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    South Asia
     Mar 7, 2007
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US ally Musharraf in a tangle over Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar

The intense pressure from Washington on President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to be cooperative in the "war on terror" is yielding dramatic results, although perhaps not of the kind initially anticipated.

The Pakistan-Iran relationship, which has never been easy, has nosedived to a low point in recent weeks, even as Musharraf remains under pressure to do more in clamping down on al-Qaeda

and the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas.

The moot point is to what extent Musharraf is willingly cooperating with US regional policy against Iran. He is skating on thin ice. He may endear himself to Washington as a brave leader in the Muslim world, but Pakistani public opinion is averse to serving the US agenda over Iran. This contradiction is fraught with dangers. It can only further accentuate Musharraf's isolation within Pakistan and add to the country's overall political uncertainties.

Washington could be miscalculating that only the Shi'ites in Sunni-dominated Pakistan will feel alienated by Musharraf's unfriendly attitude toward Tehran. The fact is, in emotive terms, the average Pakistani citizen is bound to view US hostility toward Iran as yet another instance of Washington's "crusade" against the Islamic world.

But Washington, on its part, can draw satisfaction that it is killing two birds with one stone. It may become difficult to advance the Iran-Pakistan-India gas-pipeline project when a thick cloud of distrust threatens to engulf Pakistan-Iran relations.

But first things first.

The main point is that US covert operations from Pakistani soil directed against eastern Iran's Sistan-Balochistan province have burst into public view. The administration of President George W Bush has earmarked US$100 million for bringing about "regime change" in Iran. But in the implementation of this state policy, Washington has chosen not to count on the sizable Iranian expatriate community living in the US and Europe. The Iranian exiles have virtually no credibility within Iran. Washington knows that propaganda apart, Iranian revolution enjoys a social base.

Moreover, the experience over Iraq has taught Washington a lesson or two about emigre communities. A number of Iraqi exiles whom Washington patronized turned out to have dual loyalties. Some, like Ahmad Chalabi, would seem to have had even multiple loyalties. In Iran's case the ground is even more slippery, since in the past decade and a half, Tehran has developed an active policy of building bridges with Iranian exiles, especially those living in the US, who fled the country in the wake of the revolution in 1979. Tehran even offered that their properties that were seized by the revolutionary courts would be restored to them. The official policy encourages the exiles to return or, at the very least, to identify with their native country.

All this leaves the Bush administration in a quandary: how to craft the tools of subversion against such an astute regime? Iran's complex ethnic make-up provided the answer. Persians dominate, but there are many smaller ethnic groups with their own agendas. Edward Luttwak, consultant to the US National Security Council, the White House chief of staff and the Pentagon, recently wrote, "Viewed from the inside, Iran is hardly the formidable power that some see from the outside. The natural outcome of ... widening ethnic divisions ... is the breakup of Iran.

"There is no reason why Iran should be the only multinational state to resist the nationalist separatism that destroyed the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, divided Belgium in all but name, and has decentralized Spain and even the United Kingdom. As with the Soviet Union, there is a better alternative to detente with a repulsive regime - and that is to be true to the Wilsonian tradition of American foreign policy by encouraging and helping the forces of national liberation within Iran," wrote Luttwak.

But here, too, Washington faces a dilemma. The largest among the Iranian ethnic minorities, Azeris (a quarter of Iran's 70 million population), also happen to have assimilated well, speaking their own language and enjoying a presence in the body politic proportionately in excess of their demographic strength. Besides, the intricate calculus of Iran-Azerbaijan-Armenia (and Iran-Russia) relations is such that Baku cannot connive with subversive activities against Iran. The authoritative regime in Azerbaijan cannot be destabilized either, as Washington has huge economic stakes in the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. In other words, finessing an Azeri "national liberation movement" takes time.

The next big Iranian ethnic minority consists of the Kurds (roughly 9% of the population), but Kurdish nationalism is a double-edged sword for Washington brazenly to promote, as it has implications for the integrity of Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well. Besides, Tehran has kept up good relations with the Kurdish faction led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani that dominates the eastern areas of northern Iraq.

The next big ethnic-minority group within Iran is Arabs, roughly 2-3%. They mainly inhabit the region contiguous to southern Iraq where the British contingent is located. In recent months, Tehran repeatedly held British intelligence responsible for staging various terrorist acts inside Kuzestan province. But Iran's capacity to retaliate is virtually unlimited. This compels London to be self-restrained.

All this says that, apart from sundry other minority groups of minuscule size, such as the Turkmens, Talysh, Qashqai, Lurs, Gilaki or Mazandarani, with hardly any surplus of militant ethnic nationalism available for inciting, the Balochs (who form roughly 2% of the population) offer themselves as the obvious choice for Washington to train its terrorism weapon against the Iranian regime.

US intelligence has obviously sized up that Balochi nationalism within Pakistan is historically deep-rooted and has matured. Actually, it goes all the way back to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Religion further compounds matters, since Balochs are Sunnis. It is extremely significant that unlike Britain, Washington has shied away from proscribing the Balochi Liberation Army (BLA) , despite its being a secessionist movement waging armed insurgency against the state of Pakistan. Islamabad alleges that the BLA receives weapons and other forms of support from Afghanistan.

The US is using Balochi nationalism for staging an insurgency inside Iran's Sistan-Balochistan province. The "war on terror" in Afghanistan gives a useful political backdrop for the ascendancy of Balochi militancy. Tehran has been giving Musharraf a long rope so far on the premise that the besieged general is so preoccupied with securing US political backing for his presidency that he is hardly in a position to lean on the formidable US security apparatus operating on Pakistani soil.

But Tehran probably has fresh grounds to reassess Musharraf's intentions. Or, it is running out of patience. Last month, terrorists killed 13 officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Zahedan. Last week, in another incident in the town of Negor in Sistan-Balochistan, four Iranian policemen were killed, one abducted and another wounded. The perpetrators fled across the border into Pakistan.

Iran last week announced its intention to erect a 3-meter-high concrete wall reinforced with steel rods along its border with

Continued 1 2 

Snatching war out of the jaws of peace (Mar 6, '07)

Taliban fire off spring warning (Mar 6, '07)

Pakistan makes a deal with the Taliban (Mar 1, '07)

Cheney meets a general in his labyrinth (Mar 1, '07)


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