of power by the Supreme Leader earlier. Between 1999 and 2003 the taboo on the IRGC's entrance into politics all but disappeared. In 2003 Mahmood Ahmadinejad, was made mayor of Tehran, and another fellow IRGC commander, Ezatullah Zarghami, was named to the key position of Head of the state radio and television monopoly. By 2004 former Guardsmen account for more than a third of the members of the 7th Majles.[3]

One way to judge whether Ahmadinejad means the words he speaks, or he uses his words carelessly with no intention of implementing them is to look at his history and pattern of behavior. Ahmadinejad's history suggests that he is a man of action and not a man of mere empty and carelessly-chosen words.

Ahmadi-Nejad is a former member of the elite special operations unit of the IRGC, established specifically to protect the fundamentalist rule from domestic and foreign opponents. On his website, Ahmadi-Nejad mentions his participation in undercover operations inside Iraq in the 1980s. [See]

On May 11, 2005 during his campaign for presidency, in a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on Hojatolislam Hassan Rouhani (who had led the negotiations with the EU and is a cleric associated with Rafsanjani and the expedients), Ahmadi-Nejad said: "Iranian representatives in nuclear negotiations and foreign policy have not shown strength and determination."

As soon as he assumed office, Ahmadinejad dismissed Rouhani and placed Ali Larijani (a hard-liner and close to Supreme Leader) in his place. Then, he went even further and dismissed about 40 ambassadors and top diplomats that are regarded to have been supportive of better relations with the West. These include IRI's ambassador in Paris, London, Berlin and Geneva, all of them directly involved in the nuclear negotiations with EU-3.

Ahmadinejad had made a campaign promise to fight Western cultural influences. True to his promise, Ahmadinejad has ordered "a crackdown on foreign films" that promote "secularism, feminism, unethical behaviour, drug abuse, violence or alcoholism." [Pam O'Toole, "Iran 'crackdown on foreign films'," BBC News, October 20, 2005.]

In his campaign, Ahmadinejad had criticized officials of not being Islamic enough. Again, true to his words, Ahmadinejad's Interior Minister dismissed large number of governors of cities and provinces and replaced them with former IRGC commanders. Moreover, it is reported that the Interior Ministry will change ALL the governors of cities and provinces. He also has replaced Presidents of many banks with members of his sub-faction.

Moreover, the Young Conservatives have shown a capacity to use violent intimidation tactics. Examples include the forceful closing of the Imam Khomeini International Airport and attacks on several British Navy vassals by the IRGC even before they won the presidential race. Recent examples include explosions of percussion bombs close to the Tehran offices of British Airways and British Petroleum after British government criticized Ahmadinejad's remarks on Israel and suggested linked between IRI and bombs used in Iraq.

This brief background suggests that Ahmadinejad's history exhibits a pattern of consistently implementing his words.

It appears that Ahmadinejad and his inner circle have a strong fear that the Bush administration intends to implement regime change in Iran as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Young Conservatives regard policies of Khatami and Rafsanjani to be both betrayal of the ideals of the revolution and ineffective in warding off America's threats. In their view, the problem with the Bush administration is not merely over the nuclear issue. Hardliners believe that the Bush administration wants to overthrow them: therefore if the regime gave in on the nuclear issue, the Bush administration would emphasize human rights, democracy, and assistance to anti-IRI terrorist groups.

In other words, for the Young Conservatives and the hard-liners, the Bush administration would not accept anything short of unconditional surrender (the Libyan model) or regime change (Afghanistan and Iraq). Neither option is acceptable to the Young Conservatives and hard-liners. It appears that for the Supreme Leader and many in the hard-line camp, the best solution is the North Korean model. The lesson they learned from U.S. invasion of Iraq and restraint in North Korea is that the only way to prevent an American invasion is to have nuclear weapons. But they need more time to complete the putative nuclear weapon.

Unlike the Supreme Leader and many in the hard-line camp, it appears that Ahmadinejad and Young Conservatives wish to follow the "Vietnam model." Some believe that the U.S. is on the verge of collapse similar to what occurred in the former Soviet Union. Many of them believe that the U.S. is overstretched in Afghanistan, and Iraq and in a stand-off in the Korean peninsula and thus unable to impose its wish on the fundamentalist regime. However, America's weakness may not last another year or two. If the U.S. is able to capture bin Laden and Mollah Omar and stabilize the situation in Iraq, well over 150,000 battle hardened troops would be freed to carry the war into Iran and overthrow the regime.

Considering the above factors, it is to the advantage of the regime to confront the U.S. and the West at the time of its weakest rather than wait until they solve their problems and regain strength and choose the time at which to put pressure on the regime.

If the analysis in this article is correct, then it would make much sense for the Young Conservatives to make a serious challenge to the U.S. at this juncture. They think they are at a fork: either despair (being overthrown by the U.S. if they wait) or hope (defeat the U.S. and force an American withdrawal from the region, which would end in the expansion of fundamentalist power).

