Ahmadinejad’s Power Grows as New Cold War Chills the Persian Gulf

By Arthur Hayes

The recent removal of Hashemi Rafsanjani as the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts in Iran occurred at a time when the region is swathed in political turmoil. His removal may be further evidence of the consolidation of the traditionalists and principlists within the Iranian Government. According to the Iranian constitution, the 86-member Assembly of Experts has the authority to select and remove the Supreme Leader if he is deemed not capable of carrying out his role in accordance with the constitution. Rafsanjani’s removal from the post of Assembly Chairman, and his replacement by Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani, was authorised by the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Rafsanjani represents the men who were the genesis of the revolution. He was perhaps the most prominent follower and loyal disciple of the founding father of the modern Iranian Islamic state, the late Ayatollah Khomeini,and has been a central figure in Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution. It was he who effectively cleared the path for Khamenei to become  Supreme Leader after Khomeini’s death. He served as President during the Iran-Iraq War and was for many the buttress against the emergence of the principlist faction in Iranian politics, whose rise was demonstrated by the election in June 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad is a symbol of the younger generation who are succeeding the men, such as Rafsanjani, who overthrew the Shah. Ahmadinejad is a product of his time and of the environment that shaped his political and philosophical perspective. The enormous sacrifice of his generation in the Iran-Iraq War is perhaps the paramount ingredient in constructing his mindset. Since winning a second Presidential term in June 2009 he has increasingly sought and achieved the gradual establishment of likeminded figures throughout the Iranian political system. These appointments are people whom he deems worthy and true to what he describes as the Second Islamic Revolution, that is the consolidation of the aims and ideals of 1979 revolution consecrated in the blood of the Iran-Iraq War martyrs. Ahmadinejad prefers to side with senior men from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia, who also served in the Iraq war and draw spiritual sustenance from Ayatollah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's own spiritual mentor.

Ahmadinejad and those around him perceive Iran as the true base for the genuine Islamic ongoing revolution against its staunch opponents, principally the US and Israel. It is these two nations that have, in the eyes of Ahmadinejad and his followers, usurped Islamic Palestine and its people, brought economic and military  imperialism to the region, and continue to blight the global stage. Ahmadinejad believes that it is a religious duty to oppose them and to help others who do so.

How does this affect and influence Iranian policy, especially when one considers the security situation in Bahrain and the recent Saudi intervention in support of the Sunni Bahraini government? Relations between Shia Iran and the dominant Sunni Arab nations, primarily Saudi Arabia, have been tense for a number of years, and now this tension  seems to have effectively solidified into a cold war.

Iran is not strong enough in conventional arms to feel confident that it can defeat its enemies on the battlefield. The Iranians have no more than 65 naval vessels in total, with only three submarines compared to the mighty US Navy, which has 11 carrier battle groups and 75 submarines. Iran has around 85 operational military strike aircraft compared to over 400 available to the Saudis; Iran has 80 military helicopters versus the Saudi heli fleet of over 140, both of which are dwarfed by the US heli strength of over 5,000 serviceable machines.  

Iran has failed so far to develop nuclear weapons, which it denies it is trying to do, although the establishment and continued development of nuclear enrichment technology and an advanced missile programme indicate  that this is exactly what it is striving for. So for now Iran finds itself in a situation where it must at all costs avoid direct confrontation with its adversaries to ensure the maintenance of the regime, but still find ways to advance its cause and promote its national interest.

A flavour of current Iranian thought on what it is striving to accomplish can be seen in open source reporting comments of IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Bagherzadeh who said about the Bahraini situation: “The Islamic revolution of the people of Bahrain has now entered the phase of jihad” and in the Iranian Foreign Ministry comment on the “unacceptable” involvement of foreign troops in Bahrain.

Will Iran adopt a more covert and deniable tactic when deciding on how to support its interests in Bahrain, as it has done in the anti-American insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan? The recent announcement by the UK Government of the seizure of 48 122mm rockets, allegedly manufactured in Iran, by British forces in south-western Afghanistan, is not the first time that Iran has been accused of supplying weapons in such circumstances. In February 2007, American officials in Iraq produced physical evidence, including armour-piercing technology, of Iranian military support for the Shia  militias operating at that time.

It could be understood why Iran, a Shia Islamic state, would wish to support fellow Shias , but the Taliban are Sunni extremists, hardly theological bedfellows for the Iranian Shia Ayatollahs. Nor would Tehran want to see the Taliban re-establish itself as the dominant political force in Afghanistan. Iran does want to guarantee national security and protect the revolution. It will continue to use a dual track policy of covert military support and overt traditional diplomacy in foreign affairs, even if this means setting aside religious differences, in order to maximise benefits to its national interests. 


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


29 March 2011