In Wonderland, Alice played croquet with hedgehogs and flamingos. In the Middle
East, United States President Barack Obama is attempting the same thing, but
with rats and cobras. Not only do they move at inconvenient times, but they
bite the players. Iran's presidential election on Friday underscores the
Wonderland character of American policy in the region.
America's proposed engagement of Iran has run up against the reality of the
region, namely that Iran cannot "moderate" its support for its fractious
Shi'ite allies from Beirut to Pakistan's northwest frontier. It also shows how
misguided Obama was to assume that progress on the Palestinian issue would help
America solve more urgent strategic problems, such as Iran's potential
acquisition of nuclear weapons.
By assigning 64% of the popular vote to incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
in last weekend's elections, Iran's reigning
mullahs, if there was indeed rigging, made a statement - but to whom? The
trumpet which dare not sound an uncertain note was a call to Tehran's Shi'ite
constituency, as well as to a fifth of Pakistani Muslims. Religious
establishments by their nature are conservative, and they engage in radical
acts only in need.
Tehran is tugged forward by the puppies of war: Hezbollah in Lebanon and its
co-sectarians in Pakistan. With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20
million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it
will have half again as many. It also has nuclear weapons. And it is in danger
Against a young, aggressive and unstable Pakistan, Iran seems a moribund
competitor. Iran's fertility decline is the fastest that demographers ever have
observed. As I reported on this site last February (Sex,
drugs and Islam, February 24, 2009), Iranian fertility by some accounts
has fallen below the level of 1.9 births per female registered in the 2006
census to only 1.6, barely above Germany's.
Collapsing fertility is accompanied by social pathologies, including rates of
drug addiction and prostitution an order of magnitude greater than in any
Western country. Of the 15 countries that show the biggest drop in population
growth since 1980, eight are in the Middle East, and the head of the United
Nations population division calls the collapse of Islamic population growth
"amazing". Pakistan is the great exception, and that makes it the fulcrum of
the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad's invective may be aimed at Jerusalem, but his eye is fixed on
Islamabad. That explains the decisions of his masters in Tehran's religious
establishment who may have rigged, or at least exaggerated, his election
victory. Pakistan's ongoing civil war has a critical sectarian component which
the Shi'ites never sought: the Taliban claim legitimacy as the Muslim
leadership of the country on the strength of their militancy against the
country's Shi'ite minority. Were the Taliban to succeed in crushing Pakistan's
Shi'ites, Iran's credibility as a Shi'ite power would fade, along with its
ability to project influence in the region.
As Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes asks, "Why did [Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ali] Khamenei select Ahmadinejad to "win" the election? Why did he not chose a
president-puppet who would present a smile to the world, including Obama,
handle the economy competently, not rile the population, and whose selection
would not inspire riots that might destabilize the regime? Has Khamenei fallen
under the spell of Ahmadinejad or does he have some clever ploy up his sleeve?
Whatever the answer is, it baffles me."
The issue is less baffling when raw numbers are taken into account. The issues
on which Iran's supposed moderation might be relevant, such as the Arab-Israeli
conflict, are less pressing for Tehran than the problems on its eastern border.
Of the world's 200 million Shi'ite Muslims, about 30% reside in Iran. Another
10% live in neighboring Iraq, and comprise about two-thirds of the country's
population. Yet another 30% of the Shi'ite live in the Indian sub-continent,
about equally divided between India and Pakistan. Pakistani Shi'ites make up
only about one-fifth of the country's population. Their numbers are just large
enough to make the Sunnis ill at ease with their presence.
Shi'ite leaders of the region believe that they stand on the verge of an
irreversible breakdown of Islamic civilization, a thesis which Iraqi leader Ali
W Allawi argued forcefully in a recent book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization.
Allawi wrote, "The much heralded Islamic 'awakening' of recent times will not
be a prelude to the rebirth of an Islamic civilization; it will be another
episode in its decline. The revolt of Islam becomes instead the final act of
the end of a civilization." I reviewed Allawi's book on this site in (Predicting
the death of Islam May 5, 2009).
