President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming under increasing pressure to moderate his extremist stance on the nuclear issue. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is also coming under pressure to rein in Ahmadinejad.
The reformists and traditional conservative, including former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are sounding alarm at Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements on Iran’s nuclear advances, which at times seem like inviting the US and Israel to hit the country’s nuclear installations and to start a war. On 7 November, he defiantly said that despite threats of a military attack on Iran, the country has built 3,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges. The 3,000 number was significant because it is generally believed it represents a threshold where a country can produce enough enriched uranium to build nuclear weapons.
Moderates fear the uncompromising nuclear policies of the government will lead to a disastrous military conflict. They point to the US military buildup in the Persian Gulf. There are a carrier battle group and an expeditionary unit with fighter jets and a large contingent of marines. There are dozens of more fighters and bombers at bases in Qatar, UAE, Iraq, Diego Garcia and elsewhere in the region. Voices of moderation within the Islamic Republic are calling for conflict-resolution concessions, namely a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment activities. Ahmadinejad angrily labeled his critics “traitors” and questioned their mental capacity by calling them “little goats.”
The extremists led by Ahmadinejad see the situation not as a threat to nation’s security, but as an opportunity to force the US military out of the region. They point to US Fifth Fleet’s vulnerability to Iran’s advanced anti-ship missile arsenal. The Russian-built cruise missiles are positioned on the rugged mountains overlooking the Persian Gulf. They believe that they can destroy most of the Fifth Fleet by those cruise missiles. Hence they feel the US would not dare to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. In their minds, this is a game of Chicken, and the US will back down.
In a tense situation prevailing in the region, the moderates warn, any miscalculations on either side can start a conflict that could get out of control. If Iranian cruise missiles destroyed even a single US ship, with the high casualties involved, it would be a total war on Iran, including the possible use of tactical nukes against the nuclear and missile installations. It would be a disaster for Iran and a disaster for the entire region.
Ahmadinejad is dead set on playing the game, building nuclear capabilities and wining the next rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections, slated for March 2008 and May 2009 respectively, on nationalistic and populist sentiments if Iran gets close to building the bomb. His anger and use of vulgar language in recent days is a reaction to becoming increasingly isolated within the establishment. The reformists and traditional conservatives see in him an extremist out of control who need to be stopped now.
Iran’s nuclear program and Iran-US relations have become the hottest issues in the power struggle unfolding in Tehran.