Respect, reconciliation, and religious freedom may be key in Pakistan, but what about Iran?
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–Two articles define the problem of the United States with respect to state-based and non-state regimes led by intense varieties of Islam. One is Iran, and the other is the Taliban-al Quaeda that spills over between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The conundrum of Iran is compounded not only by the extremism of the present regime, but by Russian and even more Chinese opposition to serious sanctions, questions about the fragility of the Iranian leadership in the face of domestic opposition, the failure of the Obama administration to move Iran one iota despite a year of engagement, and unknowns about Israel’s patience in holding back against the threat of its destruction.
Intelligence is far from certain about the capacity of any sanctions to move the Iranians–despite their repeated denials–from intentions to create nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. There is also uncertainty about the prospect of Chinese cooperation, or the capacity of Germany to keep its companies from supplying important materials to the Iranian program. American intelligence is uncertain also about Israeli intentions, as are Israelis themselves. In what seems a credible summary of that front, the New York Times concludes its article: “The Israelis, officials report, now seemed convinced that the Iranian government is fragile, and that the sanctions might work. They have indicated, with no promises, that they will back off for a while.
Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has called in recent weeks for more active American support of the protesters in Iran, returned from Israel in recent days convinced that Mr. Obama had some time. ‘I think we can get through 2010 without a military strike,’ he said. ‘But 2011 could be more dicey.'”
One can quarrel about the utility of sanctions. On one hand, they seemed to work against Saddam Hussein. There is no evidence that he was continuing to produce nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. On the other hand, the sanctions were not alone in producing that effect. The United States had shown its muscle in 1991, and Israel had earlier destroyed Saddam’s initial efforts to produce nuclear weapons.
The story of Iraq should not encourage the American administration that rhetoric by itself is enough. And if China will not cooperate with sanctions, what else is there?
A former infantry officer in the Marines, currently the head of a think-tank that aspires to build religious freedom worldwide through local partners, spent 10 days in Islamabad and Peshawar “speaking with leaders from across society, including those with direct access to the Taliban.” His conclusion: “Change in Pakistan requires respect, reconciliation, and religious freedom.”
The basic problem is that both Iran and the group of countries that has grown to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia feature national regimes or regional factions soaked with varieties of religious extremism foreign to western experience.
Sincere believers, even those short of the extremism we associate with Islam, can be oblivious to anything other than their own inner voices.
In recent weeks I have been in the middle of e-mail conversations between American Protestants of different theocratic persuasions who ridicule one another due to the certainty of each that they alone understand holy texts correctly. By all signs apparent to a secular reader, those texts can only be described as amorphous, especially with respect to what they might be predicting two millennia after their composition.
With all their good intentions, how can Americans assess what it would take by way of respect, reconciliation, and religious freedom to bring Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis and others to abandon doctrines that prescribe death for non-believers?
It is far easier to describe the problems of the United States with respect to those places than to suggest solutions. Perhaps there are none. There are too many Muslims, too many of them too convinced about beliefs that involve both certainty and violence.
It is appropriate to caution against reliance on rhetoric of a kind that has been unable to convince even members of the United States Congress to abandon their own prior commitments.
Beyond that, there may be no good advice beyond warning that coming years may be dicey.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.