Saturday, June 17, 2006

COMMENT: Iran: rhetoric and reality

Friday, June 16, 2006

Tanvir Ahmad Khan

nuclear iran--With more than 3,000 years of shared history with Iran, Pakistan should be better placed than others to appreciate the complexity of the Persian mind. In my years at Tehran I was often distressed by our ignorance of Iran that was all too noticeable in high level delegations. Even more awkward was the impression that ignorance has been replaced by an uncritical adoption of Western clichés

It would be an act of hubris if some of us think that we know the Iranian interest better than the large majority of voters in Iran who elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their president. They made their choice in a virtual state of siege and were clearly looking for a leadership that has the resilience to withstand external pressures. In a political system built on stringent checks and balances, the people of Iran deliberately replaced the mild reformist, the erudite Khatami, by the revolutionary revivalist, Ahmadinejad.

The change was dramatic enough to ring alarm bells in several Western capitals. Iran, it was feared, was rekindling the fires of the Khomeini era; it had taken a step backwards and would once again be the principal obstacle to the creation of a new pro-Western order in the Middle East. Among several manifestations of a paranoid reaction to Ahmadinejad’s electoral triumph was a major escalation of the US-led pressure on Iran’s nuclear programme. The demonisation of Ahmadinejad as a symbol of his country’s obduracy became a veritable industry.

Intemperate statements by the new Iranian president, particularly on the holocaust and Israel, have doubtless provided grist to the propaganda mills of the West. Israel saw in him a resurrection of Hitler and has worked overtime to persuade the United States to deal a massive blow to Iran’s power and prestige. Not enough attention has, however, been paid to the actual policies of the Islamic republic since the emergence of Ahmadinejad. The drum roll of an impending conflict with Iran all but drowned the voices that tried to judge the Iranian regime on its track record rather than the president’s rhetoric.

Comparisons with presidential elections in other states were not entirely relevant because of the great complexity of decision-making in Iran. Taken together, the supreme leader, the Guardian Council, the president and the Majlis represent a unique power structure. Not to be under-estimated are the views of a 350,000 strong army and more particularly the ideologically-motivated Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. As many as 80 members of the Majlis, including Ahmadinejad, are former Pasdaran.

This dispersal of power within a shared framework has nearly always worked for restraint. One good instance of this deliberate quality of decision-making was the large mobilisation of the Iranian forces as a riposte to the Taliban provocations. Having achieved a demonstration effect, Tehran eschewed a direct military conflict.

Iran has also shown considerable sophistication in handling the nuclear crisis and beyond it the larger question of working out a modus vivendi with the United States. The beginning of this year witnessed the exacerbation of the nuclear issue as Iran’s dialogue with the three European powers — UK, France and Germany — broke down and Iran resumed nuclear enrichment on a modest scale. Washington took the matter from the IAEA to the Security Council (UNSC) with the explicit objective of imposing sanctions. The referral to the UNSC was backed by deliberate leaks of plans to carry out deadly strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran responded with a mixture of dour defiance and deft diplomacy to demonstrate that sanctions or military action would be prohibitively expensive and counter-productive. Ahmadinejad assiduously built up Iran’s leverage in the region. The destruction of the Ba’athist regime and the deeply flawed efforts by the occupation to create a federal state comprising autonomous Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni regions opened up unexpected opportunities for Iran.

It resisted the temptation to hurt the United States in Iraq but successfully extended its influence to a point where it became a factor in the American calculus. By forcing Syria to pull out of Lebanon, Washington provided yet another opportunity to Iran to deepen its ties with Hezbollah.

We are all prisoners of conventions and traditions and therefore many of us saw an incorrigible maverick and even a loose cannon in Ahmadinejad. The highly unorthodox 18-page letter he wrote to President George Bush was cited as a case in point. But many observers all over the world read the letter as an unconventional initiative to open up channels of communication. In retrospect, it is recognised as one of the factors in tilting the balance in Washington in favour of joining, if conditionally, the European dialogue with Iran.

Iran has a long tradition of interaction with the Americans. With the exception of the US embassy hostage crisis, it has seldom gone wrong. Khatami and Ahmadinejad have pursued identical policies to generate trust with the Arab states and thus resist encirclement. Resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan has so far frustrated attempts to give encirclement an effective military character. Meanwhile, the Iranian leadership has correctly read the growing demand in the United States to re-think the Bush doctrine and the neo-conservative strategic aims behind it. Iran has gradually strengthened the alternative view that the region will not know stability unless Iran is a party to it.

It would have been better if Ahmadinejad had chosen his words about Israel with greater circumspection. But there is method in this madness. He succeeded in reviving the question of Israel’s legitimacy, in particular the utterly unlawful occupation since 1967 of the West Bank. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Sharon went in with sinister plans to reconfigure not only territories but also whole populations. Iran played a key role in the Hezbollah’s success in forcing Israel out of Lebanon. Ahmadinejad’s message is that if Israel continues to act outside international law, there will simply be no security for it either.

With more than 3,000 years of shared history with Iran, Pakistan should be better placed than others to appreciate the complexity of the Persian mind. In my years at Tehran I was often distressed by our ignorance of Iran that was all too noticeable in high level delegations. Even more awkward was the impression that ignorance has been replaced by an uncritical adoption of Western clichés. It is time that we restore substance and quality to our independent knowledge of that great nation
source:daily times
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk

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