The west's waning influence
SCMP January 20
The crisis being created around Iran's nuclear ambitions is being drummed up
to serve western interests. But it may mark the beginning of the end of the
west as the dominant influence in a region in which China, India and a reviving
Russia have increasing stakes.
Forget for a moment the Iran of the ayatollahs and the simplistic verbal thuggery
of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There are few Iranians who do not believe
that the inheritors of a Persian empire almost as old as China do not have
at least as much right to nuclear-power independence as Russia, India and China,
let alone relatively newly created Pakistan or Israel.
The millions of Iranians who detest the oppressive clerical system
may not say so out loud. The exiles who have prospered in the west
mostly keep quiet, torn between national pride and unwillingness
to appear to sympathise with the regime. Even those who support it
view Mr Ahmadinejad as a loose cannon whose statements are propaganda
for the nation's enemies. But now the nuclear issue enables a politically
bankrupt clerical system to wrap itself in nationalist clothing.
There is nothing new in this. Secular socialist Mohammed Mossadeq
wrapped himself in economic nationalism when, as prime minister, he
confronted Britain and the US and their oil companies in 1952. The
Shah wrapped himself in the nationalism of a revived Persian empire
to offset the stigma of being installed by a CIA plot against Mossadeq.
The ayatollahs may feel grateful that, in 1980, the west gave support
to Saddam Hussein to invade Iran. It allowed a floundering, cleric-led
regime to became the leader in a patriotic war against western-backed
But don't ask policymakers in Washington to recognise history. Or
to acknowledge that Iran feels genuinely nervous that the United States
has 150,000 soldiers just across its border. Despite setbacks, the
US is still wedded to regime change and remaking the Middle Eastern
political map. It urges the prosecution of war crimes but forgets about
the Iran-Iraq war. It tolerates Israel's wall, new settlements and
use of political assassination as policy. And, adding to the hypocrisy,
it has offered nuclear concessions to India in return for New Delhi's
stalling on a gas deal with Iran.
The Europeans persuaded US President George W. Bush that diplomacy
could convince the Iranians to drop their nuclear programme. That was
probably an illusion, and so the US and the Europeans are now faced
with the question of what to do next. Before the Iraq occupation became
such a shambles, there seemed a definite possibility of military action
by the US and Israel. That might have worked in the short run, but
would be at least as catastrophic to their interests as the 1956 British
and French invasion of the Suez.
So where are China, India and Russia in this? Iranian stubbornness
is awkward - creating an issue between Tehran and the west that interferes
with the three nations' economic priorities. No existing nuclear power
is happy with the expansion of their number.
But China and India have more influence in Tehran than the west. They
are the new customers for oil and gas. They do not carry the recent
burden of imperialism, and acknowledge Iran's right to nuclear independence.
Can they persuade the Iranians to back off enough to prevent the issue
being escalated by Washington?
The bottom line seems to be that Iran gets away with doing what it
likes, backs off under Chinese and Indian influence, or gets attacked
by an infuriated US and Israel. In each case, the west will emerge
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