Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Iran Wins big in Iraq's Elections

M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times Online:
"We knew ever since the beginning [of the Iraq war] that the Americans would become trapped in a quagmire ... Iraq has become a turning point in the history of the Middle East. If the Americans had succeeded in subjugating Iraq, our region would have suffered once again from colonialism, but if Iraq becomes a democratic country that can stand on its own feet, the Americans will face the greatest loss. In such an eventuality, Iran and other regional states will be able to play an important role in world issues since they provide a huge share of the world's energy needs. We see now that the United States has been defeated."

Such a statement has to have come out of Iran, and without a doubt President George W Bush would attribute it to that "odd guy", as he referred to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in a recent PBS TV interview.

But, as with just about anything else these days concerning the Middle East, Bush would be dead wrong, as would be many others who have misread Iran at this momentous juncture in the region. The excerpts are from a speech at Friday prayers at Tehran University, made by someone whom the Western world has come to regard as the consummate "pragmatic conservative" (whatever that might mean) of Iranian politics, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. READ MORE

There is one thing for which Rafsanjani is famous - he seldom mixes illusions with reality. And the reality is that the Middle East's political compass shifted last week.

As the trends became available regarding the Iraqi elections of last Thursday, what has emerged is that contrary to all pre-poll projections, the Shi'ite religious coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), not only held together, but also can be expected to dominate the new 275-member National Assembly for the next four years.

More importantly, the "secular" candidates who were believed to enjoy links with the US security agencies would seem to have been routed. Former premier Iyad Allawi's prospects of leading the new government seem virtually nil. And Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Accord suffered a shattering defeat.

The prognosis that Sunnis would flock to Allawi or that Shi'ite constituents were disillusioned with the "fundamentalist" UIA and would be drawn to Allawi's secular platform has also proved to be highly faulty.

All indications are that in the Shi'ite provinces such as Najaf, Karbala, Qadisiyah, Maysan, Diwaniya, Amara, Nasiriyah and Samawa, anywhere between 70% to 90% of the votes may have gone to the UIA, and that even in the mixed Babil, Diyala and Baghdad provinces the UIA may well secure the most number of seats. Some reports indicate the UIA as getting probably as high as 70% of the votes in Babil - a magnificent performance in a mixed Shi'ite-Sunni province.

According to reports, early returns show a strong performance by the followers of the outspoken Shi'ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, on the UIA slate. Some reports estimate Muqtada's nominees winning almost one third of the UIA slate.

Worse still for the US, the "Sunni factor" choreographed by the American viceroys also seems to have come up with surprises. Al-Hayat newspaper commented that the two Sunni politicians who would appear to have done extremely well were Islamist leader Adnan Dulaimi and Ba'athist leader Salih al-Mutlak. (The latter is already being billed as the "Gerry Adams of Iraq", a reference to the mercurial Sinn Fein leader.)

Moreover, former members of the Ba'ath Party and other militia leaders have lost no time asserting that despite the Sunni participation in the elections, their armed resistance to the American military occupation would be resumed. (Since the elections, 10 Iraqis, including five police officers and an American, have been killed.)

Al-Hayat quoted a Ba'ath communique condemning the elections as an American plot to divide Iraq along ethnic and religious lines and vowing that resistance would not end until US troops left Iraqi soil. So much for the delicate distinction that American spokesmen were making between "Ba'athists" and "Saddamists".

With the ascendancy of Muqtada and Mutlak in the fragmented political spectrum, the calls for American troops to leave Iraq can be expected to become more strident. In the new climate, the incoming parliament itself may well make such a formal demand on the Americans. The hurried visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney to Baghdad on Sunday, his first ever since the US invasion in 2003, underscores the disarray surfacing in Washington.

Iran has, therefore, every reason to be pleased with the outcome of the election. Tehran sees that Iraq is now irreversibly on the verge of profound change, and transition is already in the air. The US is increasingly finding that it must come up with a clear plan to withdraw its troops from Iraq. As prominent Lebanese political observer Rami Khouri wrote on Saturday, "Starting the American military retreat from Iraq is important because American troops will continue to be a divisive and destabilizing force, just as the American military presence in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 war was a major provocation leading to Osama bin Laden-type resistance and terror."

Khouri (who cannot be described even remotely as "anti-American" on the intellectual plane) suggested 18 months as a "target date" for Washington to pull out its troops from Iraq. Tehran is conscious that any American withdrawal from Iraq cannot be summarily done. It will have to be preceded by a broader regional understanding over Iraq's stability and cohesion, which inevitably involves Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Equally so, new regional security arrangements also become necessary.

No less important for Tehran were the local Palestinian elections last week in West Bank cities. According to the preliminary results, the Islamic militant group Hamas won resounding victories. Coming as it does barely six weeks ahead of crucial parliamentary elections (scheduled for January 25), this development significantly impacts on the Palestinian problem and also alters the scope and dimensions of Middle East politics as a whole.

Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel, and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the European Union. The implications for the tepid peace process with Israel are bound to be serious. An existential dilemma forthwith arises for the "international community": can it any longer remain myopic and exclude Hamas from the the Middle East's political landscape?

But, more importantly, along with the significant showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in last month's elections in Egypt and the incremental "Islamization" of Iraq that is unmistakably under way (and that will get a fillip from the Iraqi elections), Hamas' emergence at the forefront of Palestinian politics signifies a huge eruption of popular disenchantment with the prevailing governance systems. Simply put, Islamism has placed itself in the vanguard of the Middle East's democratization - like "liberation theology" did at one time in Latin America.

There was a great deal of political symbolism in the fact that Hamas' chief, Khaled Meshaal, happened to be visiting Tehran as the results of the Palestinian elections became known. (Interestingly, Rafsanjani was among those in the top echelons of the Iranian leadership who received Meshaal.)

The Hamas leader seized the opportunity to hold a press conference, during which he said: "If Israel attacks Iran, then Hamas will widen and step up its confrontation of Israelis inside Palestine ... Hamas and other Islamic groups will stand by Iran's side. We are defenders of Iran's obvious right [to have a nuclear program] ... Iran is our source of pride."

Britain has done well by scheduling exploratory talks between the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) and Iran at the official level on Wednesday. The political geography of the Middle East is transforming so rapidly that the protagonists cannot but factor in an entirely new matrix of regional security and stability. The time for indulging in sophistries and vacuous rhetoric over Iran's nuclear issue is running out.

The challenge facing the EU-3 lies in breaking the deadlock by advancing its offer to Iran made in August under the terms of the Paris Agreement. As the former International Atomic Energy Agency head (1981-1997) and UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq, Hans Blix, said last week, "I am not convinced that the EU has offered sufficiently interesting things to the Iranians ... when you compare these things that have been offered to Iran with what has been offered to North Korea, I am not sure that one is at the negotiations' end."

Blix was caustic that up to now, the EU-3 remained "constrained by the backseat driver whom they have in the car, the Americans".

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).