Rumours of a war

It is one of the worst kept secrets in the world. There is to be an American attack on Iran. But why should it? So far, it has lived with Iran, even though its 1979 revolution converted its policeman in the region into an enemy. However, that is the public face of Iran. In Afghanistan, it cooperated sufficiently for it to give help against the Taliban after 9/11, and when the USA invaded Afghanistan. This was prompted by a dislike of the Taliban, who had killed Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif, but the Iranian government had also long castigated the USA as the ‘Great Satan’ as well as been outspoken against Israel.

At the same time, Iran has been the hold-out among Muslim states. Iran’s aid to Hamas and Hezbollah has meant that the USA and its proxies in Palestine, in the case of Hamas, and Lebanon, in that of Hezbollah, have not settled into total complaisance. If Iran was to undergo a reversion back to the Shah’s era, it would mean that these movements would no longer get the support they presently do, which would enhance Israel’s security, or so it would like to think. The alliance between the Assad regime in Syria, and the Iranian regime, would also bear examining, and might explain why the USA is anxious to have Bashar Al-Assad replaced.

It must also be kept in mind that the USA has seen a Shia regime rule in Iraq, which under the Sunni Saddam Hussain waged almost a decade of war with Iran. It is because of that war that Iran did not resist the USA’s invasion and occupation of a neighbouring country. At the same time, the presence of the USA in both Iraq and Afghanistan meant that Iran was hemmed on both sides. The Central Asian Republics to the north and the Straits of Hormuz to the south represent the points of interaction for the West, and it is noticeable that Iran is an important supplier of oil to Europe. So far, the disruption of supplies caused because of the war scare, has affected Europe, with the USA being more affected because of the rise in the global oil prices.

At the same time, Iran has not really got friends if one goes beyond its immediate neighbourhood. With Pakistan and Afgha-nistan to its east, Turkey to its West and Saudi Arabia to its southwest, it finds itself abutting American allies. As both the Iranians’ and the Saudis’ claim to government is based on Islam, the differing interpretations are of significance. Because of this, Saudi Arabia sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to it, rather than a reply to the Israeli nuclear arsenal. It should also be noted that, though 9/11 was carried out by Saudis, and though Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, the Saudi monarchy has been a loyal friend of the USA, ever since the meeting of Saudi King Abdul Aziz with US President. Even now, the Saudi government is on the US side in the war on terror.

However, Pakistan and Afghan-istan looked to Iran over the centuries for cultural inspiration. The language of the Pashtun majority of Afghanistan is linked to Persian, while the Tajik minority actually speaks Persian. Indian Muslims may look to a Turkish dynasty, the Mughals, for political evidence, but culturally, the Mughals relied on the Persians, even for their official language. It should not be forgotten that while the Osmanli Turks regarded the Persians as rivals, they also relied on them to provide the higher culture of their empire.

Persia also played an important role in Central Asia, and provided civilisation to the areas that are now the Central Asian Republics.

Iran has long been central to the entire region, and its conquest by the Arabs in the 7th century saw the rise of the Abbasids, and the shifting of the capital from Damascus, in the heart of Syria, to Baghdad in Iraq, near Persia, where the Abbasids had their power base. Iran may not have converted to Shia-ism until the coming of the Qajars, a Turkic dynasty, but India and Afghanistan got its Shia-ism from Iran. This was a more successful implant than the Ismaeli dawa, which was carried out in the subcontinent earlier, under the tutelage of the Ismaeli caliphs of Egypt. The process was apparently natural: Someone migrated from Iran to Mughal India, got a good reception, called over his family. They all spoke Persian, a prized accomplishment at the Mughal court, and they were all incidentally Shia. This led to the spread of the Shia school in the subcontinent. It gained additional strength when the Nawab of Oudh was recognised as a king by the British Raj. He may not have been able to run independent policy, having accepted a British Resident, but he was a king, and as he was a Shia, his court provided a natural attraction to the Iranians.

The USA says it has non-proliferation goals when it tries to restrain Iran from going nuclear, even though the Iranian nuclear weapons programme goes back to the American favourite, the Shah of Iran. Iran has theological reasons for eschewing nuclear weapons, reasons which apply even more strongly to the present Iranian President. However, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has been demonised because he has also voiced strongly anti-Israeli sentiments. This is, probably, a more real reason than the nuclear weapons, what with an American National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran has long abandoned its nuclear programme.

Though Israel would definitely want Iran punished, it would not like to do so itself. It has already done so with Iraq, but it, probably, realises that Iran is just too big and just too near. Israel would like the USA to do its dirty work, which America would probably be willing to do, except for the numerous voices advising the Obama Administration against such a misadventure in an election year. It would drive up the already high price of oil, causing the kind of economic hardship that Obama cannot afford if he wants re-election. American incomprehension at why it might fight Iran is also fuelling the debate, increasing slowly, about American support for Israel.

For Pakistan, the path should be very simple. Not only is Iran a very old friend, but the USA is not. The USA is also not a neighbour, as Iran is. However, so long as the ruling elite, political, bureaucratic and military, insists on treating the American alliance as its raison d’être, there will remain a doubt. There is really no choice, not when the USA has not apologised for the Salalah massacres, and has not properly explained why its interference in Balochistan has reached the Congress. All the arguments about Iran come crashing down when it is remembered how close it is to Pakistan, geographically as well as figuratively. Those who favour the US should try and help persuade it not to attack Iran, which is preparing to take countermeasures, which have already meant that it has cancelled some oil shipments to Europe, and might close the Hormuz Straits, through which oil from the entire Middle East passes on its way to the Far East. The decision Pakistan makes will be crucial, but it should choose with an eye on the future, not the present of the current batch of politicians.