As the push to strike the country’s nuclear facilities becomes more intense, Iran is trying to convince the world that its program is limited to the production of nuclear energy. “We don’t want to build atomic weapons,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared last Saturday. “But if we [...] intended to possess nuclear weapons, no power could stop us.” In January, an Iranian ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, reiterated that Khamenei’s 2005 edict banning nuclear weapons was binding.
Although there is little appetite in the US for striking Iran, neoconservatives continue to push the agenda. For the movement, Iran is the biggest threat to peace in the world today. That the neoconservative foreign policy helped to create the problem in the first place is ignored.
The neoconservative agenda has been an unmitigated disaster. Iraq didn’t turn out to be a “cakewalk” that was promised. Al-Qaeda militants made inroads into Libya and they have, more recently, into Syria. Yet, like a gambling addict who has bankrupted himself, yet remains convinced that the next bet will be the big win, neoconservatives seem incapable of conceiving that things could go wrong, yet again, if Shi’ite Iran is bombed.
While “the region” is generally presented as being nuclear-free (with the exception of Israel, which does not admit to having nuclear weaponry), this depends largely on what landmass the phrase is being used to indicate. Bordering Iran to the southwest is Pakistan, a highly unstable Sunni-majority state that has long had nuclear weapons. And unlike the Iranian people, who have traditionally liked the US, anti-American feeling runs high in Pakistan.
Striking Iran would incur costs — and not just terrorist attacks by Iranian proxies, or the loss of the Iranian people as pro-US. Potentially the most far-reaching consequence would be the emboldenment of Pakistan. In all likelihood, this side effect would make the Iraq invasion’s unanticipated empowerment of Iran look inconsequential by comparison.
Firstly, it would mean Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan increasing. Then Pakistan would begin to regard itself as the emerging regional hegemon. Through stepped-up diplomacy, at least, it would seek to exert influence over Bangladesh. Then there is India.
After the 2001 9/11 attacks, Sir David Manning — British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s senior foreign policy adviser — was told by a top Pakistani general to convey to Indian officials that it would take only eight seconds for their nuclear missiles to strike India. Manning was reportedly convinced, “that the Pakistanis would ‘go nuclear’ and if they did, that they wouldn’t be averse to unleashing them on a big scale.”
The two nations have fought three wars since 1947, and have come close to nuclear confrontation. Bangladeshi envoy to India, Ahmad Tariq Karim, claimed, in 2012, that Pakistan’s “mindset” could lead to nuclear war with India. Its Islamist “supremacism” and the persecution of its minorities, especially Hindus, by extremists, were cited by Karim as illustrative of Pakistan’s belligerence.
Pakistan’s Sunni majority has no love for Shi’ites either. Over the weekend, a bomb ripped through a Shi’ite neighborhood, killing nearly 80. At the end of December, Shi’ite pilgrims traveling to Iran were attacked in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province. Twenty were killed and 24 were injured.
Although Pakistan officially supports Iran’s right to nuclear power, it does not want it to get the bomb. It wants to remain the sole Muslim-majority state with nuclear weaponry — and it certainly would not want to see a Shi’ite-majority state with such weaponry. Pakistani officials have talked with the Iranians on at least seven occasions, to attempt to dissuade them from pursuing their nuclear program. In 2006 alone, the Pakistanis also held 11 meetings with the US over the issue.
Yet, Pakistan’s own nuclear history is checkered. Its nuclear secrets have been distributed through the AQ Khan network, and it has, at least if Manning is correct, threatened India with nuclear war. Since its founding in 1947, it has also committed genocide — against the Bangladeshis, in the 1971 War of Liberation. According to Bangladeshi figures, three million were killed, and 200,000 women were raped.
No one is talking of bombing Pakistan. Nor should we. But the difference in approach to the two states is perplexing. Despite everything, Pakistan has received at least $20 billion since 2001 in US aid. What must the Iranian regime — which is certainly prone to conspiracy theory thinking — make of that? As well as being firm in its resolve, in its dealings with other countries, the US needs to be seen to be fair. And when it comes to Iran, it needs also to think about the consequences, not just for the Middle East, but also for Asia.