There has been no end to the criticisms towards Western leaders, among them the president of the United States, Barak Obama, as well as the most distinguished European heads of government. The criticism has been along the lines of their too obliging, up until now, of the way they have expressed their condemnation of the Iranian regime for the violence it has unleashed upon its own people after the controversial presidential elections.
Nevertheless, this criticism does not take into account that a different U.S. and European policy, which would be demanding, interventionist and even designed to support the Iranian pro-democratic movement, could end up being counter-productive in the Middle East and in all of South Asia. This would place critical sectors of the Muslim world in a new position of open confrontation with the West.
After eight years of Bush-Cheny’s push of failed policies and attempts at regime change through force in the Muslim World, including funding to the CIA in order to destabilize the ayatollahs of Iran, the last thing that the population of any Muslim country wants is another foolhardy attempt at regime change in Iran under the patronage of the White House. This, no matter how much a considerable part of the Muslim population, like an immense majority of the rest of the world, would like to see democracy blossom in ancient Persia.
Up to now, President Barak Obama and his European counterparts have done exactly what they should: criticize Iran in moderation and without succumbing to threats. They must do this even though it may be clear that Western governments, along with those of the rest of the world, are instinctively concerned about the cover-up of electoral fraud and the brutal violence the Iranian regime is employing.
But moderation with Iran is essential if one claims to support the fundamental points of Obama’s foreign policy in this part of the world: rapprochement with the Muslim world in general, the peace initiative between the Israelis and the Palestinians, troop withdrawal from Iraq and the elimination of the threat the Taliban poses in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, for those European leaders who still have a chance at negotiating with the Iranian regime over its insistence of getting hold of nuclear weapons, it is of the utmost importance not to strain the relation to the point of breaking down.
A threatening response from the United States to Iran would do nothing but ruin these initiatives, make Muslim regimes’ relations with Washington and Europe much more difficult, reinforce the opposite opinion of many Muslims towards the West, and threaten to prematurely turn Obama into a radical leftist in the eyes of the Islamic world just when his presidency is only beginning.
But there are many other factors that demand calm be maintained. Iran is a predominately Shiite country- one of the most important branches of Islam- and all Muslim states, from Lebanon to India, count on politically influential Shiite minorities. A country as unstable as Pakistan, which has already confronted an extremist insurgency of the Sunni kind in the Taliban, has a Shiite population of between 15 and 20%.
A large part of these Shiite minorities would in turn instinctively align themselves with the current leaders of Iran if they were to see that country threatened by the United States. And something like that could bring the destabilization of regimes all over the Middle East and South Asia by exacerbating sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites. One must not forget that in the minds of many Shiites, Iranian President Ahmadinejd is far from the Great Satan that in their minds, on the other hand, is actually the United States.
What is more, many of these Shiite minorities and many of their leaders have received funding from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and thanks to the Guard’s help they have been able to mobilize like a strike force to offer resistance to the attempts of the former President of the United States, George Bush, to destabilize Iran.
The plan of the ayatollahs, who are expected to continue to prevail, presupposes that if the U.S. or Israel get ready to threaten or attack Iran, these groups, dispersed throughout the entire Muslim world and counting on funding from Tehran, would retaliate and attack all types of American and Western targets wherever they were able to do so. As part of this strategy, Iran has also provided arms and funding to some Sunni groups like, for example, certain sectors of the Taliban.
All the territory that surrounds Iran is especially unstable and prone to descend into immediate destabilization if Washington or Europe makes any wrong decisions.
Two of Iran’s neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, find themselves under American military occupation. Other neighbors, like Pakistan and the Arab states, provide military bases to the Americans in some way or another. Iran has all the reasons in the world to fear a maneuver by the United States and the threats from the past Bush administration have not exactly contributed to dispelling the paranoia that has always gripped the Iranian regime.
All of Iran’s neighboring governments are fragile, which is why they have been pressured to congratulate President Ahmadinejad for his electoral victory, regardless of what they may think about the validity of these elections. The reality is that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan to the east, nor Azerbaijan to the north, nor Iraq nor the Arab Gulf states to the west can allow themselves the luxury of a wounded, humiliated and angered Iran accusing them of submitting to the wishes of the Americans.
Iran is in a position to destabilize all its neighbors. Tehran retains the capacity to seriously complicate the U.S.’ withdrawal from Iraq just by fomenting a new wave of violence against its soldiers. On the other hand, if the Americans see themselves forced to submit in Iraq, it will endanger Obama’s and NATO’s attempts to focus on stabilizing Afghanistan.
Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Zardari, have gone out of their way in the last few months to please Iran, a move for which they do not lack good reasons, like, for example, the oil and gas supply they receive in good economic conditions. But, at the root of it all, the reason is they cannot allow themselves the luxury of having at their borders a hostile Iran that supports a Shiite minority resistance inside each of these countries.
Whatever may be the result of the current crisis in Iran, the country will remain sharply polarized and in a deep state of instability for some time. And Iran’s neighbors, many of them allies of the United States, are going to be the first to feel those winds of instability. Therefore, what is needed more than ever, is some judicious and prudent leaders in the United States and in Europe who do not rush headlong into a confrontation with Iran.
It is imperative that Western leaders, regardless of political leanings, understand the extent of entanglement and interrelatedness that Iran and countries of that region have reached and agree to put into practice a policy of moderation and prudence when confronting this current crisis.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and writer and author of the celebrated book Taliban. His most recent book, “Descent into Chaos: the United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.”