Geopolitical truths

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

The main obstacle to peace in West Asia is the U.S. determination to have a permanent presence in the region.

BARBARA SLAVIN holds that there were increasing indications that Israel might act anyway and drag the United States into the confrontation, if diplomacy failed to halt Irans nuclear progress. Bruce Riedel, an Iran expert who served on the White House National Security Council for President Clinton and both Bushes, father and son, said that Israels military was preparing intensively for such an operation despite its shortcomings in tankers.

In the summer of 2006, the Bush administration agreed to provide Israel with new longer-range bombers. The White House, Riedel said, had sent an amber light to Israel to continue preparations for air strikes.

Israel has 200 nuclear warheads and a second-strike capability through its three nuclear-equipped Dolphin submarines. War with Iran is inevitable, Ephraim Sneh, Israels Deputy Defence Minister, told Trita Parsi at a conference in Europe on July 28, 2006. Parsi warns: If it comes to pass, the conflict wont be limited to Israel and Iran, it will be a regional war, pulling in other countries and non-state actors alike. And it will be Americas war, too, just as t

What will be Indias stand in the event of a U.S.-backed Israeli air strike on Iran? A statement in the usual idiom deploring the attack, requesting Israel to forbear from it and inviting Israel and Iran to enter into talks on Irans nuclear programme? Omitting studiously a reference to Israels nuclear arsenal or the U.S. backing? Is it not time to deliver a carefully worded warning now, publicly or in private?

The volumes of Documents of the Den of American Espionage (Asnaad Lanae Jassoori Amreeke) are a delight to read. They were published by Iranian students after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, and reveal that even after the revolution, Iran and the U.S. tried to maintain cordial relations while Iran was opposed to the Soviet Union. The Central Intelligence Agency, however, tried to enlist the first President of the Islamic Republic, Bani Sadr, as an informant for $1,000 a month (Volume 9; his code name was SDLure/1). CIA agent Vernon Cassin established contact with Sadr when he was in exile in Paris. In Teheran, Cassin posed as William Foster.

A cable of August 4, 1979, from the CIA Director informed the Teheran and Paris stations that the Shahs last Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, was in contact with the CIA with the Shahs consent. Parsa Kia at the U.S. desk in Irans Foreign Office pleaded with the Charge daffaires, Bruce Laingen, to keep the Shah out of the U.S. Laingen himself warned the State Department of the consequences of letting the Shah in.

On both sides, these were officials who worked hard to keep good relations. Do you blame the Iranians for resenting what they learnt from the Documents? The U.S. officials shredded them. But the students had in their veins the blood of centuries of carpet weaving and accomplished a feat by weaving them together. Scholars have been remiss in neglecting the treasure trove. The U.S. customs tried to prevent the entry of this stolen property.

Parsis disclosures fall into this pattern. The Israeli spy agency Mossad offered its support to Bakhtiar, who hinted that it would be helpful if Israel did something to quiet Khomeini who was then in Paris. Bakhtiar offered to have the Shah make the request directly to Tel Aviv. The Mossad refused. A decade later Bakhtiar was murdered at his home in Paris.

For long, Irans relations with the Soviet Union were clouded by the treaty of February 26, 1921, which, Moscow claimed, gave it the right to intervene.

On March 3, 1959, the Shah and on November 2, 1979, the Islamic Republic declared that the offending Articles 5 and 6 were null and void. Officially Moscow was silent. But in late 1978, Izvestia said it was valid. On May 24, 1980, Professor Bandarevski lauded the treaty in a talk in Persian on Radio Moscow.

The annals of diplomacy hold few precedents, if any, for the kind of language Foreign Minister Sadeq Qotbzadeh used in a letter to the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on August 11, 1980, in reply to a Soviet note of protest of July 9. He wrote with revolutionary candour and said, May this method turn into a new departure in diplomatic correspondence and may no trace of lies, concealment or duplicity be detected therein. He hammered away at the treaty: Lo and behold, your utterances are socialistic while your deeds are imperialistic. Gromyko replied that the treaty was mutually beneficial and denied that the Soviet Union interfered in Irans internal affairs.

On New Years Day 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote to President Mikhail Gorbachev, virtually asking him to embrace Islam. Welcoming his reforms the letter said, If at this juncture you wish only to undo the blind economic knots of socialism and communism by taking refuge in the bosom of Western capitalism, not only will you not cure any of the ills of your society, on the contrary, others should come and correct your mistakes. If Marxism today is facing a dead end in economic and social issues, the Western world is also afflicted with the same issues of course in a different shape as well as other issues.

Your Excellency Mr. Gorbachev, One should turn to truth. The main difficulty of your country is not the issue of ownership, economics, or freedom. Your difficulty is the lack of true faith in God, the same difficulty which has also dragged the West towards decadence and a dead end.

It was no small achievement for the U.S. to alienate such a country. Khomeini was pragmatic. When the Soviet Ambassador informed him of the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, Khomeini extracted from him a promise to exercise the veto in the Security Council on an impending resolution. Parsi remarks that after the revolution, geopolitical factors pushed the two countries towards each other, in spite of Irans ideological opposition to and suspicion of Israel. Feelers were sent from both capitals, though Tel Aviv was clearly the most eager to revive its old cooperation with Tehran. Only months after the revolution, in spite of the break in relations, Tel Aviv offered to send back a number of American-built Iranian tanks that the Shah had shipped to Israel to be refurbished. Iran accepted the offer. Israel constantly sought ways to woo the Khomeini government but found Tehran rather ambivalent about the usefulness of the Jewish State.

In early 1980, only months after the eruption of the hostage crisis, Ahmed Kashani, the youngest son of the Grand Ayatollah Abol Qassem Kashani, visited Israel to discuss arms sales and military cooperation against Iraqs nuclear programme at Osirak.

His trip resulted in Begins approval of the shipment of tyres for Phantom fighter planes as well as weapons for the Iranian army . Carter was infuriated by Begins insensitivity towards the trauma America was undergoing. After a harsh exchange between the two tough-minded leaders, Carter reprimanded Israel by putting on hold future sales of spare parts to the Jewish State. But Begins defence paid off. Ayatollah Khomeini reciprocated the Israel move by permitting large numbers of Iranian Jews to leave Iran. Thousands crossed the border to Pakistan by bus, where they were flown to Austria and allowed to immigrate to the United States or Israel.

Such ambivalence continued on both sides. The hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 1996. He wrecked the Oslo process but decided to ease tensions with Iran through Kazakh and Russian mediation. We do not subscribe to the idea that Islam has replaced communism as the new rival of the West, he told the U.S. Congress on July 10, 1996. He held that for Israel, Yasser Arafat was a problem, not Iran. Also, he feared a U.S.-Iran detente.

Iran pushed Lebanons Hizbollah to accept a ceasefire with Israel in April 1996, for which it won praise from Israel. Iran proposed several specific quids pro quo but the talks failed. Likuds Iran policy was the direct opposite of the Labour Partys.

Iran-Israel relations deteriorated in 1992, three years after Israel discovered that Iran has restarted its nuclear programme. In 1996, Netanyahu put such concerns to rest when he reached out to Iran. Israel didnt really pay any attention to [the Iranian nuclear programme] until the peace process, Keith Weissmann of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee noted.

The nuclear programme by itself does not explain the U.S.-Israel drive to isolate Iran. Parsi holds that Iran-U.S. detente would facilitate the peace process in Palestine. The U.S. believes that accord in Palestine would isolate Iran. In the past, Israel has defied the U.S. on Iran. But it cannot and will not now. Rather, it is pushing the U.S. to adopt a harder line.

