|Hedgehogs and flamingos in Tehran|
In Wonderland, Alice played croquet with hedgehogs and flamingos. In the Middle East, United States President Barack Obama is attempting the same thing, but with rats and cobras. Not only do they move at inconvenient times, but they bite the players. Iran’s presidential election on Friday underscores the Wonderland character of American policy in the region.
America’s proposed engagement of Iran has run up against the reality of the region, namely that Iran cannot “moderate” its support for its fractious Shi’ite allies from Beirut to Pakistan’s northwest frontier. It also shows how misguided Obama was to assume that progress on the Palestinian issue would help America solve more urgent strategic problems, such as Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons.
By assigning 64% of the popular vote to incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in last weekend’s elections, Iran’s reigning
mullahs, if there was indeed rigging, made a statement - but to whom? The trumpet which dare not sound an uncertain note was a call to Tehran’s Shi’ite constituency, as well as to a fifth of Pakistani Muslims. Religious establishments by their nature are conservative, and they engage in radical acts only in need.
Tehran is tugged forward by the puppies of war: Hezbollah in Lebanon and its co-sectarians in Pakistan. With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many. It also has nuclear weapons. And it is in danger of disintegration.
Against a young, aggressive and unstable Pakistan, Iran seems a moribund competitor. Iran’s fertility decline is the fastest that demographers ever have observed. As I reported on this site last February (Sex, drugs and Islam, February 24, 2009), Iranian fertility by some accounts has fallen below the level of 1.9 births per female registered in the 2006 census to only 1.6, barely above Germany’s.
Ahmadinejad’s invective may be aimed at Jerusalem, but his eye is fixed on Islamabad. That explains the decisions of his masters in Tehran’s religious establishment who may have rigged, or at least exaggerated, his election victory. Pakistan’s ongoing civil war has a critical sectarian component which the Shi’ites never sought: the Taliban claim legitimacy as the Muslim leadership of the country on the strength of their militancy against the country’s Shi’ite minority. Were the Taliban to succeed in crushing Pakistan’s Shi’ites, Iran’s credibility as a Shi’ite power would fade, along with its ability to project influence in the region.
The issue is less baffling when raw numbers are taken into account. The issues on which Iran’s supposed moderation might be relevant, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, are less pressing for Tehran than the problems on its eastern border. Of the world’s 200 million Shi’ite Muslims, about 30% reside in Iran. Another 10% live in neighboring Iraq, and comprise about two-thirds of the country’s population. Yet another 30% of the Shi’ite live in the Indian sub-continent, about equally divided between India and Pakistan. Pakistani Shi’ites make up only about one-fifth of the country’s population. Their numbers are just large enough to make the Sunnis ill at ease with their presence.