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Old Wednesday, December 05, 2012
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Default The unbending Iran

The unbending Iran
Zafar Hilaly

At the level of the common man there has never been much interest in what is happening in Iran. For that matter, among the well off too, there’s little curiosity about the possible impact of developments in Iran on our polity or that of the region. When I asked someone, well read on world developments, ‘How’s Iran?’ without batting an eyelid, he replied, ‘Well, a better place to visit than here, but not as good as Turkey,’ a response which illustrated complete disinterest and ignorance of the turmoil that has gripped Iran.
Perhaps one reason why Iran gets scant coverage in our media, in contrast to the morbid interest in whatever happens in India, is that there is no real enthusiasm among the overwhelming number of our populace for the Iranian connection. We share a religion but really little else, whatever our history and culture buffs may say.
And if historically the two countries were closely interlinked all that seems eons ago and, frankly, neither has worked hard to draw closer to the other, certainly not since the Iranian revolution. That’s a pity because developments in Iran will impact powerfully on Pakistan and far more so than what is ever likely to happen in Delhi.
The revolution, for example, not only transformed Iran but also Iran-Pakistan relations. From being close allies we became mere acquaintances and during the Afghan jihad fought a fairly intense proxy war.
Moreover, although we didn’t realise it at the time, the domestic impact of the Iranian Revolution on Pakistani society was even more profound. All of a sudden we became a battle ground for the perennial struggle between the Shia and Sunni groups, with Saudi Arabia backing the latter and Iran the former and that battle has intensified and turned bloodier as the years have passed. However that merits a separate discussion. Here I will focus on the possible repercussions of the current standoff between the US and Iran over the nuclear issue.
Consider that sanctions imposed on Iran are exacting a heavy toll on the everyday life of the populace and the economy. The value of the Iranian rial has fallen by 40 percent; prices of commodities are doubling, in some cases, by the day; medicine and food stocks are low and are not being replenished as fully or as quickly as needed and the government is finding it hard to sell its oil. In fact, already there are isolated reports of children suffering on account of lack of medicines. However, Iran is not bending.
If the US-Iran standoff drags on, the most obvious fall out will be the arrival of Iranian refugees fleeing hunger, although that need not be more than a trickle because of the distances involved. However, if war breaks out followed by the kind of saturation bombing of Iran, which some predict will be necessary to destroy Iran’s well protected nuclear installation and the supporting infrastructure, then the number of those fleeing will rapidly escalate.
However, what Pakistan has to fear more from an American/Israeli onslaught on Iran is not so much the presence of refugees but the angry reaction of Pakistan’s own large Shia population in whose hearts Iran has a very special place.
Already incensed by the regime’s failure to protect them from being slaughtered by what most Shias now say are Saudi sponsored Wahabi extremists at home, or to bring the murderers to justice, there is every chance they will vent their spleen against the government and demand that Pakistan denounce the UN sanctions regime, break off relations with the US and open the borders with Iran to enable them to go to Iran and help fight the aggressors.
And, in the mayhem that will ensue, sectarian killings may surge. Actually the whole thing may take on an ugly sectarian hue. Pakistan, therefore, has more interest than most in what transpires between the US and Iran in the weeks and months ahead. So will there be war?
What is certain is that an encircled Iran has to defend itself. No other power will come to its aid. Thus the rationale for the pursuit for a nuclear option by Iran is not a product of the paranoid fancies of the mullahs. Finding themselves in a similar position in relation to the Arabs, the Israelis went nuclear. And so did Pakistan, when confronted by giant India. In a rare moment of insight, a US State Department official also conceded: “Any government in Iran, even a secular western-oriented one, would continue the quest for nuclear weapons” (October 2003).
And why not? To Iran’s east is Pakistan, dominated by an establishment that is in hock to the west and considered an unreliable friend of Iran. To the south, on the peninsula of Qatar, is the US Central Command, with hundreds of planes, thousands of missiles and a whole fleet of vessels, including aircraft carriers, prowling the waters of the Persian Gulf. In the west is nuclear armed Israel; and in the north is Russia. Worse, near Iran’s borders in Afghanistan are thousands of American troops and special service forces, fully equipped to spring into action at the given signal.
It would be strange, therefore, if Iran sought to strengthen its position and, if not actually build nuclear weapons, then acquire the option to do so within a fairly short time. Iran has seen how non-nuclear Iraq was invaded and flattened by the US, whereas nuclear armed North Korea was left alone. In fact, rather than threaten North Korea, like it has Iran, the US is eager to talk to Pyongyang.
For the US, control of the oil spigots of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran is an imperative need. So too, safeguarding of 20 percent of world oil supplies which flow through the Strait of Hormuz. The US has trillions of dollars to lose each year if the price of oil rises, as it could if the control of oil were in the purview of a hostile Iran because that would not only wreck the American/western economy but bring about an apocalyptic change in America’s style of living. And one way of preventing that disaster is to eliminate the Iranian regime for which America now has a pretext and UN support. Surely, say the erstwhile Bush neo cons, it’s a prospect too alluring to pass up.
Significantly, the US has ramped up its demands on Iran. Claiming that on one occasion Iran had indeed deceptively withheld data (for which it made amends) Washington wants to be completely reassured about the safety of Iran’s nuclear programme. Actually, it wants nothing less than the complete cessation of all nuclear activity, including a dismantling of the already established facilities. In other words, if you cut out the spin, nothing Iran does or the guarantees Iran offers will suffice and no matter what inspection regime Iran accepts, Iran’s entire nuclear programme has to be demolished.
For Israel, on the other hand, the issue is exclusively the possession by Iran of nuclear weapons. Israel is determined to remain the only nuclear power in the Middle East and will not be thwarted. Israel has completed all preparations for an attack on Iran. The recent Israeli engineered fracas in Gaza was to test Israel’s anti-missile system (Iron Dome) in battle conditions and also, lest Hamas teams up with Iran in a war, to destroy Hamas’s cache of Iranian supplied rockets which it has largely accomplished.
The very opposite goals of the protagonists, and the fact that a Pentagon advisor in 2006 said: “The White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran and that means war,” prompted Seymour Hersh to opine that a war is inevitable.
Whether or not that happens and even if the prospects are not as bleak as Hersch suggests, our media would be rendering a service if it keeps the public informed about the goings on and the wavering possibility of war. If nothing else, it will help us brace for the impact.
The writer is a former ambassador.
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