Fortunately, there are on both sides men who are willing to break the mould and think afresh. Ideology is not a factor. Geopolitics is. Ben Ami, Israels former Foreign Minister, argued in the pages of Haaretz that the question today is not when Iran will have nuclear power, but how to integrate it into a policy of regional stability before it obtains such power. Iran is not driven by an obsession to destroy Israel, but by its determination to preserve its regime and establish itself as a strategic regional power, vis-a-vis both Israel and the Sunni Arab states. The answer to the Iranian threat is a policy of detente, which would change the Iranian elites pattern of conduct.

Ironically, it is the neoconservatives in the U.S., not Iranians, who are guided by ideology. In August 2004, a senior Iranian official complained to Parsi on the condition of non-attribution about the difficulty of dealing with an ideological regime in Washington, D.C. These people in Washington dont see the world for what it is, they only see what they want to see. We used to suffer from the same mindset after the Revolution, but we learned very quickly the dangers of an ideological foreign policy. We paid a very high price for our initial mistakes.

At a Friday sermon on April 12, 2003, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted as much. We have made inappropriate measures or never made any measures. And we have delayed making decisions. Our ideology is flexible. We can choose expediency on the basis of Islam.

On another occasion he rejected the notion that Irans foreign policy should be based on ideological principles. To put the country in jeopardy on the grounds that we are acting on (an) Islamic basis is not at all Islamic. Former Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Maleki said that Irans foreign policy has long ceased to be ideological. Ideology means that we must have pro-Muslim policies in all of the world. Yes, we claim that we are pro-Muslim in all of the world. but we didnt support Chechen Muslims. If ideology was the first motivator for Iranian foreign policy, Iran must do that. But Iran didnt.

The main obstacle to peace in West Asia is the U.S. determination to have a permanent presence in the region. Saddam Husseins attack on Kuwait on August 1, 1990, provided it a fine opportunity. Dick Cheney, then Defence Secretary, rushed to persuade a reluctant Saudi Arabia to accept U.S. troops on its soil, with grave consequences.

As Mohamed Heikals book Illusions of Triumph points out, King Fahd was silent on the Iraqi attack for 48 hours, between 3 and 5 August when the Kings mind was changing, but not yet made up. Cheney arrived on August 6. King Husseins (Jordan) heart sank when he heard of the decisions by King Fahd, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Hassan of Morocco to fall in. He felt that there had been a rush to create conditions which would legitimise American intervention (page 219). He was absolutely right.

Parsi records: It was September 2000, a year before the explosive 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Cheney aide I. Lewis Libby already had their collective eye on Iraq as they gathered at the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century in Washington, D.C. Under the auspices of this organisation, they drafted a document stating their vision of Americas role in the Middle East, which included an attack on Iraq. Called Rebuilding Americas Defences: Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century, their report argued that the United States must have a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf, and that although the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification (for an Iraqi invasion), the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

In 1990, Cheney foiled an Arab solution to Iraqs aggression. In 2000, he was set on adding to the gains he had achieved a decade earlier. September 11 provided not even a fig leaf of pretence to attack Iraq. It was intended to accomplish several objectives. Irans isolation was one of them. Its attack on Iraq ruined the U.S. reputation in the region.

The U.S. ruined Iraq as well as Afghanistan. In the aftermath, the U.S. policy is to build an anti-Iran alliance comprising the Arab States, Israel and India. Selig S. Harrison reported in Le Monde Diplomatique of October 2007 that covert action to undermine the Tehran regime has already been under way intermittently for the past decade. A presidential finding in April 2007 was made to facilitate it.

