Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - Iran should tread softly, or it will get hit by a big stick

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - Iran should tread softly, or it will get hit by a big stick: "Iran should tread softly, or it will get hit by a big stick

By Irfan Husain

Monday, September 20, 2004
Although its desire to spread hard-line Islam abroad has waned somewhat since the Khomeini revolution a quarter of a century ago, Iran remains an ideological state. But apart from Islam, it is Shiite doctrine that defines Iran's religious leadership and its worldview.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, and its immediate aftermath altered the regional balance of power irrevocably, Iran was well-placed to project its influence beyond its borders. In Afghanistan it was arming and funding the Shiite Hazaras and the Northern Alliance under Ahmed Shah Massoud in their resistance against the Sunni Taliban. Shiites in Central Asia were being given scholarships to study theology in Iran's seminaries, and Shiite armed groups in Pakistan were being helped by Tehran in their fight against Sunni terrorists.

In Iraq, the only other Muslim country with a Shiite majority, Iran's mullahs were content to play a waiting game, secure in the knowledge that Saddam Hussein, weakened after a decade of sanctions, no longer posed a threat. They had mended fences with the Gulf States and were gradually becoming more acceptable to the West. However, with Sept. 11 and the consequent American-led attacks against and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran was suddenly encircled by the United States. Worse, its president had branded the country one of the "axis of evil" together with Iraq and North Korea.

But the invasion of Iraq brought opportunities as well as dangers for Iran. For the first time since Iraq's creation after World War I, the majority Shiite population was in a position to gain power. Tehran understood that if it played its cards right, it could wield enormous influence in Baghdad after the Americans left. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems to have decided to proceed along two tracks. The first has the firebrand Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr leading his Mehdi Army in an armed insurrection against the American occupiers. The idea is to make Iraq virtually ungovernable, forcing the Americans into an early exit. The second track consists of encouraging Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highly respected Iraqi cleric, to consolidate his power among the Shiite community.

This policy is based on the expectation of a Shiite majority in any reasonably fair Iraqi election. While the Americans are trying to finesse this possibility through safeguards for the Kurdish and Sunni minorities, it is a matter of time before Tehran's waiting game pays off.

Should a Shiite-dominated Iraq emerge from the embers of the war, it can be expected to cooperate closely with Iran. While the seniority of its hierarchy of ayatollahs would give it considerable independence, the two countries would consult closely on a wide range of matters from oil prices to diplomacy. Close ties between two of the world's leading Shiite-majority countries would make for a formidable alliance. Given their oil and gas reserves, as well as their land mass and literate populations, they would dominate the region and pose a major threat to American and Israeli interests.

The current expressions of alarm over Iran's nuclear program should be seen in the context of the West's growing concern with Tehran's ambitions in Iraq. Similarly, the continuing improvement of the range and accuracy of Iran's missiles is giving it the means to project its power far beyond its borders.

But this overt muscle-flexing is making Iran vulnerable to a joint pre-emptive strike by Israeli and American forces. Although its nuclear and missile-related assets are scattered and hidden, they are not completely immune. If the Americans can obtain a UN resolution based on the International Atomic Energy Agency findings that Iran is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they can justify military action.

Thus, Iran may be in danger of overplaying its hand. If it waits patiently, the sheer demographic realities in Iraq virtually assure it of having a major say in that country, together with the strategic and economic implications that would flow from Shiite rule in Iraq. If, however, Iran continues to exert pressure on the Americans through Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, while also defying world opinion by acquiring nuclear arms, it will be risking all its gains on a single roll of the dice.

All too often, revolutionaries miscalculate the reaction of pragmatic leaders to their actions. The ayatollahs in Tehran should try and put themselves in the shoes of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon: the former will not accept Iran's dominance over the world's biggest oil-producing region, while the latter would never countenance its sworn enemy's possession of nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.

There are times when it pays to tread softly.

Irfan Husain is a Pakistani former civil servant and university president who now writes weekly columns for Dawn and The Daily Times in Pakistan, and The Khaleej Times in Dubai. This commentary originally appeared in bitter-lemons international, an online newsletter"


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