Its nuclear program is part of a larger plan to radically reduce U.S. power.
Ahmad Khatami, an influential cleric and mentor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently said publicly that the United States has to “regard Iran as a great power in the political sphere. The people of Iran have realized there is nothing you can do to us.”
The statement is part bravado, but it also offers an important clue about the Iranian regime’s mind set and ultimate goal. Its nuclear program, support for terrorism and stirring of anti-American sentiments are aimed at vaulting Iran to a position of global prominence.
Iran regards acquiring a nuclear-weapon capability as a crucial step to achieving international stature. And from its leaders’ perspective, why not? All five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have nuclear weapons and Israel, India and Pakistan all saw their influence grow after becoming nuclear states.
So Iranian officials dismiss the impact economic sanctions have on their country, use Western talk of regime change to repress internal opposition, and play down the extent of damage that military strikes could have on their nuclear programs. Mr. Ahmadinejad demonstrated Iran’s nonchalant response to foreign fury by announcing at the Islamic Revolution’s 31st anniversary celebration on Feb. 11 that Iran had successfully enriched uranium to 20% and is now “a nuclear state.”
Yet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared a week later that use of nuclear weapons is undesired by Iran and prohibited by Islam: “We don’t have any belief in the atomic bomb and don’t pursue it.”
In an interview in Tehran last September, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, “We believe nuclear arms belong to the past and to the old generation.” And during his visit to Japan last week, Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that Iran could follow Japan’s example—gain the technology to build nuclear warheads, but not actually assemble them until they are necessary.
These statements suggest that the Iranian regime is rational and making a series of calculated geopolitical maneuvers. In Ahmadinejad’s own words, Tehran is attempting to craft a new world order: “We need to establish new systems and take measures based on those systems,” he said in October 2009, adding that “Many countries will join the new systems.”
To craft this new order, Iranian officials are testing the limits of U.S. power and influence, seeking to show that both are limited to hollow words and ineffective deeds. One way is by splitting Russia and China from the other nations in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) when it comes to imposing sanctions on Iran. By forcing such a split, Iranian officials hope to demonstrate that America and its partners are no longer pre-eminent.
Another way is by the support Tehran is extending to Hamas and Hezbollah; this is to thwart the U.S. and Israel and thereby become a player in the Middle Eastern peace process. The regime is also building strong diplomatic, economic and military ties with countries in Latin America to extend its influence to a region considered U.S. dominion since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
When asked by American news media in September 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad stressed that “The world is on the threshold of major developments . . . . [F]or one or two countries to think . . . they are the ones who make the major global decisions which others should follow, well that period has come to an end.”
The Islamic Republic, in short, regards the U.S. as a washed-up world power that can no longer run the global show.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both said recently that the U.S. must lead the world. They are right. As the leader of the Free World, the U.S. can do much more than any other nation to extend prosperity and human freedom across the globe.
But words are insufficient. After constant demands, sporadic threats and inconsistent economic sanctions, the U.S. faces a profound leadership test on Iran. To keep its position of unparalleled influence, the U.S. must demonstrate that it can thwart both the Iranian regime’s nuclear and world-wide ambitions.
Mr. Choksy is a professor of Iranian, Islamic and international studies and a former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington.