June 25, 2009Foreign Affairsforeign policyIrannuclear proliferationnuclear weaponsrevolution

Iran, shaken and stirred

India should do business with whoever is in power

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Why, many readers ask, has this blog been silent on the extraordinary events in Iran. Vacations and workloads aside, shouldn’t we be discussing the biggest stirring in Iran in three decades?

Yes we should. For whatever might be the immediate political outcome of the May-June 2009 presidential election and its aftermath the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so. The Grand Ayatollah is no longer untouchable. The balance-of-power within the Iranian regime has shifted and has become more broadbased. The distribution of political power from the one to the few, and from the few to the many is good for Iranians. It is also good for most of the rest of the world, including for India. This is true regardless of who becomes president and who political prisoner No 1.

Don’t expect major changes in Iranian government policy—especially foreign affairs. Iran is an old civilisation, has a strong society and a distinct nation-state. Its interests are unlikely to change just because a new political leader or faction comes to power. That might have happened if the upheaval is on the scale of the 1979 Islamic revolution—in 2009, Rafsanjani-Mousavi are ideologically indistinguishable from Khamenei-Ahmedinejad. Salil Tripathi, hardly a hard-nosed realist, writes:

Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us. [Mint]

Leave aside Mr Mousavi’s past as a conservative and a supporter of nuclearisation, people can change their minds (political leaders more so). There is little that Mr Mousavi has said before and after the elections to mark him out to be a deliverer of profound change. While his cause might have galvanised long-suppressed political emotions into a popular movement, it is unlikely to even lead to his ascent to political power. (Yes, it’s too early to tell, so this estimate is a hazardous one)

What should India do? The government of India shouldn’t take sides in this business, it’s for the Iranians to settle. Once the dust settles, business continues with whoever is the winner. Here’s an old cheat sheet to provide further guidance.

That does not mean that Indian citizens or civil society groups should follow suit: one advantage of being a democracy is that different parts of the political spectrum can engage different actors independent of the government. (Of course, all those parts of the political spectrum might be apathetic, which is yet another failing of India’s foreign affairs community.)



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