The Challenge of/for Iran: New President, Old Issues

08 Aug, 2013    ·   4074

D Suba Chandran on the strategic agenda of the international community  and Rouhani vis-a-vis each other

Hassan Rouhani took over the as the new President of Iran early this week. Perhaps the real challenge for Rouhani starts only now, after winning the elections, especially in terms of dealing with the rest of the region and the larger international community. Nor will it be easier for the immediate region and the rest of the world, especially the US and EU, to deal with the new Iranian President, thanks to inherent issues and the trust deficit. However, given the centrality of Iran to the region, it is in everyone’s interest to engage Rouhani and not isolate him.

Rouhani’s presidency may be new, but he has inherited all the old problems. The issues and challenges he faces cannot be neatly divided as internal and external, for they are inter-connected. True, he is the President of Iran and he won the election with substantial majority; however, he is not absolutely free to pursue his policies. The Supreme Leader of Iran has an important role to play in the President’s larger policies and subsequent strategies – both internally and externally. Already there are reports that the Supreme Leader has vetoed a few of the President’s choices for the cabinet.

Within Iran, the fact that he was elected with a majority also means that there are huge public expectations. From political reforms to better economic conditions, the public expectations place a larger responsibility on the shoulders of the new President. He cannot take these domestic expectations for granted and feed them with rhetoric. In this context, the biggest challenge for Rouhani will be diluting international sanctions, if not completely removing them.

At the regional level, Rouhani faces three big challenges – Syria, Israel and Afghanistan. While the general perception of the international community is based on the view that Iran is playing a negative role, as a rule, the regional security concerns of Iran have always been ignored – either by default, or by design.

First, Shia-Sunni differences and the struggle for the Islamic world play a substantial role in how Iran perceives it in the region – from Syria to Pakistan. Again by default or design, the larger objectives and designs of Saudi Arabia to push its own Islamic ideologies have always been under-noticed and under-studied. Covering the vast stretches of West Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, there is a push – overt and covert - by Saudi Arabia to change the nature of Islam from Sufi, Barelvi and Deobandi to Wahabi. In this zeal, Shia Islam is being targeted by Saudi Arabia. The rest of the international community is either not aware of this or has chosen to ignore it.

Second, the impact of Iran-Israel relations, or the lack of it, also plays a role in Tehran’s regional security calculations. Iran rightly believes that the rest of international community is not worried about Israel’s nuclear capacity, which has some truth to it. So the sentiment within Iran is: why should Iran alone be targeted if the rest of the world considers relations with Israel on Iran’s west, and Pakistan on its east, as business as usual.

Iran is situated in a region with two nuclear countries (Pakistan and Israel). There is also a general sentiment that Saudi Arabia has funded Pakistan’s nuclear programme with an understanding that there will be assistance for Saudi Arabia.
Third, Afghanistan is a major security calculation for Iran and is likely to pose a serious challenge to Rouhani. Iran could have played a positive role in stabilizing Afghanistan if only the rest of international community was not obsessed with reaching out only to Pakistan. And if only the American leadership had decided to work with Iran on Afghanistan.

Iran shares an important border with Afghanistan, and there is a sizeable Shia population in Afghanistan as well. Hence any instability in Afghanistan is likely to affect Iran. With the deadline in 2014 fast approaching, the regional security situation is unlikely to improve for Rouhani. Clearly, he is in the hot seat today.

For the rest of the international community, Iran is unlikely to be an easy country to deal with. First and foremost, there is a selective amnesia amongst the rest of us.  Either that, or we have not read our history. Iran is not just another country; it is a great civilization and one of the oldest. In our enthusiasm to blame Iran for developing nuclear weapons and playing a negative role in West Asia, we generally tend to underestimate Iranian pride. Threats of sanctions and military strikes will only make them look inward and strengthen their resolve to resist them.

As has been proved substantially in recent history, neither sanctions (economic and political) nor military strikes have dented a nation’s pride.

Second, the rest of the international community, especially the US and EU, will have to look beyond nuclear weapons and build a larger agenda in dealing with Iran. This includes regional security in West Asia and South Asia and energy security. South Asia in particular will benefit enormously if the pipelines from Iran criss-cross Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Who knows, they may even cut across India’s Northeast and reach the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China via Myanmar!

For India in particular, such an approach will be greatly beneficial. It is no secret that some of its recent actions vis-a-vis Tehran, whether voting against Iran in the IAEA or going slow on the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, are the result of American pressure on New Delhi. Instead of playing for the US, New Delhi could in fact act as a bridge between Iran and the rest of the international community. From the days of the Persian empire, multiple regions of what constitute today’s India have been dealing with Iran. The link between the two countries are centuries old, historical and bound by two great civilizations.

Obviously, Iran should also take a step forward in engaging the rest of us. It cannot be a one way process. Iran’s civilization and not just the post-1979 period should be the bedrock of the new leadership’s approach to the rest of the world. And in this process, Iran should also look inward and go beyond rhetoric, and honestly evaluate whether there is truth in the criticism that Tehran has been in violation of international regimes. Rouhani has a chance to start afresh, and with a huge mandate.

Engaging Tehran, rather than isolating it, will be a better strategy in dealing with it. Since there is a new President in Iran, perhaps the time is ripe to start this approach. And India with its historical and civilization linkages, could act as the bridge.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir