Dressed in her obligatory headscarf and overcoat, 29-year-old Laleh Seddigh climbs into her race car and starts the engine. Despite her petite physique, the striking young woman is a figure to be reckoned with when she enters Tehran's Azadi stadium. She made waves in 2004 when she was granted permission to race, becoming the first woman to compete against men in any Iranian sport since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 2005, she won the national championship. Since then, she has witnessed the removal of the winner's podium-thus preventing a woman from being elevated above a man during closing ceremonies-and was recently barred from entering a competition for reasons officials failed to define.
Seddigh's iconic persistence is part of a much wider struggle occurring between radical and moderate factions of Islam. That struggle is present not only in Iran, but across the Middle East. And it extends from the religious jurisdictions imposed on citizens to international turmoil over Iran's nuclear aspirations, as world leaders attempt to determine the extent to which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's religious views influence his refusal to halt the nation's uranium-enrichment program.
In the latest and somewhat lackluster attempt to thwart Iran's continued defiance, the five permanent UN Security Council members-the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China-together with Germany, met Oct. 6 to discuss possible sanctions against Iran. With Russian and Chinese economic ties to Iran and European insistence upon jump-starting stalled negotiations, the group lacked muster to push hard even as alarming messages poured from Tehran. Tehran boldly ignored the Security Council's Aug. 31 deadline for suspending its uranium-enrichment program, and it shows no signs of backing down in the apparent deadlock.
Chief European negotiator Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani were close to cutting a deal the first week of October that could potentially have brought Iran back to the negotiation table, but the deal fell through when elements were allegedly leaked by Bush administration officials opposed to the plan. Under the plan, Iran would have secretly suspended uranium enrichment-under the pretense of technical difficulties-for a period of time to resume talks.
Some leaders say negotiations are counterproductive and do little to deter the hardened mindset of the Iranian regime. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres-whose country Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to "wipe off the map"-says sanctions should be swiftly imposed. "You have to hit economically. It's the hesitation to inflict economic sanctions that opens the way for military actions," Peres told army radio.
Others, however, say that even sanctions will prove futile in the efforts to halt Iran's enrichment program. Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom and author of several books on radical Islam, doubts the effectiveness of any carrots the Security Council might dangle in front of Iran: "Iran sees the acquisition of nuclear weapons as so important that nothing else will override it." And with China trading with Iran for oil and gas and Russia trading for medical and military technology, it's unlikely that any sanctions imposed will be severe, Marshall told WORLD.
"Both officials and people in Iran have always viewed the threats of sanctions as a rusty and derelict weapon," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said at a press conference. "They are accustomed to the threats."
Ahmadinejad-elected in August 2005-has only grown as a controversial figure since his presidential victory. In addition to the blatant threats aimed at Israel, he has denied the existence of the Holocaust, affirmed Hezbollah, accused the UN of being stacked against Islam, and referenced the return of the 12th Imam in all of his major speeches ("Ancient enemies," March 11, 2006). So powerful are his religious convictions that he brushes aside Iran's troubles as signs of the Mahdi's imminent return and subsequent Islamic reign. "Our revolution's main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi," Ahmadinejad said last November.
This is another reason Marshall believes sanctions will not be effective. "You have an eschatological maniac who thinks the end of the world is coming," he said. Ahmadinejad is purportedly tied to an unorthodox school of Shiite Islam that preaches human involvement in bringing about the return of the Mahdi through creating chaos.
Although Iran claims its efforts to enrich uranium are purely for peaceful energy purposes, the Iranian president's proclamations, coupled with the nation's refusal to comply with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements, have alarmed the international community and raised doubts about Iran's true intentions. The IAEA has requested that Iran cease all nuclear activities, but Iran has vehemently disregarded such requests. In April, the IAEA announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium-the first step toward nuclear capabilities.
Ahmadinejad may be dominating the media spotlight with menacing rhetoric, but the nation's power does not rest upon him alone. Iran's government is built on two tiers: the presidency and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Expediency Council acts as the mediator between the two, and as a result, a myriad of leaders are often vying for power and control.
Iran's nuclear ambitions and subsequent international implications have launched heated debates among the nation's top ranks and sparked fear that fellow leaders could align with Western powers seeking a regime change-and all against the backdrop of a new deadline: Iran has until the third week in October to suspend enrichment, at which time the threat of sanctions could become a reality.
Initial sanctions would likely include minimal penalties such as travel bans for Iranian government officials but could increase in severity over time to include a ban on refined gasoline sales. Much of Iran's petroleum is exported for refinement, and reduced access could cripple the country's transportation sector.
But Iran's extremists have their eyes set primarily upon other matters: They long for the "glory days" of Islam when it reigned as the dominant civilization for more than a millennium, conquering one kingdom after another. Islam's downfall, they say, commenced when Muslims ceased being "good Muslims" and instead were influenced by those outside the faith. These radicals believe that Islam will once again reign supreme when the umma-or Muslim community-returns to the true faith.
That is why restricting the freedoms of women such as Seddigh-and for some, preparing the way for the 12th Imam-is more important than navigating a nuclear showdown.
As Laleh Seddigh seeks permission from racing officials to resume competition, opposition to her presence on the racetrack abounds. Iran's internal struggle continues between those who promote and enforce the laws and those who suffer under them. But unlike Seddigh, the international community moves with uncertainty, knowing that any nuclear standoff can quickly escalate from bad to worse.