Iran, shaken and stirred

India should do business with whoever is in power

Why, many readers ask, has this blog been silent on the extraordinary events in Iran. Vacations and workloads aside, shouldn’t we be discussing the biggest stirring in Iran in three decades?

Yes we should. For whatever might be the immediate political outcome of the May-June 2009 presidential election and its aftermath the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so. The Grand Ayatollah is no longer untouchable. The balance-of-power within the Iranian regime has shifted and has become more broadbased. The distribution of political power from the one to the few, and from the few to the many is good for Iranians. It is also good for most of the rest of the world, including for India. This is true regardless of who becomes president and who political prisoner No 1.

Don’t expect major changes in Iranian government policy—especially foreign affairs. Iran is an old civilisation, has a strong society and a distinct nation-state. Its interests are unlikely to change just because a new political leader or faction comes to power. That might have happened if the upheaval is on the scale of the 1979 Islamic revolution—in 2009, Rafsanjani-Mousavi are ideologically indistinguishable from Khamenei-Ahmedinejad. Salil Tripathi, hardly a hard-nosed realist, writes:

Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us. [Mint]

Leave aside Mr Mousavi’s past as a conservative and a supporter of nuclearisation, people can change their minds (political leaders more so). There is little that Mr Mousavi has said before and after the elections to mark him out to be a deliverer of profound change. While his cause might have galvanised long-suppressed political emotions into a popular movement, it is unlikely to even lead to his ascent to political power. (Yes, it’s too early to tell, so this estimate is a hazardous one)

What should India do? The government of India shouldn’t take sides in this business, it’s for the Iranians to settle. Once the dust settles, business continues with whoever is the winner. Here’s an old cheat sheet to provide further guidance.

That does not mean that Indian citizens or civil society groups should follow suit: one advantage of being a democracy is that different parts of the political spectrum can engage different actors independent of the government. (Of course, all those parts of the political spectrum might be apathetic, which is yet another failing of India’s foreign affairs community.)

28 thoughts on “Iran, shaken and stirred”

  1. Good to hear the acorn sounding like its good old self.

    Cool, pragmatic and india centric.

    Welcome back.

  2. AG,

    I’d say you should stick to discussing the topic at hand, and not giving marks to my posts.

  3. @nitin,

    Agreed realism suggests we should wait until the dust settles and then work with the guys in power.

    But why are not our left-liberal types taking up cudgels on behalf of the liberal democrats in Iran? You see them rile against Western regimes, Israel and stand up for the headscarves and turbans in France. Why the silence against Iranian ayatollahs?

    Your cheat sheet, sadly, works only if civil society does its part.

  4. @Nitin –

    “the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so.”

    Are you sure? You could have replaced ‘Iranian’ with

    a. ‘Chinese’ after the 1989 protests
    b. ‘Burmese’ after Aung San Su Kyi won the democratic elections.

    Frankly I don’t expect any dramatic changes yet. I am even willing to bet that things will be back to normal in the next couple of weeks.

  5. Like someone reminded me the other day, Iran under the shah, in the pre-islamist revolution days, nevertheless felt compelled enough by some ummah-feeling perhaps (or prodding by his American bosses) to offer planes from the Iranian air force to Pakistan during the 1965 conflict.

    A conservative Iran that refuses to let its territory and/or resources be used by Pak and its friends against India is in our interests. Why would an islamic regime be so inclined? Because the pakeez in their overzealous piousness have cast the shia as heretics and the sectarian war in Pak has intensified of late thanks to ISI supported non-state actors there.

    As for liberal democracy coming to Iran, fat chance, I say. An islamic state is not compatible with liberalism even if it may adorn the trappings of democracy for brownie points with its people and those abroad.

  6. Pradeep,

    Comparison with other events in other countries at other times are irrelevant. Every event is unique.

    The change is profound. It took 30 years for a Grand Ayatollah to be challenged. This will have consequences. As I said in my post, it’s not going to turn Iran into a liberal democracy, but it is going to distribute power a little more widely.

  7. The Iranians have showed much more spunk than we have needed to (we’d likely fail a test like this miserably – thank the powers that be for our flawed but liberal democracy). They have demonstrated the willingness to die for a strategic cause – quite different than the average Pakistani or Palestinian human explosive with his 3-month “training” course. The folks on the front-lines are often highly educated with (otherwise) a lot to lose – again, quite unlike the Pakistani/Palestinian tactical human missile. Which is what makes their revolutions real. Something in their history (Karbala, Imam Hussein?) stirs these educated folks to dance with mortal danger in order to achieve strategic objectives. Admirable. And very hopeful for a long-term productive Iranian society.

  8. Despite the hype and hope in US, this is nothing like 1979. The biggest difference IMHO is the leadership. Mousavi appears reluctant at best to drive the crowds to revolution.

    Moreover, a former prime minister backed by former presidents (Rafsanjani and Khatami) is basically a part of the establishment. The man cannot stick it to the man.

    This is merely some churning in the Iranian cook pot. Best left alone.

  9. Contrary to the liberal media, its just the mullahs V mullahs, with the students in between as cannon fodder. We have no dogs in this fight.

    The Persians really came through for us against the ‘internationlization of Kashmir issue’ against the Paks in the OIC Conference in the early 90s when our monetary situation made things a bit precarious for us if things had gone to the UN or sanctions.

    If Pakistan is indeed building a nuke arsenal for the Saudis against Iran’s future capabilities, more reason for us to stay on the right side of Iran. The only complicating factor might be our little balochistan project in Pakistan. Iran too has its balochistan and 4 million sunni balochis.

    Shia Iranians are about as friendly conservative Islamists as we will ever find, and they dont exactly fancy the ISI or the future rulers of AfPak, the Sunni Talibs. IF the Amrikis take the advice of Christopher Hitchens, they need new friends, Iranians and Indians as opposed to Paks and the Wahhabis.

  10. “The Iranians have showed much more spunk than we have needed to (we’d likely fail a test like this miserably ”

    Libertarian, I realize we are supposed to be good for nothing, even if you ignore the independence movement, which was just 60+ years ago, there is the period of 75-77, my friend.

    May be Mousavi is no JP, but they are trying. However, based on the post and comments, I have to agree with you a bit. If we can’t support people fighting for freedom from our safe distance without even getting up from our chair, would we fight for our freedom if another Indira comes along with another dictatorship?

    Even if official India may not have much at stake, which is not true because a free Iran would be an asset/friend to India to control the unstable Paki and non-nuclear Iran would surely be safer for the entire region, one hopes the people at least would support and sympathize others fighting for their own freedom against murdering thugs shooting innocent people from roof tops. Instead systematic is the way out.

    Apparently self-proclaimed liberalism ends at the ocean shore. It’s very shallow up on the beach.

  11. @Nitin

    By no means is this a profound change. And Pradeep is on the money when he highlights the failed protests in PRC and Myanmar as examples of how these protests seldom assume a transformatory nature and reform the political scenario. It is not a even a change, let alone a profound change if it doesn’t change the people to begin with. Sure, the protests are being suppressed violently in some cases, but that has been happening in Iran for decades. The claim of it being a profound change also rings hollow when the change comes after a generation’s lifetime has elapsed. Having said that, though this may seem like a ‘churning in the pot’ as pointed out by one of your readers, it is not without significance. It could certainly change things down the line over the next few decades, but at present that has not happened. It is what comes out of this fiasco that will determine whether there will be profound change and not the suppression itself.

  12. Chandra: Libertarian, I realize we are supposed to be good for nothing, even if you ignore the independence movement, which was just 60+ years ago, there is the period of 75-77, my friend.

    This is not to disgrace the shining examples of Mangal Pandey, Bhagat Singh and his friends, but Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah et al were status quo politicians. If the Brits hadn’t been devastated by WW2, they would have milked us for a few decades more. Our “Freedom Struggle” consisted of these folks writing memoirs in comfortable prisons when they were not leading “peaceful” protests. Nothing wrong with it – but I don’t see how this strategy of offering the other cheek would have worked with hardened empire builders like the Brits if they hadn’t been ripped up by WW2.

    As for 75-77 – kind of proves my point. Indira terrorized us into submission. She failed because India is too vast, too diverse and to centrist to hold together by force. If there were a remote possibility of her being Queen, she would have tried it. This is also the reason why a coup would never succeed in India.

  13. libertarian, so you are actually opposed to Gandhigiri. I think Gandhigiri is definitely a revolution in terms of getting massive change without actual physical fighting. It doesn’t mean that people don’t die when brutes retaliate. But it’s long process and probably more demanding, but well worth it to have stable transition of power when the end comes. But Gandhigiri’s utility ends when power changes hands. It really doesn’t have anything to say about how a govt should rule and freedoms that go with it.

    So it probably works best when one race have control over another race – as we see repeatedly, but not when people are trying to change their own political system.

    Also, I don’t think there is anything wrong with revolutionary wars against dictators and tyrants.

    But our support should be with people seeking freedom from tyranny.

