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 Arab aggression.

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 weakened.




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