In a delicious irony, American policy towards Iran has shifted 180 degrees. In the last few days America has announced that it will open a diplomatic presence in Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's Tehran. This has to be seen in the context of both the original break with Tehran after the Islamic Revolution and the dramatic seizure of the American embassy three decades ago, and Bush denunciation of Iran as the villain in chief of the Axis of Evil.
George Bush went to war in Iraq in order to create a new Middle East. Six years later, much to the shock of his allies and the horror of perceptive Americans, he has. The shock and horror arise from the fact that the Middle East has been changed by the Bush intervention in a direction sharply divergent from America’s fundamental interests as perceived by the Bush doctrine.
The Middle East was a term coined in 1903 by an American naval historian and strategic thinker, at the very height of British power across the world, when the Boers had been defeated in South Africa, the Ottomans had been virtually displaced from their most important colony Egypt, the Arabian Sea confirmed as a British lake and India itself was preparing to celebrate the glory of the Raj with a glittering durbar summoned by the Viceroy of Viceroys, Lord Curzon. India was a bulwark of this concept called the Middle East, a fortress of trade and imperial might that had neo-colonised China, and supplied the bulk of the troops for British expansion. The rupee was king from Singapore to Jeddah.
When George Bush’s team visualised their new map of the world they included India in what they termed the ‘Greater Middle East’. India was not an intrinsic part of the new power flows, but it was integrated once again as the fortress of the East. Since India was run by Indians rather than British allies, Indians had to be co-opted into the engineering of the new design. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the man for the job.
Six years later Project Greater Middle East is tottering all across this strategic map. In Delhi the Singh government has been unable to bear the burden of an alliance with Bush. The Congress encouraged the illusion, with the help of a cabal of analysts, publicists and lobbyists, that the Left was a lapdog rather than a watchdog, and could be either appeased by a bone or silenced with a stick. When the moment came to choose, the Congress stood with Bush instead of Prakash Karat. The official excuse for this decision is energy. But this is deception. Dr Manmohan Singh deliberately sabotaged a much cheaper and more immediate source of energy for the country when he deliberately undermined the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, raising one false spectre after another to mislead the country, so that it would seem that there was no option but to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. We have forgotten now that the first objection he raised, three years ago, was that financing would be a problem. This is not raised anymore since it is obvious that finance would be easily available at a time of rising energy prices. Countries like Russia are ready to invest in overseas projects of this nature even with equity participation as the present Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (chairman of Gazprom from 2000 to 2008) has confirmed. A second scare was puffed up: the unrest in Balochistan. This did not travel when Iran and Pakistan laughed it off. The real problem was always the fact that American legislators had made India’s relations with Iran a condition of their support for the deal. The best oil minister we have had in memory, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was suddenly removed from his job because he was more sceptical of America than the Prime Minister’s latitude permitted.
In a delicious irony, American policy towards Iran has shifted 180 degrees. In the last few days America has announced that it will open a diplomatic presence in Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's Tehran. This has to be seen in the context of both the original break with Tehran after the Islamic Revolution and the dramatic seizure of the American embassy three decades ago, and Bush denunciation of Iran as the villain in chief of the Axis of Evil. This should be sufficient to resurrect the ghost of Senator Henry Hyde, who ensured that there were 18 references to Iran in the Act that gave legislative approval for the Indo-US nuclear deal. Add to this the fact that Bush has repeatedly threatened war to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and we begin to get an idea of the degree of capitulation — or return to realism — in American policy.
America is learning to live with the consequences of Bush's war. The single biggest beneficiary of the Iraq misadventure has been Iran. Before 9/11 Iran was chained by international diplomatic sanctions and hostile neighbours: a virulently anti-Islamic Revolution Saddam Hussein and a virulently anti-Shia Taliban. America cleared the Taliban out of Kabul and Saddam out of Baghdad for its own reasons, but no one thanked America more than the Ayatollahs in Tehran, although they may not have advertised their applause. Even as America got swamped by two wars that refused to end, Tehran used the new opportunity to strengthen its allies till they rose from the margins to the frontlines: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
At the heart of the Arab conflict with Israel, Iran's allies are in control: Hezbollah dominates Lebanon while Hamas continues to increase its influence in Palestine. In another dramatic turnaround, Israel has been forced into substantive peace talks with Syria, and has agreed to place the Golan Heights, advertised since 1967 as sacrosanct to its safety, on the negotiating table.
These shifts pale before the impact that American intervention has had on Iraq. For better or worse is not the real issue; there are new facts and we have to deal with them. Under Saddam, Iraq was a secular, anti-Ayatollah dictatorship. Under America, Iraq has become a Shia dominated democracy with a religious ethos and excellent relations with Iran, another fact that the Bush administration finds it convenient to ignore. The Baghdad government is also beginning to assert itself against America. Washington wants a security pact with Baghdad which is a carbon copy of the pact that the British imposed on Iraq in 1930 as a condition of granting “independence”. The one significant difference is that while Britain was content with two permanent military bases in Iraq, America wants 58. It was in this blithe spirit that Bush dismissed a question about when all American troops would leave the country. America still had troops in Korea, Japan and Germany, so why not forever in Iraq? Permanent is a very American term in Bush’s lexicon. Even the pro-American administration in Baghdad is beginning to baulk at this language of hegemony. Nor will the Arab world remain a mute spectator.
The change that Bush wanted in the Middle East has merely begun but the arc will not move in the direction of Bush’s dreams.
The one success that Bush can flaunt is in North Korea, the only region where Bush opted for diplomacy — hard and meaningful — instead of the rush of war. Given the enormity of damage he has done elsewhere, this is minor relief. There is a Hindi proverb that might sum up the Bush achievement: khoda pahaar, nikli chuhiya (he dug a mountain, and there emerged a rat).