Iran's aspirations for a restored Islamic civilization cannot exclude
Pakistan's 30 million Shi'ites. The Taliban's insurgency inside Pakistan is
directed against the Shi'ites more than any other target, and to make matters
worse, Pakistani intelligence is agitating among Iran's own Sunni minority.
On June 12, the day before Iran's election, a Taliban suicide bomber killed
Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi in Lahore, the leader of the pro-government Barelvi Muslim
current in Pakistan. As Pakistan's Daily Times wrote June 14, "The reason for
this murder was not far too seek. Mufti Naeemi, arguably the most influential
of the Ahle Sunnat-Barelvi school of thought in Pakistan, had recently presided
over an all-Barelvi conference in Islamabad condemning the Taliban practice of
suicide-bombing, and presenting to the nation, as it were, a choice between the
extremist Deobandi Taliban and the moderate Ahle Sunnat clerical
The Deobandi wing of Sunni Islam preaches violence against Pakistan's Shi'ite
minority, whose position would be fragile were the Taliban to take power.
Although Deobandi Islam is a minority current among Pakistani Sunnis, "The
conduct of covert jihad by the state has thrown the Barelvis into obscurity and
a lack of street power over the years," the Daily Times wrote. "Their mosques,
once in a majority in the country, were either grabbed by the more powerful
Deobandis with trained jihadi cadres who could be violent, or simply
outnumbered by the more resourceful Deobandi-linked ones."
The threat to Iran from the Pakistani Taliban extends to Iran's eastern
provinces. A May 28 bomb destroyed a mosque in the Kordestan city of Zahedan,
on the Pakistani border. Iran called in Pakistan's ambassador to protest
alleged official support for the terrorists of the Pakistan-based Jundallah
Sunni group which planted the bomb. Tehran also has circulated murky
allegations that Israel's secret service was behind the mosque bombing.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi wrote on June 3 in Asia Times Online, "Where Iran has
Hezbollah, Israel has Jundallah, given Israel's apparent efforts to destabilize
Iran by playing an 'ethnic card' against it. This, by some reports, it is doing
by nurturing the Sunni Islamist group Jundallah to parallel Tehran's support
for Lebanon's formidable Shi'ite group, Hezbollah." (Please see
Hezbollah spices up Israel-Iran mix.)
In addition to Israel, Xinhua reported May 30, "Iran also blamed the United
States, Britain and some other Western countries behind these attacks, accusing
them of destabilizing the Islamic Republic, a charge denied by Washington and
It is hard to guess who might be funding Jundallah. Pakistan's secret service
as well as the Saudis have a motive to do so. Washington's interest is to
strengthen the coalition against the Pashtun-speaking Taliban, which means
keeping several ethnic minorities allied against the Taliban with the Punjabi
core of Pakistan's armed forces. These include the Dari-speaking Kabuli
Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the mainly Shi'ite Hazara, a Turkic tribe whom the
Iranians tend to deprecate. That is where Washington looks for help from
If Tehran were playing a two-sided chess game with Washington, a moderate face
like that of Hossein Mousavi would have served Iranian interests better than
Ahmadinejad, as Pipes suggests. But Tehran also has to send signals to the
sidelines of the chess match. With the situation on its eastern border
deteriorating and a serious threat emerging to the Shi'ites of Pakistan, Iran
has to make its militancy clear to all the players in the region. Washington's
ill-considered attempts at coalition building are more a distraction than
Because Tehran's credibility is continuously under test, it cannot hold its
puppies of war on a tight leash. Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon will
continue to nip at the Israelis and spoil the appearance of a prospective
settlement. The louder Iran has to bark, the less credible its bite. Iran's
handling of last weekend's presidential election results exposes the weakness
of the country's strategic position. That makes an Israeli strike against its
alleged nuclear weapons facilities all the more likely - not because Tehran has
shown greater militancy, but because it has committed the one sin that never is
pardoned in the Middle East - vulnerability.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, associate editor of First