Reversing a policy of turning their faces the other way, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations have decided to make their own bid for defusing the crisis around Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.
The initiative comes none too soon. For the new Iranian leadership built around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears determined to turn this crisis into a “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the “Infidel” world.
It was in the hope of “mobilising the Islamic front” behind his project that Ahmadinejad travelled to Malaysia this month to meet the leaders of seven major Muslim nations. There, it soon became clear that while the Muslim world was prepared to defend the right of Iran to develop a civilian nuclear programme, it would, under not endorse, let alone encourage, the Islamic Republic’s warlike ambitions.
In Kuala Lumpur, the strongest warning to the Islamic Republic not to go provoke a clash came from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul who warned that the region could not afford another war. The same message will now be relayed to Tehran by a special emissary of the GCC.
While all these diplomatic efforts are welcome, insofar as they debunk Ahmadinejad’s claim that he is talking on behalf of the Muslim world, one must not forget the fact that they may amount to ineffective medicine prescribed for the wrong ailment.
What is needed is not an effort to prevent a new war in the Middle East but to end an old one. For the Islamic Republic has been at war against the United States and its allies, including those in the region, since 1979. Because this war has not been constantly in the headlines, and has not always been fought with fire- although on occasions that too has happened- does not mean that it has not been raging for almost three decades.
It is important to remember how wars start.
Wars do not start with the firing of shots. They start in people’s minds. The Bolshevik Party was at war against the “Imperialist powers” long before October 1917 when its muscle men seized control of the Duma in Petrograd. The war that the Nazi Party triggered in Europe had stared long before Hitler won the 1933 general election in Germany. In 1988 Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, said in a sermon in Tehran that the Khomeinist movement had been at war against the US and its allies since the first revolt of the mullahs in 1963.
Wars start as a result of a clash of mutually exclusive visions. Not all wars are fought with tanks, missiles and bombers, although all eventually include such episodes as well. Some phases of a war could be described as “cold” and could last for decades, as was the case with the USSR versus the Free World. Other wars would better be described as “lukewarm” because they include both hot and cold episodes. This was the case with the war that successive Iraqi despots waged against Iran between1958 and 1975. (By 1980, this had been transformed into a full-blown hot war that; lasted for eight years).
The war between the Islamic Republic and the United States has included hot episodes as well. The suicide attacks that killed over 300 Americans, including 241 Marines in Beirut in the early 1980s, were hot enough as well the 1987-8 riposte by the United States that included the sinking of half of Iran’s navy and the downing of an Iranian jetliner with 250 passengers on board.
Since 1979, hardly a month has passed without the Islamic Republic and the US waging war against one another in whatever theatre that fitted the occasion. A multifaceted war, this has included economic, diplomatic, psychological, and cultural dimensions- not to mention terrorism.
Successive administrations in Washington have tried to deny there was a war. And, for eight years under President Muhammad Khatami, the Islamic Republic, too, played a game of “let’s pretend there is no war.” Khatami may have been prompted by the best of intentions. However, the game he played almost forced the radial faction within the regime to strike back and put the war strategy at the centre of policymaking in Tehran.
Preventing a war is not the same as ending one. As British historian AJP Taylor has shown t the First World War could not have been prevented once European train timetables had been re-written for transporting troops to various frontiers.
There are not thousands of ways in which a war ends.
Most wars end with one side winning and another losing. The winner imposes his will on the loser, and both move on. A few wars end in a draw, often with tentative ceasefire accords that give the adversaries a respite until the next round. But no war ends definitively until the minds in which it was first hatched are removed from positions of power in one or both sides of the conflict. In other words war is a win-lose proposition.
The trouble, however, is that the politically correct elite that sets much of the global agenda since the 1970s has persuaded a substantial segment of world opinion that it is possible to imagine war as a win-win situation.
The result of this peculiar illusion can be seen in dozens of “frozen” conflicts across the globe. And that means transforming war, which is useful because it is a short and sharp method of resolving a conflict- much like surgical operations when needed- , into a long, potentially endless struggle which produces more hardship and many more victims over a long period of time.
There are not many ways in which the war fought between the Islamic Republic and the “Infidel” world ends. One could envisage a large hot episode that might create more headaches for the US and its allies than the liberation of Iraq. But even then there is no guarantee that the Islamic Republic, under Ahmadinejad or anyone else, would survive.
But the war could also end if the war party now ascendant in Tehran is exposed and effectively opposed. Many elements within the Khomeinist establishment know that the radical group now in power is leading the country towards war and possible disaster. But they cannot speak out when the whole world sees that Ahmadinejad has successfully defied the international community without suffering the slightest setback so far.
Those who wish to end this war, or at least prevent a new hot episode in it, must make it clear to the new leadership in Tehran that it is alone in its policy of posturing and provocation. The message to Tehran should be that no one in the region, let alone the broader Muslim world, is prepared to help him trigger the “clash of civilisations” the radical Khomeinists dream and speak of.
Such a message would strengthen the hand of those within the Tehran establishment that know that this unnecessary and un-winnable war has gone on far too long and that the sooner it is brought to end the better for all concerned-above all the people of Iran.