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Iranís regional ambitions

BY IRFAN HUSAIN / 14 October 2004

ALTHOUGH its desire to spread hard-line Islam abroad has waned somewhat since the Khomeni revolution a quarter century ago, Iran remains an ideological state. But apart from Islam, it is the Shia doctrine that defines Iranís religious leadership and its worldview.

Before 9/11 and its immediate aftermath altered the regional balance of power irrevocably, Iran was well placed to project its influence beyond its borders. It was arming and funding the Shia Hazaras and Ahmed Shah Masood in their resistance against the Sunni Taleban in Afghanistan. Shia Muslims in Central Asia were being given scholarships to study theology in Iranís seminaries, and Shia armed groups in Pakistan were being helped by Teheran in their fight against Sunni extremists.

In Iraq, the only other Muslim country with a Shia majority, the ayatollahs were content to play a waiting game, secure in the knowledge that Saddam Hussein, weakened after a decade of sanctions, no longer posed a threat. They had mended fences with the Gulf States, and were gradually becoming more acceptable to the West.

With 9/11 and the consequent American-led attack and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran was suddenly encircled by the worldís sole superpower. Worse, its President had branded the country one of the Ďaxis of evilí together with Syria and North Korea.

But the invasion of Iraq brought opportunities as well as dangers for Iran. For the first time since Iraqís creation after the First World War, the majority Shia population was in a position to gain power. Teheran understood that if it played its cards right, it could wield enormous influence in Baghdad after the Americans left.

Basically, Ayatollah Khamanei seems to have decided to proceed along two tracks. The first track has the firebrand Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr leading his Mahdi army in an armed insurrection against the American occupiers. The idea is to make Iraq virtually ungovernable, forcing the Americans into an early exit. The second track consists of encouraging Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the hugely respected Iraqi cleric, to consolidate his power among the Shia community.

This policy is based on the expectation of a Shia majority in any reasonably fair Iraqi election. While the Americans are trying to finesse this possibility through safeguards for the Kurdish and Sunni minorities, it is a matter of time before Teheranís waiting game pays off.

Should a Shia-dominated Iraq emerge from the embers of the Gulf War, it can be expected to cooperate closely with Iran. While the seniority of its hierarchy of ayatollahs would give it considerable independence, the two countries would consult closely on a wide range of matters from oil prices to diplomacy.

Close ties between the worldís only two Shia countries would make for a formidable alliance. Given their oil and gas reserves, as well as their land mass and literate populations, they would dominate the region, and pose a major threat to American and Israeli interests.

The current expressions of alarm over Iranís nuclear programme should be seen in the context of the Westís growing concern at Teheranís ambitions in Iraq. Similarly, its continuing improvement of the range and accuracy of its missiles is giving it the means to project its power far beyond its borders.

But this overt muscle flexing is making it vulnerable to a joint pre-emptive strike by Israeli and American forces. Although its nuclear and missile-related assets are scattered and hidden, they are not completely immune. If the Americans can obtain a UN resolution based on the IAEA findings that Iran is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they can justify military action.

Thus, Iran may be in danger of overplaying its hand. If it waits patiently, the sheer demographic realities in Iraq virtually assure it of a major say in that country, together with the strategic and economic implications that flow from Shia rule in Iraq. If, however, it continues to exert pressure on the Americans through Moqtada Al Sadr and his Mahdi army, while also defying world opinion by acquiring nuclear arms, it will be risking all its gains on one roll of the dice.

The ongoing negotiated disarming of the Mahdi army is a subtle sign that Teheranís ayatollahs understand the stakes. They are aware that they and their fellow Shias in Iraq would be the biggest losers if the January elections were disrupted through violence.

In the post-9/11 world, nuclear proliferation is a tough sell. Iran can ill afford a confrontation with the worldís sole superpower on an issue that isolates it, as none of its neighbours are happy with the thought of militant clerics with a nuclear arsenal. After the American elections, no matter who wins, the pressure on Teheran to roll back its uranium enrichment programme can only mount. The fact is that it is difficult to believe the official claim that Iranís nuclear programme is entirely peaceful and is aimed at overcoming the countryís power shortage.

All too often, revolutionaries miscalculate the reaction of pragmatic leaders to their actions. The ayatollahs in Teheran should try and put themselves in Bush and Sharonís place: the former will not accept Iranís dominance over the worldís biggest oil-producing region, while the latter would never countenance its sworn enemyís possession of nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.

There are times when it pays to tread softly, specially when you live in a rough neighbourhood.

Irfan Husain is a Pakistani political analyst
 
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