By Saeed Naqvi
When this writer returned from Teheran after the Ayatullahs had securely entrenched themselves, the New Delhi Bureau Chief of the New York Times asked me with touching innocence: “Who are Shias?” In other words, a foreign correspondent from as respected a publication as NYT did not in the eighties know Shias as a sect distinct from, say, Sunnis. Attitudes based on such a lack of knowledge at the very outset have been aggravated by a diligent denial of diplomatic contact.
However warped the Iranian revolution may seem to some, it must be conceded that all revolutions are accompanied by atleast a degree of idealism. Although it must also be conceded that the revolutions sometimes degenerate – Robespierre after the French revolution, for instance. The “idealism” I refer to (and I must be in a rapidly growing minority on this one) informs what must be a risky conclusion on the nuclear issue. It is no more than a hunch: I am not persuaded that clerical leadership is lying, to its own people since 2006 that it has no weaponization program. Yes, all bets will be off should Iran be attacked.
Just as Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, Islam cannot be understood without reference to the Torah, Bible, Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto and Quran, the Shia mind will remain unintelligible without a perusal of the writings, letters, speeches of Ali, Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. These have been complied as “Nahjul Balagha” (Peak of Eloquence).
Quite as powerful as Ali’s intellectual persona is a historical event which seers Shia sensibility – Battle of Karbala fought on the banks of the Euphrates in 681AD barely 49 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad. At Karbala, Ali’s second son, Hussain along with 72 members of his family and friends, were cornered on the banks of the river, by the armies of the Omayyid Caliph, Yazid. He sought Hussain’s endorsement for his rule which, Hussain asserted, violated Islam’s basic teachings of truth, harmony and an egalitarian order. Husain, his brother, sons and friends were “martyred”; the ladies, including, the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab, were taken prisoners. The tragedy shocked the world which was increasingly becoming conversant with a dynamic new religious movement which, 30 years after Karbala, had crossed the sea from Morocco and established the Andalussian empire in Spain which lasted 800 years.
Later, the Fatamids were to rule, Sicily, Tunisia and Cairo. It is no longer part of contemporary consciousness that Moharram processions in the memory of Hussain’s martyrdom were a regular feature in 9th – 10th century Palermo, capital of Sicily. It is also not remembered that Al Azhar University in Cairo derives from Fatima Zehra, Prophet’s daughter and Ali’s wife.
There is no dispute among Muslims on Ali’s intellectual caliber or Hussain’s martyrdom. The differences centre around the succession which followed the Prophet’s death.
This cursory background is required before we plunge headlong into real or manufactured sectarian strife among Muslims. Acquaintance with facts will discourage those who are already making numerical comparisons of the principal sects. It is a mind boggling exercise if you add the Zaidis in Yemen and Sufis from Sudan to Timbuktu and an endless chain of diversity in unity, to reverse Nehru’s words.
Reverting to Iran, principal influences on the Iranian people and their clergy may provide some clues to their mind set too. Is there, for instance, a difference in Iranian response to external provocation from most nations conditioned by Realpolitic?
How would you expect Iran to reach out to the United States which has by choice never had diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic? The British broke ranks and opened an embassy in Teheran in 1998 when Mohammad Ahmad Khatami was President. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited the country. But Tony Blair was unable to withstand pressure from George W. Bush and relations were snapped again when David Reddaway was rejected by Teheran as London’s ambassador on charges of being a spy.
True the US in its history has never suffered the humiliation it did when Iranians, in the grip of Islamic fervour, held US diplomats hostage in their embassy for 444 days. The Iranian explanation is that they feared a CIA directed coup because the dethroned Shah had been received in Washington with full honours. Memories of the 1953 coup which ousted Prime Minister Mosaddegh had not quite faded by 1979.
Despite diplomatic untouchability that the US practiced with Iran, secret efforts at establishing contacts were not given up. Take, for example, The Iran-Contra affair of the eighties when National Security Adviser Poindexter in secret briefings referred to the Speaker of Iranian Majlis Hashemi Rafsanjani as America’s “high level contact” in Teheran.
It is common knowledge that in the 2004 elections Rafsanjani was the West’s favoured candidate, a fact authenticated by Christiane Amanpour’s much advertised interview with him, totally ignoring the other candidate, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In 2009, West’s support for Mir Hussain Mousavi (also backed by Rafsanjani) was equally open.
A person who would know a great deal about the undercurrents in US-Iran non-relations is Zalmay Khalilzad. He was posted to Kabul as ambassador during the US occupation post 9/11. Part of his mandate was to keep the Iranians on board.
He was rewarded by being posted to the Green Zone in Baghdad where, again, Iranian influence had to be managed. Khalilzad outlined a fairly comprehensive agenda to be taken up with Teheran. But the neo cons in Washington (of whom he was once a part) rapped him on the knuckles. Washington would only discuss the nuclear issue, he was told. Teheran backed off.
And now, as the non aligned congregate in Teheran, there just may be a chance for both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Egypt’s Mohammad Morsi to do something, possibly form a group which can narrow the distance between Washington and Teheran.
Do backroom work now. Although time for its fruition may only come after the US elections in November.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)