  14. Chandra: so you are actually opposed to Gandhigiri

    Quite so. Gandhigiri achieves something when the tyrannical/occupying/invading force has the capacity for decency and shame. Take that away and it’s just suicide – without a bomb. Gandhigiri attempts to achieve some political end without a military guarantee – like fighting with both arms tied behind your back. “If I slam his fists often enough with my face, it’ll hurt him enough that he’ll leave me alone” 🙂 . I cannot recall any decent-sized change that got effected through Gandhigiri – obviously I don’t think Gandhi got us our independence – he was a right-place right-time guy. I also suspect Bhagat Singh would have got us a better deal, and quicker, had he lived.

  15. Two examples of Gandhigiri, other than Bharatiya independence, which, like it or not, was because of Gandhigiri, are blacks emancipation movement in South Africa in 70-80s and black civil rights fight for basic human freedoms in US in 50-60s. Both were based on Gandhigiri and both worked because it was one race putting down another race.

    Somehow I think Palestinian will get their own freedom fast if they follow Gandhigiri. Of course, there is more going on with Palestinian cause then getting freedom – like destroying the Jewish state.

  16. Libertarian,

    You conveniently forget Subhash Bose – duly elected head of the INC and no shier away from force/mortal danger when it came to challenging the Raj.

    To say we is a gross generalization, IMHO.

  17. Sud: You conveniently forget Subhash Bose

    I did. You’re right. No slacker was he.

    To say we is a gross generalization, IMHO.

    Disagree. Our policy and our actions – as a country – prove we are disastrously pacifist. While it helps allow tensions within the country to dissipate more easily, we sell ourselves short outside. We’re always punching well below our weight. Instead of swatting Pakenstein we’re pretending to engage them in a phony “peace process”. Reason: no good military options. And not about to change any time soon. How about Sri Lanka or Nepal? Egg on our face from these Lilliputians. We’ve got the toothless-tiger pacificism of the geriatric Western European nations cupled with the economic growth of China. A scary mismatch. Soft power is bogus if we cannot project hard power every so often to remind folks of military guarantees for our political ambitions.

  18. Iran

    @libertarian, #7:
    Something in their history (Karbala, Imam Hussein?) stirs these educated folks to dance with mortal danger in order to achieve strategic objectives.Admirable. And very hopeful for a long-term productive Iranian society.

    Could you tell us what this “mortal” danger that Iranians face is?

    #17:Our policy and our actions – as a country – prove we are disastrously pacifist.

    Obviously you have been reading history quite selectively 🙂 What about the Bangladesh war, Operation Bluestar,…?

  19. Libertarian:

    Your argument dismissing the Indian-form of non-violent civil resistance merits serious debate

    First, the suggestion that it only works against certain type of tyrants (e.g., the British empire) is surely true about all type of strategies — in that, every strategy works in certain contexts and not in others. This truth, ipso facto, does not delegitimize any thing

    Second, while there is much to admire in the patriotism of Bhagat Singh, it is rank speculation that his approach to the freedom struggle would have been more effective. It should be recalled that the freedom struggle was as much about overturning the yoke of foreign rule as it was making the citizens of this vast and teeming land recognize that they were one political nation (the concept of the modern nation-state having just been born). This takes time and political work that is hard to imagine purely from violence (see the eventual failure of the Soviet attempt to forge such an idea with blood and terror). India’s democratic reality is very likely a consequence of such political hard work which likely would not have been the case were our approach to have been principally violent (see the pervasive failure of democracy in most ex-colonial states where other approaches were tried)

    Finally, even if we are to somehow dismiss the “soft” Indian notion of non-violence and instead look to the “hard” Chinese ideas of war from Sun Tzu, we will notice that war tactics must be adapted to the opponent (use your opponents strengths against them, etc.). It is virtually impossible to confront a modern tyranny who has a lot of guns and ruthless ambition with fewer guns and a more liberal worldview. The only real option is to unmask the cruelty of the regime (again and again and again) until the world is too ashamed to deal with it. This takes as much bravery as hurling bombs and cannot be written off as naive or weak

    Best regards

  20. Feels weird to be put on the spot by peace-loving people 🙂

    OK here goes.

    Calling Gandhi’s tactics the Indian-form of non-violent civil resistance is turning a bug into a feature. Calling the willing submission to bodily harm a strategy is a stretch for my feeble mind. They seem more like tactics relying on the superior Indian birth-rate to throw up more veggie burger than the British could cut down – without inciting mass rebellion. And a fond hope that shame or remorse or decency would one day seize the oppressors. As strategy – the opponent was the most successful Empire since the Romans – it’s ludicrous.

    Agree that the Freedom Movement was an educational lab for 400 million Indians (in 1947). Welding them into a single nation was a gigantic achievement. Bhagat Singh, Mangal Pandey, and Subhash Chandra Bose could not have done that. However, failure to keep it as one unit – Partition – was a major black eye for the Movement. Gandhigiri allowed the British to leave on their terms, not ours. Then Gandhigiri allowed Jinnah his way. Nehru talked of “cutting the head to get rid of the headache”. That headache is now an international migraine – most acutely felt by us. If we did not have Vallabh Patel – and his patently non Gandhian ways – between 1947 and 1950 we would still be squabbling with the little Maharajahs and Nawabs and their little fiefdoms.

    It is rank speculation that Bhagat Singh may have caused a different reality. The point was – like it or not – negotiating with a holstered gun is more effective that showing up in loin cloth armed with the truth. When the British did their divide-and-conquer Gandhi did not exactly howl in protest. When Jinnah crowned himself King of his Dominion, Gandhi was pleading with him rather than kicking his butt.

    The main thrust of the argument was not to discard soft power completely. Far from it. It may be the only way to weld together the idea of India. But extrapolating the use of soft power only to our dealings with the rest of the world has had middling to poor results. The argument was a call to bolster hard power (maybe make an example or two in the neighborhood) and match our military guarantees to the burgeoning economic and geopolitical power we will acquire in the next 25 years. We should be so lucky to be called the neighborhood bully.

  21. Libertarian,
    Excellent posts – its heart warming that atleast one person can see that what India and most Western countries including the US want to do while dealing with Iran is nothing to boast about – please spare me the “realism” claptrap – you may as well be blunt and say that you dont care a thing.

    Photonman, you asked as what mortal danger Iranians are facing – try to google Neda Zoltan and Iran and see if you can locate the facebook video of this young woman who was mercilessly killed by the Basij.

    What is most disheartening for me as an Indian citizen living in the US is the excruciatingly painful ignorance of what is happening on the ground in Iran. Photonman’s question about what threats the Iranians are facing is a cruel joke – you guys are two timezones away from Iran and you seem to have no clue as to what is going on there.

    In conclusion let me say this – the protests are no longer about Mousavi any more. If you followed what was actually happening and recorded it, instead of rationalizing why you ignored covering the last two weeks (the protests have been going on since June 13th), you would realize this by now.

    Khamenei has been forced to interject himself in the issue as Ahmedinejad has effectively wrapped the IRGC in his fingers. He basically has the people with the guns – Libertarian, your points about peaceful demonstrations prove a point here !

    Former Iranian Prez Rafsanjani has been plotting to remove Khamenei as the Supreme Leader by hobnobbing with other mullahs in the Council of Experts – he wants to have a system where there is a council or group of leaders instead of One Supreme Leader.

    Even better you may want to look into articles from Iranian expats who have written that a Shia religious leader assuming supreme authority is something that is completely anti thetical to Shiite Islam.

    I could go on and on – but if you think that these protests will settle down and India can then “talk” to the new leaders you will find yourself surprised in the coming months – Ahmedinejad as managed to accuse the US of “meddling” and has burnt a lot of bridges with the only US politician who wants to sit down and talk to him – Barack Obama.

    When the Iranian regime does not stop its clampdown ( it shut down SMS, cell phones – Iranian citizen journalists and bloggers have been covering this on Twitter and Facebook at great personal risk- did you guys even know that ??), the regime is almost sure to face sanctions from the EU.

    When THAT happens, lets see how much supportive India is of the Iranian leaders.

  22. For those people who think that you can do Gandhigiri with the Iranian regime, you may want to read this

    http://www.drudge.com/news/122346/iran-charges-bullet-fee-slain-man

    And see this facebook video of Neda embedded

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/5621272/Iran-Angel-of-Freedom-Dying-seconds-that-last-for-ever.html

    Pray for the people of Iran – and for all of those people who call yourself “liberal” and want to stand on the sidelines not even condemning the Iranian regime, SHAME ON YOU.

    For evil to happen, it takes good people to remain silent – and wait for the “dust” to settle down.

  23. From India’s POV, the current regime in Iran is not doing anything to hurt our interests (taking the realist line).

    GoI meddling in their internal affairs is folly, IMHO. Sure, as pvt citizens and NGOs, go all out and create noise in support of the valiant rebels.

  24. @ Nagarajan

    Photonman’s question about what threats the Iranians are facing is a cruel joke

    Please read my question carefully. I was asking libertarian to clarify about what he called “mortal dangers” that the Iranians willingly face to achieve the strategic objectives of their country.

