US and Europe Need to Stay Cool on Iran and Think of the Region

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist and author

June 29, 2009
By Ahmed Rashid
There is mounting criticism of Western leaders, including President Barack Obama and some European heads of government, for their, so far, mild rebukes to the Iranian regime for the violence it has unleashed on its own public after the controversial elections.
However these critics are underestimating how an alternative, tough, intrusive US and European policy towards Iran, i.e. one in support of the pro-democracy movement there could derail political processes in the Middle East and South Asia and put critical parts of the Muslim world on another collision course with the West.

After eight disastrous years of the Bush-Cheney administration’s failed ‘regime change’ policies in the Muslim world, which included CIA funding to undermine Iran’s Ayatollahs, the last thing any Muslim regime or its population wants to see is yet another US sponsored policy for regime change in Iran – although most Muslims, like everyone else, would like to see democracy flourish in Iran.
Muslims want no more Western-driven regime change

So far President Barack Obama and European leaders have got it just right - mild but non-threatening rebukes - even though it is clear that Western governments, along with the rest of the world, are appalled at the violence unleashed and the fraudulent cover up that the Iranian regime is pursuing.

However, to go gently with Iran is critical if other major planks of Obama’s foreign policy in the region are to survive - to reach out to the broader Muslim world, the Israel-Palestinian peace initiative, the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and dealing with the Taliban threat to Afghanistan and Pakistan. For European leaders it remains paramount to retain the ability to negotiate with Iran concerning its quest for nuclear weapons.
A threatening response from the US towards Iran would only derail many of these initiatives, make it much more difficult for Muslim regimes to deal with the US and Europe, reinforce anti-Western views held by many Muslims, and threaten to make Obama, just as he starts out on his presidency, a lame duck in the Muslim world.
Iran an the Shia minorities in the region

There are many other factors. Iran is a predominantly Shia country and politically influential Shia minorities live in every Muslim state from Lebanon to India. A volatile country like Pakistan, which already faces a Sunni extremist insurgency in the shape of the Taliban, has a 15-20 percent Shia population.
Many of these Shia minorities would instinctively rally around the present leadership in Iran should they perceive of a US threat against this country. This, in turn, could destabilise regimes in the Middle East and South Asia by causing increased Sunni-Shia sectarianism. President Ahmadinejad is still not the Great Satan that the United States is in the minds of many Shias. 
Moreover, in recent years, many of these Shia minorities and their leaders have been funded and mobilised by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in order to make them a force to counter former President Bush’s attempts to undermine Iran.
A volatile situation

Iran’s plan - which presumably is still operational - was that if the US or Israel was to threaten or attack Iran, these Iranian-funded groups across the Muslim world would retaliate on behalf of Teheran and attack Americans and Westerners wherever they could. As part of this strategy Iran has also helped arm and fund some Sunni militant groups, such as elements in the Taliban.
The region around Iran is especially volatile and prone to instant destabilisation should Washington or Europe make the wrong move.
Two of Iran’s neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan, are occupied by US troops. Other neighbours, Pakistan and the Arabian Gulf states, in one form or another, provide bases for the Americans. Iran has every reason to fear encirclement by the US, and the paranoia that has long gripped the Iranian regime has not been helped by the threats of the former Bush administration.
All of the regimes neighbouring Iran are fragile - which is why they have already congratulated President Ahmadinejad on his election victory, no matter what they may feel about the elections. The reality is that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan to the east, nor Azerbaijan to the north or Iraq and the Gulf Arabs to the west and south can afford to see a wounded, humiliated, angry Iran blaming them for pandering to American wishes.

Iran’s neighbours the first to feel the effects of instability

Iran can destabilise all of its neighbours. Teheran still has the capability to undermine the US withdrawal from Iraq by fuelling renewed violence against US troops. And if the Americans are forced to hunker down in Iraq, Obama’s and NATO’s desire to focus on stabilising Afghanistan will be jeopardised.
In recent months, both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Asif Zardari have gone out of their way to court Iran. For this there is a variety of reasons, including cheap oil and gas from Iran. Yet the paramount factor is that both can ill afford a hostile Iran propping up an equally hostile Shia minority inside their borders.
Whatever the outcome of the present crisis in Iran, the country, for some time to come, is going to be deeply polarised and profoundly unstable. Iran’s neighbours - many of them US allies - will be the first to feel the effects of such instability. They will thus need judicious and wise US and European leadership - one that does not plunge them headlong into a confrontation with Iran.

Western leaders across the political spectrum need to understand how complicated and intertwined Iran and the region have become. When dealing with the crisis in Iran they will need to rally around a policy of moderation and caution.

Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and author. His most recent book, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, was published in 2008.