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Who's afraid of big, bad Iran?

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG By exaggerating the importance of Iran's nuclear developments, the West is showing up the waning of its power in that region, despite the presence of some 200,000 allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the influence of China and India rises.
The situation now has three possible outcomes, none favorable to the West.
First, after a lot of huffing and puffing, a diplomatic dance continues which makes little headway and reveals that the West has few cards it can play.
Second, the United States launches an attack whose economic consequences can only be guessed at, but which does the kind of global diplomatic damage to the U.S. that the British/French Suez invasion did to those nations.
Third, after effectively blocking Security Council sanctions, China, India and Russia quietly lean on Iran to stop being provocative and make just enough conciliatory noises to allow the "crisis" to subside, but not to significantly retard its nuclear program.
As the major prospective customers for Iran's oil and gas, China and India have a huge vested interest in not seeing this issue escalate, via the Security Council, into an oil crisis.
They are in a position to influence Tehran partly because of their status as future customers, but equally because of the perception that they are not a threat and share anti-imperialist sympathies.
Both India and China developed nuclear capabilities in the face of Western attempts to sustain a West/Soviet duopoly. While no existing nuclear power wishes to see their number increased, India and China appear to accept Iran's eventual acquisition of such weapons as inevitable - and non alarming.
There is no doubt that Iran has been dissembling about its nuclear program. It scarcely needs nuclear power and ultimately wants to have the ability to build nuclear weapons.
But then most countries lie about their nuclear programs. While Iran may well be in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed, so are other countries. India and Israel refuse to sign.
In Washington, Iran's nuclear ambitions are viewed with such alarm that the normally level-headed Senator John McCain has said that a nuclear Iran would be worse than a war to prevent it. Most of Asia, by contrast, seems to follow the view of the Chinese and Indians that possible American reaction is as far more dangerous than Iran's developments.
There is some parallel with North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions are viewed with more alarm in far-away Washington than in nearby Seoul. Many South Koreans who detest the Pyongyang regime barely conceal a grudging admiration for intransigent nationalistic stance on the nuclear issue.
Likewise, Iranians who detest the clerical regime (including hundreds of thousand of exiles who have prospered in the West) find little fault with its nuclear program. A democratic Iran would, like India, have just as much demand for nuclear independence as any other major country.
The election of the worryingly crude and ignorant Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has raised the level of Iranian rhetoric. But Ahmedinejad is clearly frowned on by his more diplomatic predecessors, Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, not to mention by liberal and democratic Iranians. And the nuclear program appears to have broad support within and without the clerical regime.
Iranian grudges against the West are deep and well founded - the British oil grabs, the deposing of Reza Shah I, the British-Russian wartime hegemony, the CIA-engineered overthrow of secular nationalist Mohammed Mossadeq in 1952, the arming and encouragement of the 1980 Iraq invasion which cost more than a million Iranian lives.
Just as leadership in that patriotic war against Saddam Hussein probably saved the oppressive clerical regime from self-destruction, so Western pressure now to deprive Iranians of what they see as their national rights are likely to sustain the clerical grip.
The hypocrisy of the West is obvious, not just in the special dispensation it gives to an expansionist, nuclear Israel, but also to Pakistan, a country which may be aligned with the West but is inherently unstable and, unlike Iran, a major source of Taliban-trained fanatics and al Qaeda-following suicide bombers.
India meanwhile was recently rewarded by the United States with a nuclear cooperation agreement despite India's refusal, for reasons of national sovereignty, to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So much for a consistent non-proliferation policy.
For sure, the more countries that have nuclear weapons, the greater than danger of use. But Western bullying, regime-change policies, threats of war and selective condemnation of nuclear ownership are even better reasons for Tehran to want nuclear technology than the fact that Iran is surrounded by those who do.
If the West wants to get its way on this, it must offer Iran some juicy carrots instead of its traditional stick.
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