BY SAEED NAQVI
To the various puzzles America pores over has been added one more: Iran’s President elect, Hassan Rouhani. As an opening gambit, he is being described as “moderate”.
It is being speculated that he will be “moderate” on the nuclear issue even though he has deep roots in the country’s conservative establishment whose views on the issue are known and not liked.
Years ago, “moderation” in all discourse concerning West Asia had a distinct meaning. It was an adjectival expression approving of states which were willing to tow the Western line on the Israeli-Palestinian question. The antonym for moderate those days was “rejectionist”. Had Rouhani been around then, he would have been an arch “rejectionist” as he doubtless will be should Palestine ever be allowed to swim into the West Asian ken as an issue.
The obscuring of the principal issue in West Asia, namely Palestine, can, at best, be a tactic. Strategic minds like Turki al Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the US, have said so repeatedly. He wrote in the New York Times: Unless the US throws its weight behind “an early two-state” solution for Palestine, “Pariah states like Syria and Iran would gain”.
Turki is not alone in listing Iran in the category of “pariah”. Iranian participation on any debate on the Israel-Palestine issue will immediately invite choice invective from Jerusalem and Washington and, in discreet, deniable whispers, from Riyadh. The rhetoric will immediately be ratcheted up and all the speculation about President-elect, Rouhani’s expected “moderation” will evaporate. He will become the leader of a “pariah state”, part of the “Axis of Evil”.
Iran’s nuclear intentions are among the last of the issues that will ever be settled between the West and the Islamic Republic. And that settlement will not exhaust the formidable agenda dictated by Iran’s strategic vision: it is a major power in the Persian Gulf region. If a dictator like the Shah was accorded that status, why not the Islamic Republic? This is the way Qom thinks.
When the US needed Iranian help in the earliest stages of its occupation of Afghanistan, Washington sent Zalmay Khalilzad as its Persian speaking Ambassador to Kabul. Believe it or not, at one stage Khalilzad was among the list of prospective Presidents of the country.
For his successes in Kabul, Khalilzad was rewarded. He was promoted as ambassador to Baghdad. Since Iran had a long border with Iraq, as it did with Afghanistan, a Teheran friendly envoy was needed.
As expected, Khalilzad set up an impressive, wide ranging agenda with Iran. But, lo and behold, the Deep State in the US pulled the rug from under his feet. Who asked you to engage the Iranians across the spectrum? We want them on the mat only on the nuclear issue. So, like Humpty Dumpty, poor Khalilzad had a great fall!
During Khalilzad’s brief spell, the nuclear issue was posed to block what might well have been a promising normalization process. That is why chants of “moderate, moderate” that have greeted Rouhani in anticipation of his nuclear policy should, at best, be received with a shrug.
Iraq, Arab Spring, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain have all diverted attention from pivotal issues which, in Iranian perception is Palestine and in Western, diversionary projection, the nuclear question.
And now at this moment some of the real issues of immediate concern to both the West and Iran are Afghanistan and Syria.
In Syria, the situation on the ground has swung in favour of the regime. Planes are dropping leaflets over Alleppo, asking the internal opposition to surrender and they are complying. It is in the nature of conflicts in which various states have diverse interests, that the conflict be suitably prolonged so that no one side emerges victorious.
In the final spasms, there will be Israeli provocations in Southern Lebanon and Syrian rockets on the Golan Heights and so on. Yes, between Rouhani’s election and his inauguration in August there is chance of many a slip.
As it is, Rouhani’s election hailed by Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei on the one hand and Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami on the other, consolidates the clergy behind the new leader. There has been no comparably clean election in the Muslim world in recent history except perhaps in Turkey in 2011. Rouhani has been hailed internationally as a leader who provides a moment of hope in a beleaguered region. Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan on the other hand has spilt the goodwill he had collected.
None of these reports on Iran can be honeyed music to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. How would these two contemplate the run of good luck Iran has had this decade. The removal of Taliban from Kabul, Saddam Hussain’s departure and a Shia-led regime in Baghdad, Huthis in Yemen, Hezbullah in Lebanon, the Shia-Sunni divide in Kuwait, the overwhelming Shia majority in Bahrain, and the new turn of events in Syria are all extremely worrisome for Riyadh and Qatari.
The latter, of course, has egg all over its face because the full blown embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Doha must be looking very forlorn in the absence of delegations. Americans had very nearly pulled off a first in the annals of diplomatic history – umpiring a dialogue between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Emirate both claiming control of the same country. And Americans claiming control over both.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)