  25. From India’s POV, the current regime in Iran is not doing anything to hurt our interests (taking the realist line).
    I am not exactly thrilled with allies like Iran who openly support terrorism in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon through their various client organizations including Hezbollah and Hamas.Iran is the principle source of support for Hezbollah and Hamas and has been fighting a proxy war with Israel for years now.

    The next time any Indian politician goes on a harangue about how Pakistan is supporting terrorism inside its territory, let us remember that we have NO PROBLEM whatsoever with our allies like Iran doing the same exact thing. If India has a principle that terrorism is no legitimate means to tackle political differences, it waters that down when it supports states like Iran.

    And the next time the US supports Pakistan with billions of more dollars in aid, arms and ammuntion and talks about the “wishes of the Kashmiri people” , and ignores its terrorist activities against India out of a realist perspective, I am pretty sure that none of us would be as sanguine as we are now.

    GoI meddling in their internal affairs is folly, IMHO.

    Could you please explain the concept of “meddling” ? How exactly can the GoI meddle ? Is it OK that the GOI express opinions about what Iran is doing?

    Btw, India voted for sanctions on Iran regarding its nuclear program in 2005 – i dont know how you would term that.

    If Indian students get attacked in Australia and our PM raises this issue, are we “meddling” with the internal security matters of Australia ?

    I agree that we have very little leverage – but please dont abuse the word “meddle” – it makes no sense here.

    Sure, as pvt citizens and NGOs, go all out and create noise in support of the valiant rebels
    Well, that is not going to happen by staying silent about what has been going on for 2 weeks. Actually, i doubt if any one even knows/understands the extent to which the legitimacy of the entire Iranian regime and style of Govt has been so bravely challenged.

    In fact the biggest supporters of the protest movement has been women – brave Iranian women. I doubt how our NGO’s will react when they realize this.

  26. Please read my question carefully. I was asking libertarian to clarify about what he called “mortal dangers” that the Iranians willingly face to achieve the strategic objectives of their country.

    Photonman,
    The Iranians are protesting against their regime simply because of a need for basic freedoms and dignity. Nothing is more suffocating than living under a theocratic government that employs moral police to govern its citizens. There is no “strategy” here for them – its live or die. The only strategy that they have been employing is to shout Allahu Akbar from the rooftops of Teheran trying to shame the thugs into recognizing the righteousness of their demands.

    Iranians have been protesting in open defiance of Khamenei – who has warned them not to cross the proverbial line in the sand – OR ELSE, they can expect a crackdown even more than what is happening.

    http://www.mercurynews.com/nationworld/ci_12652675?source=rss

    Rallying cries of “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei” have been heard from protestors

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/protesters-cry-death-to-khamenei-1711553.html

    The number of Iranian protestors killed by Iranian Govt estimates alone is more than 20 – the actual number is in the high 150’s according to sources in Iran.

    Iranians are risking life and political retribution in a way they only did during the regime of the Shah.

  27. Well, this is a dead thread, but something about Nagarajan Sivakumar’s comments bothers me…

    I am not exactly thrilled with allies like Iran who openly support terrorism in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon through their various client organizations including Hezbollah and Hamas.

    What may or may not thrill you is your own business, but certainly rehashing American ‘talking points’ about Iran being evil is not going to be of help. There are and have been many sponsors of ‘terror’ in various forms.

    Iran is the principle source of support for Hezbollah and Hamas and has been fighting a proxy war with Israel for years now.

    That is between Iran and Israel. Israel can look after itself and is backed by formidable powers, powers that are quite inimical to the regime in Iran. This constitutes no reason whatsoever for India to change anything.

    The next time any Indian politician goes on a harangue about how Pakistan is supporting terrorism inside its territory, let us remember that we have NO PROBLEM whatsoever with our allies like Iran doing the same exact thing. If India has a principle that terrorism is no legitimate means to tackle political differences, it waters that down when it supports states like Iran.

    So long as Iranian efforts are not directed against India, India and Iran are ok. The world does not run on ‘principles’, no matter how noble they sound. We can and should go on haranguing Pakistan what they do affects us. I am all for grandiose speeches where our leaders can espouse whatever they are supposed to… doesn’t cost anything.

    And finally, it is news to me that Obama wants to talk to Iran. Really? Western corporate media can go gaga all they want about their great hope, but you don’t even need to be Iran to see what Obama stands for vis-a-vis Iran – status quo (from an American pov). For someone who berates others for being two timezones away from Iran and therefore ignorant about it, you have a lot to say about nothing, really.

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