Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Enrichment and Impoverishment

Instead of grumbling about Iran's region-wide and Iraq-specific role, Arabs should wake up and think intelligently about their collective security and communal interests, writes Azmi Bishara

Washington is speaking to Tehran for the first time since the American hostage crisis when US President Jimmy Carter declared an embargo on Iran. Not only that, but it has some "tempting" offers to present to Iranian officials. Otherwise put, the US is proposing and Iran is playing coy, acting as though it is only trying to please the Europeans when it promises to study the proposals and get back to the Americans later. Some Arab governments, which have been bending over backwards to please the US, must be green with envy. The more they demonstrate how loyal and willing they are to serve, the more Washington snubs and treats them with contempt.

Iranian leaders have tried two ways of dealing with the US over the past three years. During the American war against Afghanistan, they were most cooperative, let there be no doubt about that. All they earned in return was a place of honour in the "axis of evil" and a steadily intensifying stream of American threats and imprecations. As soon as they announced that they were going to resume uranium enrichment operations and then dug in their heels against Bush's fulminations, the tables turned. European powers -- after the US failed to convince them to hold the line -- rushed in with offer after offer, which the Iranians spurned. Then, as Russia followed by other American allies rejected the option of force against Iran, the US agreed to a dialogue, and this led to some proposals with regard to cooperation, which would be very advantageous for Iran and effectively end the embargo on it.

The point is that it pays for a country to insist on its rights and hold its ground against the US -- if, that is, that country identifies its aims, assesses its sources of strength properly and deploys these well. Iran knew that the capacities it possessed were not sufficient to take on the US in war. However, it understood that it was possible to use them to avert war, especially when timed to coincide with other factors such as the growing anti- war sentiment in American public opinion and the fact that US forces are already bogged down in other areas. Making the US back down counts as no small moral victory for the region. Iran may have to give up its plans for possessing the technology to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels and it may have to submit to international inspections and the concomitant tension this denotes between national sovereignty and international commitments, but it will still retain its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

During the entire first week of June, the Israeli press observed developments on the US-Iranian front via the mirror of its own dealings with the Palestinians. Commentators had practically taken for granted that the Americans would make offers that they knew in advance the Iranians would be compelled to refuse so that Washington could then claim that "there is no negotiating partner" in Iran. Then, logic dictated, the US would have an easier time rallying international support for sanctions that would ultimately culminate in military action. This globalised version of Israeli unilateralism tells us less about the situation with Iran than it does about the nature of Israeli wishful thinking.

It is not difficult to divine the vantage point of a sovereign state that sees its own economic and national security interests at stake. Iran has been weathering a Western siege amid the backdrop of a history of regional wars, one of which was waged directly against it. It sees the Americans champing at the bit to gain full control over the Gulf while an array of Arab countries, dependent upon the US for their national security, have fallen in line with American desires as another hostile power in the region possesses nuclear weapons. Equally, it is not difficult to imagine how the Arabs would behave if they were a single state, or a federated entity of any sort, instead of a motley crew of rival regimes, competing with one another for the attention of the US and at odds with each other over their relations with that hostile nuclear power in the region. They, too, would try to possess, or threaten to try to possess, a nuclear option that they could wield as a negotiating chip to realise significant achievements on the issues that concern them, including the Palestinian cause. But the Arabs are not party to a federation of any sort that applies the concept of collective national security. They are shattered fragments of an idea with a flare for applying the strategy, "divide ourselves so others can conquer."

Iran has several sources of autonomous strength. It has an army. It has oil. It even has a relatively cohesive body of public opinion, galvanised on the nuclear issue such that it has become a rallying call for the defence of national pride and dignity. Certainly, too, Iranian influence in Iraq at a time of American military involvement in that country is another major point of leverage. Arab regimes and not a small number of loyal Arab nationalists accuse Iran of following selfish, expansionist policies in Iraq, and they particularly reproach it for resorting to sectarian tactics to augment its influence there. Regretfully, they have only themselves to blame. Iran never lured the US into Iraq or even tried to goad it into war. The Arabs did that, and Iran benefited. The Arabs could do so because to them Arab national security is a concept upon whose headstone to dance if that's what it takes to please the US. Their actions towards Iraq served American interests; Iran has been serving its own interests. In between, the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people were lost.

The Arabs helped the US step into Iraq and now they are grumbling because the US occupation has worked to Iran's advantage, rather than to theirs. But Iran is a nation state concerned with its national security and is currently trying to expand its sway in a country that had not so long ago waged a devastating war against it. That it is using a common religious bond between itself and a large segment of the Iraqi population towards this end may merit our censure. But we cannot object that Iran somehow betrayed Arab national interests. The Arabs are the ones that are supposed to defend these interests, which presumably should have included the cause of Iraq. Moreover when Iran attempts to turn sectarian tensions to its own advantage in the wake of a war that fuelled these tensions to begin with, at least Iran is acting in its own interests. When the Arabs, by contrast, elbow their way in to the same sectarian game, and try to turn it against the adherents of an entire school of Islamic jurisprudence, which regretfully has come to be termed a "sect", they are effectively destroying the fabric of their own society and broadening the scope for other countries, including Iran, to meddle in their affairs.

Iran was in a position to use its direct and indirect influence in Iraq to turn American soldiers bogged down in the war there into hostages by threatening to support a Shia-led national Iraqi resistance against the occupation. It then used this situation to hold Israel and the US off from launching a strike upon it, and then to force the US to agree to talks and make some "tempting offers". Instead of grumbling and cursing, certainly the Arabs would be better off learning from this experience. If the Iranian example tells us anything, it is that when dealing with the US and Israel, never make concessions free of charge. If the Iraqi experience tells us anything it is that the interests of Arab national security are best served when Arab national identity and equal citizenship are placed above narrow sectarian interests and that the defence of these principles and causes is a duty incumbent not upon the Iranians but upon the Arabs -- all Arabs: Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, and non-Muslims alike.

The Arabs will have every right to ask Iran to respect their national unity and sovereignty when they themselves start to respect these principles and work towards their fulfilment. One sign that the Arabs are moving in that direction will come when they no longer use the above-mentioned classifications when talking about politics; indeed, when they find it rude and distasteful to label an Arab politically merely on the basis of the accident of his birth into a family of a particular religious affiliation. At that point, the Arabs will have reached the realisation that such labels are the first step in the self-destructive game of religious identity politics, the very whiff of which lures foreign powers into readying for the pounce.

The Iranian experience surrounding uranium enrichment is, in fact, a lesson about the enrichment of political leverage. In this regard, one hopes that those Arab parties that are currently engaged in talks with Iran know better than to treat these talks as no more than a sideshow in the Iranian-US dialogue. If they do, only the US and Iran will stand to gain while they, the Arabs, walk away empty handed. The promotion of common interests between the Arabs and Iran is contingent upon developing friendly relations between the two sides, independently of how happy Washington is with Iran at this or that moment.

But, the real tragedy would be if the Arabs kept the resolution of their internal communal relations pending until Iranian-US relations improve. That would indicate that they are indeed a collection of disparate sects whose interrelationships are contingent upon outside powers, rather than an assembly of Arab citizens of diverse denominational affiliations bound together by a higher allegiance to an Arab state. In societies aspiring to a brighter and healthier future, political diversity and religious diversity are two very different things.