TEHRAN, Iran—Waving a fist at the world's superpower is an extraordinary gamble, but for the mullahs and revolutionaries that run the Islamic republic, the latest in a series of standoffs between Tehran and the West seems more like a game than cause for serious political concern. The game goes something like this: One side ups the ante on the nuclear issue, saber-rattling that Iran's nuclear ambitions are a threat to the free world; the other side laughs it off, insisting that it seeks nuclear energy purely for the generation of electricity. The latter capitalizes on Iranian nationalism, claiming the imperialists are depriving Iran of its rights under international law and, perhaps most important, before God.
On Tuesday, the pressure on Iran increased as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with Germany, agreed to report Tehran to the council over Iran's decision to recommence uranium enrichment. While critics say uranium enrichment is a crucial step toward building nuclear weapons, the Iranians categorically deny any interest in doing so, noting that such weapons are contrary to the tenets of Islam.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fiery brand of rhetoric and his curious disdain for diplomacy are a gift to Iran's critics. He has famously denied the Holocaust and asked why the state of Israel could not be moved to Europe or North America. Back home, however, his pronouncements are unremarkable. Such talk is standard fare in official Iranian circles—as is mandated lip service to the fate of the underdog Palestinians. In fact, the president's comments hardly merited mention in most Iranian papers—despite the hysteria they sparked in editorial pages throughout the West.
This fall, a video circulated on the streets of Tehran that showed Ahmadinejad in conversation with a ranking cleric, Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli, about the president's recent appearance at the United Nations. In the video, Ahmadinejad announced that a light surrounded him when he took the podium, and that, for almost half a minute, the leaders of the world didn't blink. Though his office later denied the veracity of the video, calling it a work of "montage," the pious president has on many other occasions invoked images of judgment and divine intervention. His message is clear (and it's not so far from his American counterpart's): God is with him.
Revelations aside, in his first five months in office the new president has largely followed through on his campaign promises to fight corruption and redistribute the country's wealth. It is not uncommon to see him on state television opening a hospital in an impoverished part of the country, while weeping women thank God, the president, and any number of bystanders. He has promised to reduce university costs, to raise government salaries by 20 percent, and to create a fund—still bogged down in parliament—that would cover the cost of getting married and help young people buy homes. This is populist economics par excellence, courtesy of the country's petrodollars, and despite some concerns about inflationary tendencies from voices within the country, he seems to be pleasing his overwhelmingly religious, working-class support base. Never mind the fact that his election has left some investors nervous and that Tehran's stock market has plunged $10 billion * in the meantime.
The fears that Ahmadinejad's victory would presage a return to the draconian social mores of the revolutionary period have not been realized. Since the election, little has actually changed in the streets of the capital. On posh Africa Avenue, the arrests and interrogations of cavorting teenagers have decreased. Rumors of impending crackdowns on veiling have not materialized. Sure, Western music has, in principal, been banned, and some published books are "under review"—but for most, these are little more than symbolic gestures. That's not to say that Ahmadinejad and company do not want to take Iran back to the days of the Islamic revolution; they would probably love to, but they realize that they would risk fracturing the astonishing consensus they have built on the nuclear issue.
The regime has been extraordinarily effective in galvanizing support from Iranians across the political spectrum on the nuclear issue. Nuclear energy has become intimately linked to the national character, heralded as an inalienable right. Newspaper editors have been warned against deviating from the official line in their treatment of things nuclear, while melodramatic TV programs promote the merits of nuclear energy and, by extension, independence, on a daily basis.
And what of the reformist politicians Western pundits love to wax lyrical about? In his modest office at Tehran University, Hamid Reza Jaleipour, a strategist with Mosharekat, the country's largest reformist faction, told me, "Our hands are tied, we can't even move." Other than foiled presidential candidate and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi's attempt to launch a newspaper and satellite channel (the latter already blocked), little initiative has been taken to reinvigorate a reformist camp that is devastatingly out of touch with the majority of the Iranian people. Outside Iran, the exiled Mujahideen Khalq Organization, which is probably the largest opposition bloc, is more of a cult than a viable political alternative. And within Iran, external support, especially from America, would be the kiss of death—immediately delegitimizing any opposition group.
So, how far can the regime afford to push the nuclear issue? Plainly, it believes it can manipulate oil prices at will and seems to think that clutch trading partners Russia and China, which have preached moderation until now, will protect its interests in the end. Importantly, Tuesday's "reporting" to the security council is short of a more substantive "referral," and Iran's nuclear dossier will not be considered by the council until March. Negotiations about outsourcing enrichment to Russia will continue, and if it comes down to it, some of the more intransigent members of the regime are already saying that Iranians have survived sanctions before—they can most certainly weather them again.
In the meantime, Iranians know that a U.S. or Israeli military strike would spell disaster for the aggressors, doing little more than setting back progress at reactor sites and effectively rallying public opinion in Ahmadinejad's favor, both within Iran and around the region. Because Iran is located in a dangerous neighborhood—and currently ringed in by the United States—most Iranians wonder why they should give up nuclear capabilities. In the end, any consideration of available options must take into account Iran's trump cards, oil, Afghanistan, and Iraq most prominent among them.
Ultimately, Washington must use economic or security-oriented carrots; the stick will not work here. Last week, Ahmadinejad met with Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. In an impossibly kitsch, baroque gilded room, the two ideologues reiterated their commitments to one another, the turbaned cleric and the modestly dressed president providing a seductive photo-op. The message of their meeting was clear. As if turning their backs to the West, they proclaimed: We're starting our own club. And we're doing just fine without you.