Iran’s choice: Between Syria and Pakistan

Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri
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A week after the attack on a military parade in Ahwaz, southwest Iran, left dozens dead, there is still no consensus on who was responsible.

As in all such cases, conspiracy theories abound.

While officials have blamed half a dozen foreign powers, including Holland and Denmark, not to mention Great Britain and the American “Great Satan” and its Arab allies, regime opponents see the attack as an inside job.

The trouble is that one could easily find some justification for almost all rival theories.

Denmark and Holland have given asylum to more than a dozen Ahwazi activists opposed to the regime in Tehran.

One of the most prominent among them, Ahmad Molla Nisi, was assassinated in The Netherlands last October with the Dutch police blaming a hit-squad from Tehran.

For its part, Denmark has hosted at least two seminars by anti-mullah exiles in 2916 and 2017. In recent months, Washington and London have also hosted two conferences of groups regarded by Tehran as “secessionists”.

However, the claim that this may have been an inside job could also be evoked in a set of questions. How did the terrorists cross the border, supposedly from Iraq, without being detected?

How did they manage to hide their weapons in a park just 20 meters from the route of the parade? How come the route of the parade was not subjected to a routine security inspection before the event? Why wasn’t any of the military, political and clerical grandees at the parade hit by the attackers who fired at ordinary conscripts and spectators? Why were the parading conscripts given empty guns which meant they couldn’t fire back in self-defense?

And why did the officer in command of the parade took a full five minutes, in an episode that lasted just over 10 minutes, before he ordered soldiers to fire back at the attackers?

To be sure, it is quite possible that all those shortcomings were due to sheer incompetence and lack of coordination between the various branches of the military and security organizations.

For the past few years, one central theme of the regime’s propaganda has been the claim that Iran as a nation, and not necessarily just its regime, is under attack from foreign enemies ready to go to any length to pursue diabolical aims. One claim is that “we have to fight in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain so that we won’t have to fight in Iran itself.”

That claim is used to justify virtually all of the regime’s political, economic and diplomatic failures. Regime propaganda opposes the freedom to security by claiming that if Iranians do not enjoy normal freedoms they should be grateful to enjoy security from the violence that has gripped so much of the Middle East.

“Do you want Iran to become another Syria?” President Hassan Rouhani demands when faced with tough questions on such issues as economic meltdown and lack of basic freedoms.

The Ahwaz attack punches several holes in the regime’s narrative.

People now ask: Why should we accept the lack of basic freedoms when you cannot even provide security?

Whichever way one looks at it, the rhetorical question is misplaced. For there can be no freedom without security and no security without freedom.

The regime’s discourse raises many other questions.

Isn’t it possible that Iran’s security is threatened precisely because the regime is interfering in other nations’ affairs? How could we expect not to face hostility when our policies are almost deliberately aimed at fabricating more and more enemies for Iran?

Could we field an army of 80,000 in Syria with the express mission of killing Syrians without provoking acts of revenge? Could we manipulate an armed state within the Lebanese state without causing some resentment? And could we expect the Iraqis to grin and bear it in the face of our brazen intervention in their affairs?

The pseudo-argument about preventing Iran from becoming “another Syria” does not justify the regime’s failure to develop credible institutions capable of developing and implementing rational policies.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has tried to justify the regime’s radicalism, which includes sponsoring terrorism, as “a choice we made.” It isn’t clear who he means by “we” who made the choice.

His argument is that if Iran becomes an ordinary nation-state, behaving like a law-abiding and responsible member of the international community, it would be “just another Pakistan” with no place in headline news.

He points out that Pakistan has more than twice as many people as Iran and is already a nuclear power but still carries no weight in international politics while Iran, thanks to its radicalism, is “a power that counts.”

The truth is that, though regarded as a troublemaker, the Islamic Republic counts for very little in the bigger scheme of things.

In Syria, it has been reduced to a side-kick for the Russians and excluded from major decisions.

In Iraq, the Islamic Republic has managed to antagonize even the Shiites who were originally sympathetic to Iran.

In Yemen, its Houthi clients are now confined to a mousetrap of their own creation. The truth is that the Khomeinist ideology is not a popular export item especially at a time that its absurdity is becoming daily more apparent.

Rouhani claims he wants to save Iran from becoming another Syria. Zarif wants to save us from becoming another Pakistan.

Rouhani forgets that part of the tragedy in Syria is due to the Islamic Republic’s ill-advised support for a despot rejected by his people.

Zarif forgets that Pakistan, though not featuring in President Donald Trump’s tweets as much as Iran, is doing better than Iran in many fields. Its economy is growing twice as fast as Iran’s and its currency is solid in contrast with Iran’s plummeting rial.

Apart from 63 men convicted of terrorism, Pakistan has virtually no political prisoners and prisoners of conscience while the Islamic Republic’s official number is around 5000. But, when all is said and done, why should we restrict Iran’s choice between becoming another Syria or another Pakistan? A third choice is possible: Iran could ditch the false identity of the Islamic Republic and re-become Iran!

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.


Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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