It is neither possible nor necessary for us to take a position on the charge that Iran is assisting terrorist activities in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and other Arab countries directly and through Sudan. Not possible because no one has produced the evidence so far, though Cairo claims to possess it; not necessary because there is no good reason why we should get drawn into this affair. Regardless of whether it is a new variant of the old Arab-Iran or Shia-Sunni contest, or a combination of both, it is an intra-Muslim problem. We can only hurt ourselves by getting entangled in it. While we are sure to incur the hostility of Iran if we endorse the charge, there is no possibility of earning Arab goodwill.
Not A New Story
The Arab unwillingness, or incapacity to stand by us in return for our support is not a new story and it is not related solely to Pakistan. Three decades ago Pandit Nehru was bitterly disappointed over President Nasser’s equivocation at the Colombo conference of non-aligned countries on the question of the Chinese attack. Cairo did not wish to remember India’s support during the Suez crisis in 1956. In more recent years, Saudi Arabia has been in the lead in financing Pakistani purchases of deadly weapons such as F-16s and other activities in the sub- continent which have been far from helpful to us.
We are, of course, victims of terrorism aided from outside the country. But the pertinent point is that there is not a single Muslim government we can expect to be sympathetic to us in our difficulties. Cairo and Algiers may be a little less anxious to read us lessons in human rights than some others but they will continue to vote for whatever resolution Pakistan may produce, with Saudi blessings, at the Organisation of Islamic Conference, or elsewhere. As for Iran, it is self-evident that both as a neighbour and as a champion of Muslim causes, it will have close ties with Pakistan. There are other reasons for that as well; China’s intimate relations with Islamabad and Teheran’s developing ties with Beijing, especially in the nuclear field, for instance. So it is unrealistic for us to expect Iran to observe balance it its relations with Islamabad and New Delhi. But it is a matter of some interest to us that inherent in Iran’s history and geography is a thrust westward which make Arabs its principal preoccupation.
The late Shah might have acted partly as a US surrogate when he sought a dominant position in the Persian gulf. But that is also a natural Iranian aspiration. The present regime’s revolutionary character and claims can only reinforce this age-old trend.
This must inevitably cause concern in the West which has an enormous stake in the ‘stability’ of the gulf region since it contains two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves. ‘Stability’ is a euphemism for the security of oil- rich kingdoms and sheikdoms. The West has to ensure that. The sheikhs cannot protect themselves, however many billions worth of arms they may pile up. President Mubarak too has got too busy fighting terrorists at home to be in a position to offer them much help which, in any case, has not been welcome.
The Kuwaiti rulers are quite explicit; they trust only the Americans and their allies. The Saudis relied a great deal on Pakistanis in the past. It is now an open question whether Riyadh would wish to return to the old arrangement whereby two Pakistani divisions were deployed in Saudi Arabia for the protection of the royal family. The US has bombed targets in Tripoli and enforced economic sanctions against it on the specific charge of support for terrorism. This has induced a considerable measure of caution in President Gaddafy’s utterances and behaviour, especially in the past year or so. But Iran is another matter altogether. It is difficult to believe that Washington can think of adopting a similar policy towards Teheran.
Apparently Teheran does not wish to take any chances. That would explain its massive arms purchases from Russia and China. Its acquisition of Kirov class submarines and Russian planes capable of attacking aircraft carriers is especially notable. Unlike Libya and Iraq, Iran would not be a sitting duck for Americans to shoot at.
Adverse US Attention
Iran has come to attract adverse US attention on other counts as well. Washington is particularly worried over what it calls Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As two American West Asia specialists, Mr Daniel Pipes and Mr Patrick Clawson put it in an article “Ambitious Iran, Troubled Neighbours” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs quarterly: “Nothing else can explain its single-minded pursuit of nuclear power plants (including two ordered from China and Russia)… Credible reports also point to collaboration on nuclear technology with Pakistan, whose authorities acknowledge possessing the know-how and technology to build a bomb.”
Neither point is disputable. Islamabad is cooperating with Teheran in the nuclear field and it possesses the know-how for building the bomb. Though the stage for it to make that know-how available to Iranians may not have been reached yet, the very fact of cooperation must be as troublesome for the Saudis as to the Americans. They must be even more alarmed over Iranian military build-up and nuclear ambitions. But their leverage with Pakistan is rather limited.
To return to the issue of terrorism in Egypt, its present scale makes it qualitatively a new phenomenon. President Nasser could suppress the Muslim Brotherhood for a variety of reasons. He was riding the crest of a popularity wave; the pan-Arab platform was still attractive and the Brotherhood did not enjoy the kind of mass support it and its more militant offshoots do now. His anti-Western stance and reputation were a great help in the war on the Brotherhood.
President Sadat could win it over on an anti-Nasserite platform and retain its loyalty so long as he talked of and prepared for war with Israel. Once he made peace with Israel, he lost its support. Finally, the zealots who had broken away from the Brotherhood assassinated him in 1981.
Like President Sadat after his visit to Tel Aviv, President Mubarak has no ideological defences; if anything, he is more vulnerable because his pro-Westernism is more explicit. The fundamentalist wave in West Asia is also much stronger than in 1981. At home, according to a recent report in The New York Times, 12,000 new ‘mosques’ have sprung up outside of the government control and become centres of sedition.
The fundamentalists may not be able to overthrow the state. But in ideological terms, they have already won. Thirty per cent of broadcasts from the state system are religious; the intention is to co-opt the fundamentalists but they must see it as a kind of surrender. That most women, even in government offices, have returned to the veil or the head cover speaks for itself. Egypt can well become fundamentalist in all but name without the overthrow of the present dispensation.
We have to wait for the evolution of a Western response to these developments. So far we have seen only vague signs of concern.
The Times of India, 25 March 1993