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In Wonderland, Alice played croquet with hedgehogs and flamingos. In the Middle East, United States President Barack Obama is attempting the same thing, but with rats and cobras. Not only do they move at inconvenient times, but they bite the players. Iran’s presidential election on Friday underscores the Wonderland character of American policy in the region.
America’s proposed engagement of Iran has run up against the reality of the region, namely that Iran cannot “moderate” its support for its fractious Shi’ite allies from Beirut to Pakistan’s northwest frontier. It also shows how misguided Obama was to assume that progress on the Palestinian issue would help America solve more urgent strategic problems, such as Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons.
By assigning 64% of the popular vote to incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in last weekend’s elections, Iran’s reigning mullahs, if there was indeed rigging, made a statement – but to whom? The trumpet which dare not sound an uncertain note was a call to Tehran’s Shi’ite constituency, as well as to a fifth of Pakistani Muslims. Religious establishments by their nature are conservative, and they engage in radical acts only in need.
Tehran is tugged forward by the puppies of war: Hezbollah in Lebanon and its co-sectarians in Pakistan. With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many. It also has nuclear weapons. And it is in danger of disintegration.
Against a young, aggressive and unstable Pakistan, Iran seems a moribund competitor. Iran’s fertility decline is the fastest that demographers ever have observed. As I reported on this site last February (Sex, drugs and Islam, February 24, 2009), Iranian fertility by some accounts has fallen below the level of 1.9 births per female registered in the 2006 census to only 1.6, barely above Germany’s.
Collapsing fertility is accompanied by social pathologies, including rates of drug addiction and prostitution an order of magnitude greater than in any Western country. Of the 15 countries that show the biggest drop in population growth since 1980, eight are in the Middle East, and the head of the United Nations population division calls the collapse of Islamic population growth “amazing.” Pakistan is the great exception, and that makes it the fulcrum of the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad’s invective may be aimed at Jerusalem, but his eye is fixed on Islamabad. That explains the decisions of his masters in Tehran’s religious establishment who may have rigged, or at least exaggerated, his election victory. Pakistan’s ongoing civil war has a critical sectarian component which the Shi’ites never sought: the Taliban claim legitimacy as the Muslim leadership of the country on the strength of their militancy against the country’s Shi’ite minority. Were the Taliban to succeed in crushing Pakistan’s Shi’ites, Iran’s credibility as a Shi’ite power would fade, along with its ability to project influence in the region.
As Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes asks, “Why did [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei select Ahmadinejad to “win” the election? Why did he not chose a president-puppet who would present a smile to the world, including Obama, handle the economy competently, not rile the population, and whose selection would not inspire riots that might destabilize the regime? Has Khamenei fallen under the spell of Ahmadinejad or does he have some clever ploy up his sleeve? Whatever the answer is, it baffles me.”
The issue is less baffling when raw numbers are taken into account. The issues on which Iran’s supposed moderation might be relevant, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, are less pressing for Tehran than the problems on its eastern border. Of the world’s 200 million Shi’ite Muslims, about 30% reside in Iran. Another 10% live in neighboring Iraq, and comprise about two-thirds of the country’s population. Yet another 30% of the Shi’ite live in the Indian sub-continent, about equally divided between India and Pakistan. Pakistani Shi’ites make up only about one-fifth of the country’s population. Their numbers are just large enough to make the Sunnis ill at ease with their presence.
Shi’ite leaders of the region believe that they stand on the verge of an irreversible breakdown of Islamic civilization, a thesis which Iraqi leader Ali W. Allawi argued forcefully in a recent book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. Allawi wrote, “The much heralded Islamic ‘awakening’ of recent times will not be a prelude to the rebirth of an Islamic civilization; it will be another episode in its decline. The revolt of Islam becomes instead the final act of the end of a civilization.” I reviewed Allawi’s book on this site in (Predicting the death of Islam May 5, 2009).
