Eye of the Storm: Teheran jamboree

Militants from some 40 countries across the globe are trekking to Teheran for a 10-day "revolutionary jamboree" in which "a new strategy to confront the American Great Satan" will be hammered out.

The event is scheduled to start on February 1 to mark the 25th anniversary of the return to Iran from exile of the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, father of the Islamic Revolution. It is not clear how many foreign militants will attend, but the official media promise a massive turnout to underline the Islamic Republic's position as the "throbbing heart of world resistance to American arrogance."

The guest list reads like a who's who of global terrorism.

In fact, most of the organizations attending the event, labeled "Ten-Days of Dawn," are branded by the United States and some European Union members as terrorist outfits. These include 17 branches of the Hizbullah, a worldwide militant Shi'ite movement created by Teheran in 1983.

Today, Teheran is a magnet for militant groups from many different national and ideological backgrounds. The Islamic Republic's hospitality cuts across even religious divides. Thus militant Sunni organizations, including two linked to al-Qaida - Ansar al-Islam (Companions of Islam) and Hizb Islami (The Islamic Party) - enjoy Iranian hospitality. They are joined by Latin American guerrilla outfits, clandestine Irish organizations, Basque and Corsican separatists, and a variety of leftist groups from Trotskyites to Guevarists. Teheran today is also the only capital where all the Palestinian militant movements have offices and, in some cases, training and financial facilities.

Iranian officials claim that the presence of these terror organizations in Iran is limited to "cultural and information activities." The militants' offices are known as daftar ertebat, which means "contact bureau," while the training offered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards is presented as "courses in self-defense."

The war in Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein, however, have shaken the traditional Khomeinist assumption that the US will never risk a direct confrontation with the Iranian regime.

THAT VIEW is expressed in a celebrated dictum of Khomeini that is painted on the walls of the conference center where the militants will meet. It reads: "America Cannot Do A Damn Thing!"

Now, however, many in Teheran believe that unless the Iranian regime modifies aspects of its behavior, notably in its relations with terrorist organizations, it might find itself in military conflict with the US.

"Anyone who ignores the presence of the American war machine all around us suffers from deadly illusions," says Imadeddin Baqi, a member of the outgoing Islamic Majlis (parliament).

Until at least last December, one idea was to either cancel the event or curtail it to a one-day prayer session in Khomeini's mausoleum in Teheran. That idea was vetoed by the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, who believes that any show of weakness by the regime could encourage its numerous opponents inside and outside the country.

Thus Khamenei plans to use the global jamboree to show that Iran is still a revolutionary force and that he alone, and not the ineffective President Muhammad Khatami, calls the shots in Teheran.

Khamenei also hopes that the next elections, to be held 10 days after the revolutionary jamboree ends, will produce a new parliamentary majority that shares his strategy. His game plan is to unify the regime by cutting the so-called "reformists" down to size and adopting a wait-and-see tactic until after the American presidential election.

The militants who are going to Teheran this week are likely to be told that they must lie as low as possible for the next few months without abandoning any of their radical goals. The Teheran gathering is also expected to deepen the recent informal alliances made between Islamist militant groups and a variety of communist, anarchist and environmentalist militant groups against the "American common enemy."

The Khomeinist regime is prepared to change aspects of its behavior and even concede some tactical retreats to weather what many in Teheran call "the Bush storm." But the regime's strategy, which is aimed at driving the US out of the Middle East, destroying Israel, and replacing all Arab regimes with "truly Islamic" ones, remains unchanged.

It is no accident that two words are popular in Teheran these days. One is "detente," often used by Khatami and the so-called "reformists." The other is "hudhabiah," which is the name of a truce signed by the Prophet Muhammad with a Jewish tribe in Medina at a time Muslims found themselves in a weak position. At the end of the truce period, the prophet's army, having rebuilt its strength, attacked the Jews and massacred all the adult males, seizing women and children as war booty.

It is against that background that the question "What to do with Iran?" must be debated. Today, Iran is ready to offer all the behavioral changes required of it by Washington and the EU. But it cannot change its nature. And there is no guarantee that this particular beast will not bite again - and hard - as soon as it feels that it is no longer threatened. A scorpion does not sting because it is naughty; that is dictated by its nature.

The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale