Tehran has been maneuvering for years to secure certain interests in the region. First and foremost, of course, is the country's own national security, for which the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad was a prerequisite. With the establishment of a friendly (or at least neutral), Shiite-controlled government in Baghdad, Iran would be able to both secure the primary goal of security and be well down the path toward a secondary and equally desirable goal: regional hegemony.
Therefore, an Iranian strategy began emerging almost from the moment the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad fell in April 2003. The strategy has revolved around shaping events in the region and, crucially, external perceptions of Iran and its leadership. The chief tactics employed have been manipulation of political events in Iraq, a vocal emphasis on Iran's nuclear program, skillful use of politically incorrect (at times, seemingly maniacal) statements by Ahmadinejad, the activation of regional proxies and, above all, patience. Stratfor has explored many of these tactics in detail before, but we will recap them here briefly as the strategy, viewed in full, is quite something to behold.
Let's begin with the most potent part of the strategy (both politically and militarily): the nuclear program.
Iran clearly has used this as a bargaining chip in the back channel dealings over Iraq. Rather than pursuing a covert nuclear program -- which has been the logical course if obtaining nuclear weapons were truly Iran's primary goal in the beginning -- the Iranians made a conscious decision to tout their nuclear advances publicly. Their political and energy partners in Moscow and Beijing routinely have played defense, ensuring that the nuclear issue languishes in the U.N. Security Council. And Tehran has made sure to crank up the rhetoric whenever political developments in Iraq take an unfavorable turn -- while always staying clear of the red line (beyond which the United States or Israel could be expected to mount pre-emptive strikes). This tactic has helped shape perceptions of Iran as a force to be reckoned with, while keeping Washington and its allies off balance in negotiations over Iraq. And, significantly, nuclear weapons no longer appear to be a red herring tactic, but an end of themselves for Tehran.
Closely related to this has been the image campaign for Ahmadinejad, who has been carefully and purposely branded in the public mind as an utter lunatic. The nearly unknown, populist mayor from Tehran was captured in the public spotlight during Iran's 2005 summer election season. Before the world could even begin to form an opinion of him, he began threatening to wipe Israel off the map, labeling the Holocaust an enormous lie and so forth. As North Korea's experiments with the "crazy fearsome cripple gambit" have showed, an otherwise weak state -- headed by a seemingly wild-eyed leader who just might be mad enough to launch some of the nukes that the state may or may not actually possess -- can gain useful concessions, if not respect, from the rest of the world. And in Iran's case, it certainly made Israel and the United States to think twice about whether to attempt any military adventures concerning the Islamic Republic.
In the tea leaves used to assess the murky, shifting alliances among the mullahs, such publicity [about a group of students who burned his picture and chanted “Death to the Dictator!”] seemed to signal that someone fairly senior is less than enchanted with Mr. Ahmadinejad.
“There is dissent in Iran,” said Vali Nasr, author of “The Shiite Revival” and a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “The perspective the U.S. has of Iran being a monolithic country under this demagogue is not correct.”
The first fissures in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s popular image come at a potentially significant moment. The Iraq Study Group recommended that the United States open a dialogue with Iran...
Being seen confronting the West burnishes Mr. Ahmadinejad’s populist image at home and adds to his aura on the Arab street, feeding the mullahs’ dreams of leading the world’s Muslims.
“They say Ahmadinejad is standing up to the Americans, he is standing up to the Israelis, and he is defending our rights,” Akhbar Ganji, Iran’s leading dissident, said in a talk at Stanford University this fall. But Mr. Ganji and a number of other Iranian analysts say that the West falls into a trap when it lets Mr. Ahmadinejad set the parameters of any dialogue or even interviews.
“Nobody asked him questions about democracy and human rights in Iran,” said Mr. Ganji, referring to recent exchanges the president had with Western questioners. “Nobody asked why they kill and imprison dissidents. This is the country’s Achilles’ heel, and they have no answer."...
“It’s time for a reality check — Iran is a third world power,” said Ervand Abrahamian, an expert at Baruch College on Iranian opposition movements.
The correct reaction to the Holocaust denial would be to ridicule it as rank stupidity, he and other Iranian experts say. To compare Mr. Ahmadinejad to Hitler is to assume wrongly “that he is in charge of Iran and that he is the country,” Mr. Nasr added.”
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