Iran is not Iraq

April 8, 2007

View from Dubai

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

BEING based in Dubai offers you a rare, vantage point view over the Middle East. And Iran is not far from where we are.

The Bushehr nuclear power plant — at the heart of Iran’s standoff with the West — and the strategic port of Bandar Abbas are a stone’s throw away from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and many Gulf cities.

We are too close to the Persian giant for comfort. We can often feel the currents and shocks of geopolitical upheavals in Iran — almost literally. Which explains why we are more than apprehensive about the shape of things to come.

Not surprisingly Iran is currently the favourite subject of small talk as well as media chatter in our part of the world. This despite the fact that UAE has always been an oasis of peace and security in the volatile region, even during the successive Gulf wars. And journalist friends from around the world breathlessly ask us: “What do you think? Is the war imminent?” Like all good, old-fashioned hacks, they are secretly hoping for bad news. After all, there’s nothing like a good war to boost your circulation figures or viewer ratings. In fact, what would we journalists do without leaders like Bush and Ahmadinejad? Life would be so dull without the shenanigans of the two gentlemen. Of course, you can’t put the two in the same league. Indeed, they live on different planets. All good journalists love bad news. And the current leaders of Iran and US generate enough of it. While Bush’s own party, American people and the US allies and friends are at their wits’ end making sense of the royal mess that he has unleashed at home and abroad, the leader of the free world himself appears to revel in it. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, wouldn’t miss any opportunity to beat the ‘Big Satan’ and the rest of his allies with the big stick of fiery rhetoric and cold reason he always carries with him.There are many like me who find it hard not to admire the Iran leader for his courage to take on the big bullies of our world. And trust me, it is not only in the Muslim world that Ahmadinejad strikes a receptive chord. In a remarkably short period, the ordinarily dressed, diminutive leader has built himself a constituency that is not limited to the Middle East or Muslim world. Okay, Ahmadinejad is unreasonable to the point of being absurd in denying the Holocaust and suffering of Jewish people. It’s not easy defending him when he talks of rubbing Israel off the map — although he is alluding to the historical injustice the creation of Israel has inflicted on Palestinians. He is of course playing to the gallery. But he has endeared himself to Muslims and oppressed people everywhere by standing up for a wronged people.

At the same time, I can’t close my eyes to the reality that the Iranian president, by his un-diplomatic and hawkish posturing, has managed to earn more enemies for Iran during the past year and half than all the leaders of the Islamic republic have over the past quarter century or so. If the US and its ever-willing allies are today spoiling for a duel with Iran, Ahmadinejad’s style of leadership has played not too insignificant a role in it. But the Iran leader is not entirely to blame for the current confrontation with the West and tensions in the neighbourhood.Bush and his neocon pals never needed an invitation to take on the Islamist Iran. Just as they didn’t require a provocation to strike at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran had been one of the key targets of the neocons, according to the blueprint unveiled during Bush’s first year in office. The ambitious plan for a new American century seeks to reshape the Middle East and the Muslim world by taking out the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and others. Iraq, part of Bush’s original axis of evil, has already been liberated and democratised, in accordance with the neocon-Zionist worldview. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may be next in line. That plan is still on the table, as Bush would put it, despite the series of humiliating defeats the neocons have suffered and all-round havoc they have wreaked. So the attack on Iran — absolutely nutty as the idea may sound — may still be coming. In fact, the possibility of a US-Israel combine strike on the Islamic republic is growing by the day and the hour. So it’s not a matter of IF but WHEN Iran is likely to get hit by the Coalition of the Willing. The Iran-UK row over the 15 British sailors is only a tiny piece of the Middle East jigsaw that will unravel in the days and months to come. So don’t be surprised if Blair is ‘disgusted’ at Iran’s ‘behaviour’ that made the sailors sing on Iran TV admitting they were indeed in Iranian waters. Indeed, Blair has every right to protest Iran’s treatment of the detained Britons. For God’s sake, don’t the mullahs know how to treat the enemy combatants? When will the Arabs and Muslims learn the rules of engagement of the civilised world? Why there were no hoods, no dogs or leashes! Instead the British sailors were given new suits and traditional gifts by the Iranians before their release. Is this the way to treat the enemy? It seems the Iranians drew no lessons from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It’s understandable then as soon as the sailors landed in Britain, Blair slammed the Iranian regime for its ‘involvement in terrorism’. Looks like the Iranians will have to learn it the hard way. Just as the Iraqis have. But Iran is no Iraq. For one, the Islamic republic is not the toothless tiger that Iraq had become in the twilight years of Saddam. The long war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and then the subsequent attack by the US and its allies under Bush senior had reduced the Baathist Iraq to a hallowed, cardboard country. Let alone the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Bush claimed Saddam had and the late dictator pretended to possess, Iraq didn’t even have enough conventional arms or men to defend the country. No wonder the regime collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions at the mere touch of the invader. But Bush and company would be committing a historic blunder — even bigger than Iraq – if they went ahead and attacked Iran. Iranians are a young nation with over sixty per cent of its population being born after the 1979 Revolution. Fiercely patriotic and proud of their ancient past as well as Islamic identity, the 70-million strong people have never been more united as a nation. And they would fight with their lives to defend every inch of their territory. Not only would an attack on Iran add to the overstretched US coalition’s troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is certain to inflame the already restive Middle East and rest of the Muslim world.
Although Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons – at least not yet – to stave off aggression, it has other options of retaliating.
It boasts a standing army of 450,000 troops as well as long-range missiles that could hit Israel and even Europe. More importantly, a desperate Iran can play havoc with the global economy by blocking the Strait of Hormuz through which much of the world’s oil supply is routed. Just a few missiles or gunboats could bring down vessels and block the channel, hitting the global oil supplies with untold negative consequences for our world. Then there is the humanitarian suffering of epic proportions that is sure to follow such a dangerous, pointless and unjust war. The Oxford Research Group has warned that up to 10,000 people would die immediately if the US bombed Iran’s nuclear sites, and that an attack on the Bushehr nuclear reactor could send a radioactive cloud over the Gulf. If the US uses nuclear weapons, such as earth-penetrating bunker buster bombs, radioactive fallout would become even more disastrous. Which is why I wonder how the American people can allow their administration to undertake such a disastrous campaign after all that it has done over the past seven years? Especially when Iraq and Afghanistan, the two other fronts in America’s war, are still burning.

