As in the U.S., power in Tehran is held by two generations of conservatives.
The Iranian revolution a generation ago was led by that society’s traditional conservatives - the clerical, landholding elite. During the near-decade-long war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s, a new generation grew up, a generation that attained political power in 2005 with Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency. Both of these conservative generations--the land-owning clerics of the revolutionary generation and the younger super-patriotic war generation--see some real benefits to the tense atmosphere being created by American neo-cons and their right-wing Israeli fellow-travelers.
The traditional conservatives, although infected by the hubris of revolution in the early 1980s, have increasingly supported a cautious foreign policy. Their hostility toward Israel’s expansion and oppression of the Palestinians has been expressed in terms of military aid to resistance groups. Their hostility toward Iraq was held short of open warfare until Saddam invaded Iran. Their hostility toward the U.S., despite the memory of the U.S. coup against Mossadeq in 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah’s ensuing dictatorship and U.S. support for Saddam’s invasion, has been tempered by occasional willingness to do business. Iran rapidly expressed condolences over 9/11 and provided significant support to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for example. Their response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been assiduous efforts to support their natural allies combined with care to avoid outright conflict with U.S. troops in their neighborhood. Iran under the Islamic revolution has not started a war or attempted regime change despite continuing its historical efforts to attain regional prominence.
The war generation is similarly conservative on social and religious issues but emboldened by the personal experience of its members in the endless years of trench warfare, poison gas attacks, and rocket strikes on cities - a time when the U.S., the Soviet Union, West Europe, and Arab countries all ganged up on Iran. The leaders of this generation of neo-conservatives are not armchair draft-avoiding militarists from the privileged classes; they personally fought in one of history’s worst wars. They are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied. For them, it is not a question of whether or not they can survive with the whole world against them; been there, done that.
So why might Tehran, faced with unprecedented threats of nuclear attack from the world’s only remaining superpower and the Mideast’s regional superpower, see a silver lining in the thunderheads on its horizon?
1. Exploit War Fears to Consolidate Power. Conservatives use fear to hold on to power. The deal offered by conservatives is stability in return for sacrifice of civil liberties and economic progress for the poor. The fear of foreigners is what “justifies” the sacrifice. Iran’s conservatives trumpet warnings about the negative influence of corrupt Western culture, but that increasingly does not seem to play too well among Iran’s youth. Any evidence they can find of a Western threat to Iran strengthens their hold on power. Public insults, economic sanctions, labeling Iran part of an axis of evil, and--obviously--threats of attack are invaluable contributions to the conservative war chest. In the contest between the traditional conservatives and the neo-con war generation, such evidence is of particular value to Ahmadinejad’s neo-cons.
2. The “End of Days.“ Like certain fundamentalists in other religions, Iran’s neo-cons seem to believe they have a special link to God (ensuring they can do no wrong) and seem to expect a war to end the world as a vengeful God comes to earth to destroy all evil (namely, all humans except themselves). It is certainly not the case that all conservatives in Iran (or the U.S. or Israel) believe this, but to the extent that they do (and Ahmadinejad, for one, seems to), they may welcome conflict as the final solution to life’s trials.
3. Protecting the Neighborhood. Iran’s traditional ties with the Iraqi people are as close as U.S. ties with Canadians - common history (the area created as an independent country by Britain after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has over the past 3,000 years frequently been part of Iran), common religion (both majority Shi’ite Moslems), much social intercourse, vast amount of travel for pilgrimages across the border, old school ties, etc. A foreign invasion of Iraq is as much a challenge to Iran as a foreign invasion of Canada would be to Americans. Iran cannot look with equanimity upon a US colonial project in Iraq or upon what appear to be permanent military bases designed for offensive action throughout the region. Given Iran’s success in stopping Western-backed Saddam in the 1980’s, America’s failure to pacify Iraq since 2003, and the exposure of U.S. forces in Iraq, Iran’s leaders may have good reason to think they can defeat a U.S. attack. Indeed, recent public comments by IRGC leaders about the benefits to Iran of asymmetric warfare suggest they do in fact have such a perception. Moreover, since they can certainly assume that Washington is capable of making the same calculations, it is not at all unlikely that Iranian decision-makers may calculate that bilateral tensions will in the end stop short of war, thus leaving the Iranian people scared and the conservatives and militarists with consolidated power. Tensions short of war work both ways: Tehran may well calculate that the tensions will end up persuading Washington to withdraw from Iraq.
4. The Ahmadinejad Administration Has Failed. The Ahmadinejad administration has failed to deliver upon its promise of economic progress. The greater the perceived foreign threat, the easier it is to make the Iranian people overlook this and rally around the flag. If anti-Iranian threats were to diminish, domestic attention to the price of gas and the absence of civil liberties would no doubt rise rapidly. Given the upcoming Iranian parliamentary elections, this could severely weaken Ahmadinejad for the rest of his tenure.
5. Becoming the new Nasser. The greater the perceived foreign threat to Iran, the more courageous Ahmadinejad appears, facilitating achieving his goal of becoming the new hero of the Mideast, a Nasser or Saladin capable of standing up to the West.
6. When You Have a Hammer….Iran is a developing country with a weak economy savaged by years of U.S. economic sanctions and surrounded by enemies, Shi’ite among Sunnis, Persian among Arabs, and surrounded by U.S. military bases. A rough and tumble conflict with the U.S. may well seem to some Iranian leaders to be a perfect opportunity to stride a world stage that today's Iran might otherwise have trouble climbing on to.
In brief, the leaders of the Islamic Revolution…and in particular the leaders of the conservative factions…and more particularly the leaders of the neo-con war generation faction benefit in numerous ways from a tense relationship with the U.S.