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Murphy's Law in the Gulf: II
Media General News Service


April 17, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The general supposition here has been that the Iranian "street" never really cared much about having the bomb. Young people in Tehran and Isfahan, after all, don't fall asleep at night to dreams of more enriched uranium anymore than they do here.

Yet, nukes make you popular. The rise of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is directly attributable to his defiance of the United Nations and the international order on nuclear non-proliferation. He ran on this program and he seems to be in the catbird seat because of his boldness.

Once again the world's system of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons is failing, just as it did in the case of India and Pakistan, only this time it is failing with potentially enormous consequences.

There may have been a brief period during the 1990s when it looked like there was a big student movement that was rising up to challenge the "mullahcracy" that was leading Iran to this tragedy. Indeed, a liberalized government for a while seemed to be bringing moderation to Iran.

Most of this has been eclipsed by Ahmadinejad. Iran's hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at one point was believed to be trying to control the young president. The mullahs appear now to have rolled over, impressed by the way he has called the United Nations' bluff and gotten away with it.

The invasion of Iraq and 100,000 or more U.S. troops on its borders two years later does not seem to have fazed Ahmadinejad. This week's announcement of plans for a 54,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant adds up to a bomb factory.

The growth of the nuclear industry has brought with it a certain amount of national pride and prosperity among Iranian businessmen traveling overseas. Average Iranians may not care if enriched uranium is part of their lives, but they can see the value of becoming a member of a very exclusive club and also like the idea of Iran not letting itself get pushed around by the nuclear nations and, particularly, the United States.

Moreover, experts with good contacts in Iran fear that some of these Iranian elites, who did not begin with a particular grudge against the United States, are being gradually won over by Ahmadinejad. He took a tough negotiating stance on the issue of uranium enrichment and got away with it, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ahmadinejad's popularity has also risen because of the increase in world petroleum prices and Iran's $30 billion oil surplus. The Iran-Iraq war was bloodier than most Americans realize, and Iran is just now getting over the depression it caused.

Some administration officials, nonetheless, appear to be convinced that there is a solid contingent of Iranians ready to rise up against Ahmadinejad in a sequel to the "regime change" that they thought they could engineer next door against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That led to some unpredicted results in Iraq, and could produce some surprises in Iran, too.

"I would suspect that a lot of people in the governing circles, including the supreme leader, who have been prepared to let Ahmadinejad run with the ball so far have done it because he's been able to convincingly argue there's no price to be paid," Clawson told a National Public Radio forum recently.

If there is a price to be paid, in the form of sanctions or other penalties, Clawson argues that Iranian technocrats and other business will put pressure on Khamenei to control his young president. But as long as the U.N. Security Council, with Russia and China brandishing their vetoes, refuses to put any teeth in its resolution, the world body makes Ahmadinejad an unwitting hero of Iran and makes the bomb its destiny.

That may not mean he or this episode is a great victory for Islam. Iran sponsors Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist organization inside Lebanon bent on the destruction of Israel. It also backs Shiite organizations inside Iraq. But as non-Arabs, the Iranians are not trusted in the Arab Middle East, and the development of nuclear weapons may not be great cause for joy among their neighbors.



John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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