But why the virulent attack on Israel at this juncture? It appears that Ahmadinejad intended to accomplish the exact same aim that Saddam had when he launched his scud missile attacks on Israel in 1991.[4] By attacking Israel, IRI could immediately gain several powerful allies such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and even perhaps some violent Sunni fundamentalist organizations. It was no accident that the conference that Ahmadinejad delivered his speech had its slogans in Arabic and English instead of in Farsi and its guests of honor were leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The main sign of the conference was in English that said "The world without Zionism."

In addition, there are large number of violent Sunni fundamentalist groups, many of whom are strongly anti-Shia. Ahmadinejad's comments clearly convey a message that they have a common enemy in Israel and the US. That they are all Muslim and that they all share the goals of liberating Palestine from non-Muslim hands.

These allies not only could make a serious threat to the U.S., Israel and other pro-U.S. allies in the region, but also could be relied upon if in fact either Israel or the U.S. were to make any sort of military attacks on IRI (e.g., surgical strikes on nuclear facilities or all-out invasion). Ahmadinejad's comments on "wiping Israel off the map" has the huge advantage of bringing in major violent groups that IRI could rely upon in a major military confrontation with Israel and/or the U.S. By making incendiary remarks against any government in the Arab or Islamic world that would recognize Israel, Ahmadinejad expanded the theater of operations against pro-US allies in the Arab and Islamic world.

In addition, considering that large segments of the populations in Arab and Islamic countries do wish to annihilate Israel, Ahmadinejad's remarks serves as a warning to these government not to assist the US and Israel in the event of any confrontations. This is very significant because U.S. troops are located in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, all of them with populations that could be mobilized as a destabilizing forces against their governments in the event of confrontations with the U.S. or Israel.

On the domestic front, Ahmadinejad and his sub-faction have been involved in a serious conflict with Rafsanjani and his supporters. The mutual attacks between Rafsanjani's Entekhab on the one side and the supporters of Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi on the other side heated up during and AFTER the election. Supreme Leader has tried to create a balance between the two sides and thus increase his own stature in the way Khomeini play one fundamentalist faction against another in the early 1980s.

Ahmadinejad also faces challenges from reformists who have been pushed out of power but could come to power if Ahmadinejad's economic policies failed to reduce poverty. One of the reasons why Ahmadinejad was able to get the votes of the poor was his campaign promise to have the oil money show up on the plates of the poor. Considering that the top mullahs and their children (so-called aghazadeh-ha) who are in the leadership of hard-line faction control bonyads, control importation of many materials (Mafia-style), have concentrated wealth in their hands, there is little that Ahmadinejad can do to fulfill his campaign promise. Other groups within the hard-line faction (e.g., Motalefeh Party, Society of Combatant Clergy) wish to mobilize the poor but do not wish to share their wealth with them.

Ahmadinejad's comments on Israel could serve to isolate anyone within the oligarchy and within the general population as collaborators of Israel and U.S. in the event of confrontation. With his strong words and strong actions, Ahmadinejad has stolen the domestic show from Rafsanjani (and expedient) as well as from the reformists.

Ahmadinejad's comments on Israel are reprehensible and should be condemned by all people of good will. But they were neither off-the-cuff remarks nor against the interests of Ahmadinejad and his sub-faction Young Conservatives. Ahmadinejad's words help him and his inner circle to overcome their domestic rivals in the short-term as well as the long-term. Although in the foreign arena, Ahmadinejad's remarks harm the IRI in the short-term, they certainly help cement their alliance with radical fundamentalist groups in the Islamic world who in time of war would mobilize and attack the U.S., Israel, as well as any government that sided with the U.S. Although Saddam's scud missile attacks on Israel did not succeed, Ahmadinejad's remarks do in fact increase the costs of a potential Israeli or American military attack on the fundamentalist regime.

In conclusion, if the Young Conservatives wish to follow the Vietnam model -- that it to provoke the U.S. into a war in which the fundamentalists think they can win and expand their influence in the region or cause the 12th Imam to arrive to lead his forces -- then Ahmadinejad's remarks would serve their goal.

[1] Masoud Kazemzadeh, "Old Policy, New Fears",, November 1, 2005.

[2] For a scholarly theories on these see: Robert Jervis "Hypotheses on Misperception," Philip Tetlock and Charles McGuire, Jr., "Cognitive Perspectives on Foreign Policy," Yuen Foong Khong, "Seduction by Analogy in Vietnam: The Malaya and Korea Analogies," and David Winter et al., "The Personalities of Bush and Gorbachev Measured at a Distance: Procedures, Portraits, and Policy," all have been re-published in G. John Ikenberry, ed., American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays, 5th edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005).

[3] Vali Nasr and Ali Gheissari, "Foxes in Iran's Henhouse," op-ed in The New York Times, December 13, 2004. The Economist of London quoting a reformist newspaper writes that "90 out of 290 deputies" belong to IRGC. See "The Revolutionary Guards are Back," in The Economist, June 17, 2004. Official fundamentalist regime sources have mentioned that only 12 former IRGC have become members of the 7th Majles, itself a first instance of the entrance of IRGC entering into political leadership

[4] I owe this analogy to Lindsey French.

Masoud Kazemzadeh is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He is the author of Islamic Fundamentalism, Feminism, and Gender Inequality in Iran Under Khomeini (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), and The Bush Doctrine and Iran: Alternative Scenarios and Consequences (forthcoming).

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