According to Alan Gresh of Le Monde Diplomatique, Silently, stealthily, unseen by cameras, the war on Iran has already begun. Many sources confirm that the United States, bent on destablising the Islamic Republic, has increased its aid to armed movements among the Azeri, Baluchi, Arab and Kurdish ethnic minorities that make up about 40% of the Iranian population. ABC News reported in April that the U.S. had secretly assisted the Baluchi group, Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), responsible for a recent attack in which some 30 members of the Revolutionary Guard were killed. According to an American Foundation report, U.S. commandos have operated inside Iran since 2004. His article is entitled Countdown to War on Iran (May 2007). Gresh adds: To create the conditions for military intervention, it constantly brandishes the nuclear threat. Year after year, U.S. administrations have produced alarmist reports, always proved wrong. In January 1995, the Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency said Iran could have the bomb by 2003, while the U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry predicted it would have the bomb by 2000. These forecasts were repeated by Israels Shimon Peres a year later. Mohamed ElBaradeis latest report on Iran (February 21) is positive.

In December 2007, a National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus of all 16 American spy agencies, found with high confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 and found with moderate confidence that it remains frozen, still.

Mohammed Javed Zarif, Irans Ambassador to the U.N., noted that the same government and officials who had encouraged the Iranian nuclear programme, started questioning Irans need for nuclear energy and its intentions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger wrote in The Washington Post in 2005 that for a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources.

Thirty years ago, when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, under President Gerald Ford, he held that introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Irans economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals. According to Kissinger I dont think the issue of proliferation came up because they were an allied country. Kissingers explanation clearly indicates that the issue is neither need for energy nor concern for proliferation, but rather pattern of bilateral relations.

Iran and the U.S. signed an Atoms for Peace Agreement on April 15, 1957 (Tackling the Iran-U.S. Crisis. The need for a Paradigm Shift; Journal of International Affairs; Spring/Summer 2007; page 81).

Mahmoud Ahmadinejads rhetoric should not obscure the fact that some of his policies and utterances have drawn sharp criticism within the country. There is a promising intellectual ferment. Some age-old truths are being questioned.

In May 2006, Ramin Jahanbegloo, was arrested. He is a political philosopher barely known outside intellectual circles. He had visited the U.S. and other foreign countries and has been quoted in an Indian newspaper as criticising Ahmadinejads comments about the holocaust. A hard-line newspaper accused him of working for the CIA and the Mossad and of trying to promote a Czech-style velvet revolution in Iran. He was released four months later.

A year later, Jahanbegloo wrote an article in World Affairs (Spring 2007) on Iranian Intellectuals: From Revolution to Dissent. It is a crie de coeur, which traces their lot since the revolution in 1979. He describes the various schools of thought that have come to the fore. Some extracts from this article are worth quoting because they provide a good flavour of the current debate that is little reported even in the worlds press.

The same revolutionary intellectuals who had supported the Iranian revolution of 1979 as an anti-Western, anti-imperial struggle against Iranian capitalists were now considered the enemies of Islam and a danger to the future of the Islamic regime in Iran. Many of these Leftist intellectuals fled for their lives abandoning behind them the revolution and the hope of a socialist Iran. Others who stayed in Iran faced imprisonment or death and found themselves not only disenchanted and disillusioned by the political defeat of the Left but also betrayed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

However, those among the Islamic revolutionary intellectuals who remained faithful to the Islamic regime adopted an instrumentalist view of Islam as a mobilising political ideology and tried to bridge the gap between the intellectuals and the clergy created by the modern institutions of the Pahlavi regime.

Iranian President Mahmoud

In Iran today the religious intellectuals are divided into two diverse groups the reformists and the neoconservatives. The reformist group is represented by figures such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, Alavi Tabar, Hassan Yousefi Eshkavari, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, and many others. The unifying traits of these intellectuals include their recognition of reform in Islamic thought, democracy, civil society and religious pluralism and their opposition to the absolute supremacy of the faqih [Supreme Guide].

