Friday, May 12, 2006

Love-In in Jakarta

The Wall Street Journal:
Indonesia is no stranger to the dangers of Islamic radicalism. From the Bali massacres to the Jakarta car bombs, some of Asia's nastiest militants call the country home. So why is Indonesia's moderate president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, so keen to cuddle with Iran's radical cleric, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? READ MORE

It's far from a natural pairing. The democratically elected Mr. Yudhoyono has promulgated religious tolerance in the world's most populous Muslim-dominated nation, which is also home to Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. Mr. Ahmadinejad, from the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic, has questioned the existence of the Holocaust and threatened to wipe Israel "off the map."

You wouldn't perceive those tensions from Jakarta's welcome mat this week. In town for a five-day state visit, Indonesia's finest gave the Iranian a 21-gun salute, while newspapers carried photos of the two presidents exchanging kisses. Mr. Yudhoyono, a former military general, called Iran "a great friend" of the archipelago. Mr. Ahmadinejad said the two countries were working "closely together." Even the local press wondered at the Indonesia's leadership's "near categorical support" for the world's greatest threat to peace and stability.

This shouldn't come as a total surprise, though the Iranian's characterization of the coupling may be a mite exaggerated. It took the fall of former Indonesian strongman Suharto in 1998 for Jakarta's political relationship with Tehran to take root. Former President Abdurrahman Wahid warmed to Iran's Mohammad Khatami, who preached a more moderate vision of an Islamic state than Mr. Ahmadinejad. And with a collapsing economy, Indonesia desperately needed foreign investment. Iran complied, channeling funds to Indonesia's undercapitalized energy sector.

This time, too, Mr. Ahmadinejad comes touting an energy hook. On Thursday, the two presidents signed a series of trade accords, including a commitment to help Indonesia build an oil refinery. The only member of OPEC in East Asia, Indonesia remains a net energy importer, thanks to its corruption-riddled, inefficient domestic producers.

But no matter how much money is promised, the focus of the visit isn't oil -- it's politics. As Western nations increasingly isolate Tehran for its nuclear ambitions, Mr. Ahmadinejad is turning toward the only countries with sympathetic ears: Muslim-dominated states. As the world's most populous Muslim nation -- and one with an improving relationship with the U.S. -- winning Indonesia over would be a key prize for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Thankfully, Mr. Yudhoyono isn't playing Mr. Ahmadinejad's ballgame, though he deserves some reproach for giving the Iranian an excuse to play for more time while scientists back home work on a bomb. On Wednesday, the Indonesian leader said he believed the nuclear spat could be resolved "through negotiations and diplomatic ways," and urged a continued dialogue between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Indonesia could mediate between the mullahs and the West, he suggested.

That's a fine idea if Iran were a normal state. But it's not. Mr. Ahmadinejad responded to his host's suggestions by calling Israel "a tyrannical regime that one day will be destroyed," spouting off nonsense for a half hour at a press conference (to the visible discomfort of Mr. Yudhoyono), and calling the West's concerns over nuclear rattling a "big lie."

That ignores, of course, Tehran's cessation of talks with the IAEA, its violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and its recent announcement that it's managed to enrich uranium to reactor-grade levels. A bomb in the hands of radical mullahs who are threatening to erase a nearby state is substantially different from having a deterrent nuclear force in the hands of a responsible power like India. But we digress.

Mr. Yudhoyono may have good intentions. But it's dangerous to allow this kind of chatter to be broadcast over Indonesian airwaves, which reach all sorts of radical groups, such as Laskar Jihad. Mr. Ahmadinejad was also interviewed on Metro TV, a station that broadcasts throughout Southeast Asia, and given an hour to speak with an eager crowd of students at the University of Jakarta. If Mr. Yudhoyono is keen to reason with the Iranian, fine, but why grant him such prominent, public platforms to spread his views?

Mr. Ahmadinejad flies to Bali today for meetings with the D-8, a group of developing, non-Arab, Muslim countries. Bali was hit twice by Islamic terrorists -- first, the 2000 discotheque bomb that massacred 202 innocents; then, in 2005 triple-restaurant bombing, which killed 20 and wounded scores more. Bali's also the home to a Hindu population that's embraced in Indonesia. Maybe Mr. Ahmadinejad can take the opportunity to learn a little something about religious toleration there. But we doubt it.