No hit-and-run in Iran

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Engaged in two wars near Iran, the United States cannot really afford to trigger a third one. It can hit the Iranian installations and run, but in this case it will suffer consequences in the region for a very long time to come There is much weight in the argument that the United States and its allies in the Middle East are not going to allow Iran to acquire nuclear-weapons capability. If it is true that Iran has nuclear ambitions and has acquired enough technological know-how and materials to realise them, then this will certainly upset the existing balance of power that favours Washington and its regional security arrangements. Since Iran’s Islamic revolution, more than a quarter of a century back, the Americans and their Arab allies have tried to blunt its ideological message and contain it as an emerging regional power. There may be questions about the military, technological, economic and industrial capacities of Iran to claim regional-power status. But my assessment of Iran as a regional power rests on its ideological appeal among a broad section of Muslims, its anti-imperialistic stance and its ability to strike political alliances with radical political groups across the region. Apart from reviving Shia Islam throughout the extended Middle Eastern region, the revolution has had decisive effects on political Islam and continues to remain a source of inspiration to many Muslims. The containment strategy against Iran had all the elements of a classical strategy, including war, economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and cultural demonisation of the clergy and its world-view. Iran and its people fought back heroically, enduring the harm inflicted on them by none other than some Arab Islamic states, led by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. What happened during the eight painful years of the Iran-Iraq war was not an independent Arab response to the Islamic revolution, but part of the larger agenda of the United States to cripple the new Iranian regime before it could walk. Engendering sectarian conflict in key Muslim states was yet another way of de-legitimising the Islamic revolution. This conflict generated a skewed debate and created an impression that mainstream Sunni religious groups were both doctrinally and politically opposed to Iranian power and influence. Many people overlooked the external causes of the sectarian conflict in Pakistan, and now in Iraq and in other Muslim states, and tried to explain it with reference to theological differences and communal conflicts over power, resources and influence. That may be partly true, but the real spark that ignited the sectarian rift has come from the outside, as part of the containment strategy against Iran and its Islamic revivalist movement. Local mercenaries, however, were and are employed to implement it. Against all odds, at a popular level Iran has emerged as a powerful and influential state in the region. Internally it has succeeded in keeping its house in order, holding elections regularly and focusing on social development. The apparent internal divide in the country between the reformists and the conservatives has remained within the boundaries of systemic tolerance, and has given rise to innovative forms of dissent through media as various as film, literature and civil society. This is a healthy sign of regeneration and accommodation of dissent without compromising the essence of the revolution. The external successes of Iran during the past ten years are rather more remarkable. It has a great degree of influence at a popular level in Pakistan, parts of Afghanistan, southern Lebanon, in the Palestinian liberation movement, and Iraq, one of its major Arab neighbours. Support for Iran in Muslim countries is broad-based and cuts across sectarian identities. Iran’s internal cohesion and strong sense of national solidarity, along with its influence with important sections of Muslim populations in the region, are strategic assets that it has and will continue to use to counter containment. One must keep these assets in mind when thinking about the implications of an American or Israeli attack on Iran. Turning to the nuclear question, we really don’t know if Iran is set on developing nuclear capability for military purposes. The sources that are claiming that it is moving in that direction lack credibility. We know how the United States deliberately misled its people and the world about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. The rationale for invading Iraq, Washington’s hyped-up intelligence, proved totally bogus. There are suspicions that the US may do the same in Iran as well. Sometimes I tend to think that American leaders have lost their ability to calculate the costs and benefits of their actions in the Muslim world. No longer are they acting as rational or responsible managers of power. Just consider the colossal damage the US has caused Iraq and its people, and to its own people and global standing. The neo-conservatives and the Bush Administration have greatly diminished the image, prestige and influence of the United States. And this image problem is not confined to Islamic countries. The political and security ramifications of an attack against Iran’s nuclear installations, either by the United States itself or by Israel, will be very serious and might produce long-term adverse strategic consequences. Internally, Iran will shift to the conservative side with a surge of nationalistic sentiment. The reformist plank and individuals and groups that would prefer accommodation with the United States would be pushed to the far-off margins of the political spectrum. The religious and political groups aligned with Iran throughout the region may attack American interests. The pro-Western regimes throughout the regime will come under immense popular pressure and suffer considerable erosion of their moral authority and power to control the streets. If Iran retaliates militarily in the Strait of Hormuz, as it has been threatening to do, the impact on the global economy will be too damaging to calculate, with oil prices shooting up. And the stability of the present political and security order in the Middle East will suffer a grave blow. I hope that better sense prevails and a way out of the present impasse on the nuclear issue is found. Engaged in two wars near Iran, the United States cannot really afford to trigger a third one. It can hit the Iranian installations and run, but in this case it will suffer consequences in the region for a very long time to come. It will also give enough credence to the view that a clash of civilisations is not an abstract theory but a fact of international life. The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.