The rise of religious intellectuals can be followed through the writings of Soroush whose main idea is that there are perennial unchanging religious truths, but our understanding of them remains contingent on our knowledge of science and philosophy. Unlike Ali Shariati, who turned to Marxism to bring an historical perspective to Shiite thought, Soroush debates the relationship between democracy and religion and discusses the possibility of what he calls Islamic democracy. According to Soroush, who now lives in England, the role of the philosopher is to try to reconcile religion and freedom, to give an understandable new definition of religion and to link democracy and faith. For the past decade, Soroush has been trying to convince his fellow citizens that it is possible to be a Muslim and believe in democracy.

Mojtahed Shabestari is among the rare religious intellectuals in Iran who has challenged the monistic view of Islam. According to Shabestari, the official Islamic discourse in Iran has created a double crisis. The first crisis is due to the belief that Islam encompasses a political and economic system offering an answer relevant on all historical periods, the second crisis is entailed by the conviction that as such the government has to apply the Shariah (Islamic law). According to Shabestari, these two ideas emerged in relation to the Islamic revolution and the events that followed it. But, he adds that Islam does not have all the answers to social, economic and political questions at all times in history. In addition, there is no single hermeneutics of Islam. Therefore, the relationship between religion and ideology is simply unacceptable and leads to the desacralisation of religion.

The neoconservative intellectuals support the official line of the supremacy of the faqih. However, there is also a new generation of Iranian intellectuals who neither promulgate an ideology nor struggle for the establishment of an Islamic democracy. Yet they undermine the main philosophical and intellectual concepts of the established order. This generation includes secular post-revolutionary intellectuals, like Javad Tabatabai, Babak Ahmadi, Hamid Azodanloo, Moosa Ghaninejad, Nasser Fakouhi and Fatemeh Sadeghi, who are in their forties and fifties and may be referred to as dialogical intellectuals (in contrast to the revolutionary intellectuals of the 1970s and early 1980s).

For this new generation of Iranian intellectuals, the concept and practice of dialogue provide an ontological umbrella for all political and cultural meanings and understandings. The objective of this culture of dialogue is not to consider the other (individual or social class) as an enemy, but to promote full acknowledgement of the other as a subject.

The moral crisis due to the Islamic revolution and the problems faced by a society confronting a theocratic state has increased the attractiveness of the idea of secular democracy among the new government of Iranian intellectuals. The Islamic Republic of Iran has not undergone a smooth transition in the process of democratisation and seems to be making little progress. However, there is a wide gulf in Iran today between the actions of the political elites and the will of the post-revolutionary intellectuals.

As in Eastern Europe, the new generation of Iranian intellectuals is playing an important role in the formation and strengthening of civil society. In the case of the new generation of intellectuals, the disillusion with the given boundaries of traditional politics, traditional religious thought and the restrictions of ideological policies provoked interest in civil society as a means of rejuvenating public life and preparing the democratic transition in Iran.

Twenty-eight years after the revolution, the distinctive contribution of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals to the Iranian democratic debate is not about how to choose between morality and politics in a country where dogmatism and confusion often drown the voices of common sense and decency, but rather about how to forge a politics of responsibility in the absence of which democracy is an empty concept. For the new generation of Iranian intellectuals the revolution of yesterday has become the dissent of today.

It is a pity that there is so little interaction between Indian and Iranian intellectuals, and between their universities. False stereotypes about Mullacracy prevail. In many fields women occupy important positions. On the diplomatic level, India seems all too eager to be on the right side of the U.S., not India alone, though. Neither Russia nor China has been too outspoken on the dangers that loom large in West Asia. What can realistically be expected of India is to increase its contacts with Iran at the diplomatic level as well as between the civil societies.

India needs greater interaction at the intellectual and cultural level not only for their own sake but in its own national interest. The U.S. and Israel must be taught that this friend is not locked with them, or with any other state, in an exclusive relationship. In this case, as in all such, opportunist pursuit of immediate gains harms the national interest in the long run. Indias image suffered a lot by the vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. It can ill-afford more such surrenders.

The world watches us and public opinion has been alerted by that vote. Indias Iran policy will be the test of its independence in foreign policy.

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