Is there no one who can stop Bush from visiting this madness on us all?

(Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs in Khaleej Times published from Dubai. He can be reached at


View from Dubai: Why the West must engage Islamists

April 6, 2007


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Three developments in the Middle East test America’s claim to be championing democracy in the Muslim world: The elections this month in Lebanon, the postponed parliamentary polls in the Palestinian territories and the upcoming presidential election in Egypt.How the United States chooses to respond to these democratic processes in the Arab-Muslim heartland may determine the future of America’s relationship with the Muslim world.When President George W. Bush vowed in his second inauguration speech to break with the traditional U.S. policy of backing authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, he may have heralded a new era. Bush promised to support genuine democratic movements in the Middle East and elsewhere even if it meant dumping America’s traditional friends and allies. Since then, Bush has repeatedly argued, rightly, that it is the suppression of democratic urges and rights that is at the heart of Muslim extremism.

Democracy may indeed be the cure-all for most problems confronting the Muslim world. But the question is, can the United States take the bold steps that are needed to give concrete shape to its promises? Can it allow democracy to take its natural course in the Muslim world, given that across the region, from Lebanon to Egypt, Islamists are emerging as a political force the West can no longer ignore?

Promotion of democracy in Muslim countries is likely to see the empowerment of those predominant political players who turn to Islam for inspiration and guidance in public life.

Earlier this month, Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite resistance movement that Washington condemns as a terrorist group, swept the elections in southern Lebanon. In the Palestinian territories, Mahmoud Abbas had to postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for next month when his Fatah party – Palestinians’ sole political representative for half a century – realized to its horror that the Islamists of Hamas are set to dislodge it from power.

In Egypt, the corrupt and repressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak, under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections, has turned its ire on the Muslim Brotherhood. This powerful Islamist organization, with a massive support base in Egypt and elsewhere in Arab world, has been excluded from the elections in September for fear that it could wrest power from Mubarak.

If Bush were serious in his commitment to democracy, he would tell his “friends” in the Middle East to allow truly free and fair polls, even if that means Islamists coming to power.

As Islamists move to center stage in many parts of the Arab world, it’s time that the United States and the rest of the Western world accepted the idea of dealing with them as legitimate representatives of the people.

In the past half century, the West has sided with tyrants as they victimized the Islamists. In Egypt, grave human rights abuses by successive regimes have been ignored by the West. In Algeria, the military prevented the Islamic Salvation Front from taking office after it swept the 1991 parliamentary elections – with the blessing of the West, which saw the rise of Islamists as a threat to its interests. The consequence was a decade-long civil war.

As democracy has been mocked elsewhere in the Islamic world, the West has consistently looked the other way. No wonder many Muslims blame the West for the suffering inflicted by their dictators. Yet Western leaders appear surprised when Al Qaeda extremists attack Western targets.

Washington’s stance that Islamist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorist organizations is out of sync with new realities of the region. Terrorists do not take part in elections and political processes, as Hamas and Hezbollah are doing. And the Muslim Brotherhood is the most popular grass-roots organization in the Arab world.

If Bush wants to usher in a new era of democracy and peace in the Muslim world, he should be prepared to deal with Muslims’ genuine and legitimate representatives. He would do well to recognize the fact that Islamists are emerging as the leading political players in the Middle East and engage them as such.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is the opinion page editor of The Khaleej Times in Dubai.)