A strong, mainstream Iran will help stabilise the Middle East
At a recent informal lunch with some European friends, conversation predictably veered towards Iran. Given that Iran, by its own admission had test-fired nine missiles, including a new Shahab-3 with the range of 2,000km, over two days in the second week of July, it was understandable why the issue should weigh so heavy on the minds of Europeans. Concern about the region increased with speculations that this show of defiance was directed against both the US and Israel. Israel had also jumped in the muddied waters asserting that it will do what it has to do, implying carry out precision strikes against Iran. Being past-masters at sabre-rattling, it was too much to expect Iran to not react. So even though President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that it had no intentions of attacking Israel, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Air Force boasted that, ‘Our missiles are ready for shooting at any place and any time, quickly and with accuracy.’
As Indians we have learnt not to take these things seriously. In fact, we don’t take anything seriously until it hits us. But Westerners are different. Not only they take all threats seriously, they assume far greater capabilities in their adversary. Hence, the concern about Iran. Halfway through his smoked salmon, one of them asked, “How serious is the threat from Iran? And if it is not serious, what was the need to test-fire so many missiles?” I must admit that I had not thought about Iran or its missile testing before the lunch.
In fact, I hadn’t even bothered much about the small news reports of the event. In my defence I’d say that Indian perspective on Iran is vastly different from the Western, and not many in India seriously believe that there are any reasons to fear that Iran can ever attack Israel or any of the US targets in the Gulf. The question then is why such war-mongering talks that increase the tension and adds to instability?
I think the answer can be sought in the unique position in which Iran finds itself. Iran is the only Shia Muslim country in the world. Shia is a minority Muslim sect and its rivalry with the majority Sunni sect has historically been uneasy, if not entirely violent. It finds itself in a neighbourhood of Sunni-dominated Muslim and mostly Arab countries, which have traditionally colluded against it and through various treaties and multi-lateral agreements within themselves as well as with the West ensured that it remained inferior to the Arabs in the pecking order. But Iran is no assortment of quarrelling tribes which can be treated shabbily. It boasts of the great Persian legacy, military, cultural and spiritual. At the time when Arab tribesmen lived nomadic lives on the periphery of civilisation, Persians were building great cities, their poets were churning out reams of philosophical poetry, their artisans were weaving sophisticated textiles and handicrafts, and the spiritualists were deliberating alternative faiths. Persians have been and are a proud race with a history to support their aspirations for better recognition.
Today, the churning and chaos in Iran’s neighbourhood has in a long time offered it a possibility of reclaiming the stature which it always felt it deserved. It believes that if it plays its cards right then perhaps it can rise to become a regional power, with its own orbit of grateful neighbouring states; a power with whom the West confer on matters pertaining to the Gulf region. A divided Iraq, with its majority Shia population may just be the first of those who look up to Iran for guidance and support. Iran understands that this can only happen if it is perceived as a powerful country; a country that can influence politics and events in other countries. Iran is not the only country in the world that believes that only the powerful command respect and the weak get nothing but contempt. While a strong, self-respecting citizenry go a long way in making a country powerful, assertiveness and to some degree show of strength by the ruling class help in reinforcing the case.
The missile test-firing and upping the ante are just various means of announcing to the world that Iran wants to be taken seriously as a country. Despite calling for the destruction of Israel, it knows that the reality of Israel cannot be changed. In fact, it does not even want this reality to change because Israel and the perceived threat from Israel gives it a rallying point to bring about some kind of unity among the Muslim countries, which may then converge under its leadership.
It has been a pariah state for far too long. It now wants to stage a comeback on its own terms. The recent report in UK’s Guardian newspaper that the US now plans to establish a diplomatic presence, an ‘interest section’ similar to the one in Cuba, in Iran for the first time in 30 years just goes on to show that its aggressive posturing may just start to yield results. Contrary to the fears in the West, a strong, mainstream Iran will help stabilise the Middle East, which needs local leaders to look up to and not the ones foisted upon them from abroad.