Iran’s aspirations for a restored Islamic civilization cannot exclude Pakistan’s 30 million Shi’ites. The Taliban’s insurgency inside Pakistan is directed against the Shi’ites more than any other target, and to make matters worse, Pakistani intelligence is agitating among Iran’s own Sunni minority.
On June 12, the day before Iran’s election, a Taliban suicide bomber killed Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi in Lahore, the leader of the pro-government Barelvi Muslim current in Pakistan. As Pakistan’s Daily Times wrote June 14, “The reason for this murder was not far too seek. Mufti Naeemi, arguably the most influential of the Ahle Sunnat-Barelvi school of thought in Pakistan, had recently presided over an all-Barelvi conference in Islamabad condemning the Taliban practice of suicide-bombing, and presenting to the nation, as it were, a choice between the extremist Deobandi Taliban and the moderate Ahle Sunnat clerical confederation.”
The Deobandi wing of Sunni Islam preaches violence against Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority, whose position would be fragile were the Taliban to take power. Although Deobandi Islam is a minority current among Pakistani Sunnis, “The conduct of covert jihad by the state has thrown the Barelvis into obscurity and a lack of street power over the years,” the Daily Times wrote. “Their mosques, once in a majority in the country, were either grabbed by the more powerful Deobandis with trained jihadi cadres who could be violent, or simply outnumbered by the more resourceful Deobandi-linked ones.”
The threat to Iran from the Pakistani Taliban extends to Iran’s eastern provinces. A May 28 bomb destroyed a mosque in the Kordestan city of Zahedan, on the Pakistani border. Iran called in Pakistan’s ambassador to protest alleged official support for the terrorists of the Pakistan-based Jundallah Sunni group which planted the bomb. Tehran also has circulated murky allegations that Israel’s secret service was behind the mosque bombing.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi wrote on June 3 in Asia Times Online, “Where Iran has Hezbollah, Israel has Jundallah, given Israel’s apparent efforts to destabilize Iran by playing an ‘ethnic card’ against it. This, by some reports, it is doing by nurturing the Sunni Islamist group Jundallah to parallel Tehran’s support for Lebanon’s formidable Shi’ite group, Hezbollah.” (Please see Hezbollah spices up Israel-Iran mix.)
In addition to Israel, Xinhua reported May 30, “Iran also blamed the United States, Britain and some other Western countries behind these attacks, accusing them of destabilizing the Islamic Republic, a charge denied by Washington and London.”
It is hard to guess who might be funding Jundallah. Pakistan’s secret service as well as the Saudis have a motive to do so. Washington’s interest is to strengthen the coalition against the Pashtun-speaking Taliban, which means keeping several ethnic minorities allied against the Taliban with the Punjabi core of Pakistan’s armed forces. These include the Dari-speaking Kabuli Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the mainly Shi’ite Hazara, a Turkic tribe whom the Iranians tend to deprecate. That is where Washington looks for help from Teheran.
If Tehran were playing a two-sided chess game with Washington, a moderate face like that of Hossein Mousavi would have served Iranian interests better than Ahmadinejad, as Pipes suggests. But Tehran also has to send signals to the sidelines of the chess match. With the situation on its eastern border deteriorating and a serious threat emerging to the Shi’ites of Pakistan, Iran has to make its militancy clear to all the players in the region. Washington’s ill-considered attempts at coalition building are more a distraction than anything else.
Because Tehran’s credibility is continuously under test, it cannot hold its puppies of war on a tight leash. Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon will continue to nip at the Israelis and spoil the appearance of a prospective settlement. The louder Iran has to bark, the less credible its bite. Iran’s handling of last weekend’s presidential election results exposes the weakness of the country’s strategic position. That makes an Israeli strike against its alleged nuclear weapons facilities all the more likely – not because Tehran has shown greater militancy, but because it has committed the one sin that never is pardoned in the Middle East – vulnerability.