N-deal effect: India needs a strong Iran to combat ISIS, al-Qaida

Indians are happy with the lifting of UN sanctions on Iran after its nuclear deal with the US. This will mean more Iranian oil production and hence cheaper crude. It will mean more trade and investment with Iran. The Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline may become a reality.

Yet an emphasis on economic benefits is mistaken. The biggest benefit will be the checking of militant Sunni Islam. The last decade has seen the alarming rise of Sunni extremists (ISIS, al-Qaida, Taliban). The US has tried and failed to control events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. In Pakistan, Sunni militants have silenced fearful Muslims liberals.

India itself sees ISIS attracting young Muslims. Pan-Islamism has always been a powerful dream. The Khilafat movement of the 1920s was massively supported by Indian Muslims (and also by Gandhiji). The Khilafat ideal (called Caliphate in the West) has been revived by ISIS. It could potentially radicalize Indian Muslims and wreak havoc. Checking this will be mainly the Indian government’s job, but the destruction of ISIS in West Asia will help greatly.

The best hope of checking the Sunni militant advance is a strong Iran. Western powers have failed miserably to control events in the Middle East. The one country that has actually checked Sunni militant groups is Iran.

Now, many call this a dubious blessing, and say Iran itself is a militant Islamic state. Israel calls it a terrorist state. Without doubt Iran exercises its muscle in the region. For centuries it was the dominant regional power.

As a Shia country, it is in the crosshairs of militant Sunnis, and is fighting back. A strong Iran will make life uncomfortable for Israel and Saudi Arabia. But it will also be the strongest check on Sunni radicalism. That matters far more to India, and indeed to the world.

The nuclear deal strengthens Iran greatly. It has easily the largest population (79 million) and greatest technical skills in West Asia. The Islamic revolution of 1978 brought to power a group of mullahs who slaughtered opponents, killed democracy, imposed strict Islamic codes, and took a group of Americans hostage. This theocratic state remains entrenched despite economic sanctions that have debilitated its economy, and internal uprisings (such as the pro-democracy Green movement).

Even in its weakened state it has reached the nuclear threshold, created unprecedented threats to Israel via Hamas and Hezbollah, and propped up flailing regimes in Syria and Iraq besieged by extremist Sunni military forces. With the lifting of sanctions, Iran will become a much stronger political and military force in the region. That provides the best hope of checking ISIS and al-Qaida. The failure of the US to bring order to the region despite spending trillions of dollars and thousands of lives proves starkly, that order will have to be restored mainly by players within the region.

Some analysts view today’s Middle East imbroglio as Sunni-Shia fratricide that is centuries old, and has merely reached a new peak. That’s too simplistic. This conflict is not just religious but civilizational.

The ISIS, al-Qaida and Taliban all denounce music and films as un-Islamic. Sunni extremists tried to kill Malala Yusufzai in Pakistan to force girls out of school. Saudi rules keep women under total male control: women cannot drive, or go out without a male relative. Sunni militants see it as their religious duty to kill and persecute supposed apostates (Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Ismailis). In civilizational terms, Sunni extremists are terrible violators of human rights and common freedoms.

Shia Islam also has a track record of persecution (just ask Zoroastrians or Baha’is in Iran). Yet in civilizational terms, it is far more enlightened and modern than Sunni extremism. Iranian women have to wear headscarves and cover all limbs. Yet Iran produces more female than male college graduates, and women occupy senior positions unthinkable in Saudi Arabia or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Iran’s fabulous tradition of literature, poetry, music, films and architecture stands in contrast to Wahabi bans on music and films. A Middle East dominated by Iran will, in civilizational terms, be far superior to one dominated by Sunni extremism.

Iran is far more than a Shia state. It has larger aims for which it has harnessed Sunni allies such as Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It aims for regional power, not just Shia solidarity. It is a quasi-democracy, which is more than can be said of most countries in the region. For all its flaws, it represents the best hope for advancing civilizational values and checking barbarism in the region.

Obama does not see it that way. Yet the nuclear deal may turn out to be Obama’s greatest, if unwitting, contribution to the checking of ISIS, al-Qaida and Sunni extremism.

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