Taking on the world

IT WOULD appear that when President Teddy Roosevelt of the United States coined the maxim “Speak softly and carry a big stick” nearly a century ago, he had verbose Third World leaders in mind. Unfortunately, these are the very people prone to do the exact opposite.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 24 Nov 2005, 9:47 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:23 PM

Take the late Idi Amin of Uganda as a classic example. This clownish dictator who promoted himself field marshal was fond of issuing challenges and threats to all and sundry. All this while, his relatively prosperous country slipped into chaos and anarchy under his whimsical and cruel rule.

And now we have Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, threatening to “wipe Israel off the face of the map”. For good measure, he has also consigned those Muslim countries that have normalised relations with the Jewish state to eternal hellfire. Here, he has presumably received divine guidance to make this threat.

Paradoxically, Iran is located between two countries that have been devastated as a result of their leaders’ tendency to throw their weight around. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded by foreign powers because their rulers were out of touch with reality.

Rather than focusing on the needs of their own people, far too many Muslim rulers feel they have to right real or imagined wrongs taking place thousands of miles away. Thus, Libya’s Gaddafi bankrolled separatist and revolutionary movements around the world. Meanwhile, his country was subjected to sanctions, and his people reduced to relative poverty despite the country’s oil wealth. Syria is desperately trying to minimise the fallout from the results of a UN inquiry into Hariri’s assassination in Lebanon. It seems its decades of meddling in its neighbour’s affairs are finally coming home to roost.

Iran is under great pressure over its nuclear programme, and is increasingly isolated. In this charged atmosphere, for its elected president to make such a provocative threat is courting disaster. In fact, Iran should be trying to reduce the risk of a pre-emptive attack against its nuclear installations, not heighten the tension.

As Ahmedienjad is new to the job, there are some things he needs to learn about the way the world works. For one, people are very nervous about the spread of nuclear weapons, especially to countries with a track record of being violent and aggressive. True, Israel fits this description too, but Tel Aviv has been careful never to admit openly that it is a nuclear power. And as its arsenal dates back to the late Sixties, there is little anybody can do about it now.

Iran, on the other hand, is now trying to develop the technology and facilities to enrich uranium to weapons grade. This is a difficult and expensive process, even if you get a little help from friends like Dr AQ Khan. Although Teheran claims that it is developing this technology for power generation, this is a little hard to swallow as Iran is sitting on a sea of oil, and scarcely needs to invest billions in nuclear energy.

The underlying theme here is that as there are other nuclear powers in the region, Iran needs a deterrent. But as it has no territorial disputes with either Russia or Pakistan, this is somewhat farfetched. In fact, if there is a nuclear threat to Iran, it comes from Israel and the US. Such a fear would only materialise if Teheran crosses a certain threshold on its path to uranium enrichment.

Indeed, if anything is certain in an uncertain world, it is that Washington and Tel Aviv will do everything in their power to prevent Teheran getting nuclear weapons as these would pose an existential threat to Israel. And as the world knows, the combined power of these two states is very considerable indeed. When Iraq took its first steps in this direction, its Osirak reactor, then under construction, was bombed into oblivion by Israel.

There has been much comment in our Press about the unfairness and hypocrisy of the West: if Israel can have nuclear weapons, why can’t Iran? But the world is not fair, and never has been. Many Iranians feel aggrieved at the pressure their country is being subjected to. However, they need to coolly consider if the money being diverted to nuclear weapons could not be better spent on other, more pressing priorities.

But if there is a consensus in Iran about the need to acquire nuclear weapons, all the more reason for it to keep its head down and avoid the spotlight. You can’t expect to sneak into the nuclear club, and shout threats at the same time. And yet, the ayatollahs hope to follow Pakistan’s example, especially as they are largely immune to the effects of sanctions, thanks to sky-high oil prices and revenues.

The key difference is that Islamabad’s warheads were never aimed at the West, and therefore not perceived as a threat to either Israel or American interests. In the worst-case scenario, mullahs would take control of our nuclear arsenal. In Iran, however, they are already in control, and are therefore seen as a clear and present danger.

The perception of the threat from Iran has been strengthened by its president’s irresponsible anti-Semitic statements. But for years, Teheran has been supporting outfits like Hezbollah. And while we might see the group as a liberating force, they are viewed as extremists elsewhere.

It is these differences in perception between East and West that so often trigger conflicts. Thus, while Teheran thinks it to be its right to acquire nuclear weapons to defend itself in a dangerous neighbourhood, others view this as a threat. Unfortunately, language like that used by the Iranian president recently only adds to the tension. The people of his country would be better served by their leaders opening a dialogue, and using soothing words instead of launching into intemperate diatribes.

Muslim leaders are particularly prone to ignore their own limitations and take on the world. In reality, pressing problems at home are too difficult for them to resolve, and being unaccountable, they attempt to divert the attention of their people by embarking on foreign adventures. But all too often, they get carried away by their own rhetoric, or are swept away by their fanciful vision of their power. And just because they can bully their own people into submission, they start feeling invincible. They forget that in reality, they carry a very small stick while shouting at the top of their voice.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator based in London. He can be reached at irfan.husain@gmail.com

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