Beijing cautions US over Iran
Asia Times Online
By M K Bhadrakumar
China has broken silence on the developing situation in
Iran. This comes against the backdrop of a discernible
shift in Washington's posturing toward political
developments in Iran.
The government-owned China Daily featured its main
editorial comment on Thursday titled "For Peace in Iran".
It comes amid reports in the Western media that the former
president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is rallying the Qom
clergy to put pressure on the Guardians Council - and, in
turn, on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - to annul last
Friday's presidential election that gave Mahmud Ahmadinejad
another four-year term.
Beijing fears a confrontation looming and counsels Obama to
keep the pledge in his Cairo speech not to repeat such
errors in the US's Middle East policy as the overthrow of
the elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in
1953. Beijing also warns about letting the genie of popular
unrest get out of the bottle in a highly volatile region
that is waiting to explode. Tehran on Friday saw its sixth
day of massive protests by supporters of Mir Hossein
Mousavi, whom they say was cheated out of victory.
A parallel with Thailand Meanwhile, China's special envoy
on Middle East, Wu Sike, is setting out on an extensive
fortnight-long regional tour on Saturday (which,
significantly, will be rounded off with consultations in
Moscow) to fathom the political temperature in capitals as
varied as Cairo and Tel Aviv, Amman and Damascus, and
Beirut and Ramallah.
Beijing also made a political statement when a substantive
bilateral was scheduled between President Hu Jintao and
Ahmadinejad on Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit
meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in
Conceivably, Hu would have discussed the Iran situation
with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev during his
official visit to Moscow that followed the SCO summit.
Earlier, Moscow welcomed Ahmadinejad's re-election. Both
China and Russia abhor "color" revolutions, especially
something as intriguing as Twitter, which Moscow came
across a few months ago in Moldova and raises hackles about
the US's interventionist global strategy.
China anticipated the backlash against Ahmadinejad's
victory. On Monday, The Global Times newspaper quoted the
former Chinese ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming, that the
Iranian situation would get back to normalcy only if a
negotiated agreement was reached among the "major centers
of political power ... But, if not, the recent turmoil in
Thailand will possibly be repeated". It is quite revealing
that the veteran Chinese diplomat drew a parallel with
However, Hua underscored that Ahmadinejad does enjoy
popularity and has "lots of support in this nationalist
country because he has the courage to state his own opinion
and dares to carry out his policies". The consensus opinion
of Chinese academic community is also that Ahmadinejad's
re-election will "test" Obama.
Thus, Thursday's China Daily editorial is broadly in the
nature of an appeal to the Obama administration not to
spoil its new Middle East policy, which is shaping well,
through impetuous actions. Significantly, the editorial
upheld the authenticity of Ahmadinejad's election victory:
"Win and loss are two sides of an election coin. Some
candidates are less inclined to accept defeat."
The daily pointed out that a pre-election public opinion
poll conducted by the Washington Post newspaper showed
Ahmadinejad having a 2-1 lead over his nearest rival and
some opinion polls in Iran also indicated more or less the
same, whereas, actually, "he won the election on a lower
margin. Thus, the opposition's allegations against
Ahmadinejad come as a trifle surprising".
The editorial warns: "Attempts to push the so-called color
revolution toward chaos will prove very dangerous. A
destabilized Iran is in nobody's interest if we want to
maintain peace and stability in the Middle East, and the
world beyond." It pointedly recalled that the US's "Cold
War intervention in Iran" made US-Iran relationship a
troubled one, "with US presidents trying to stick their
nose into Iran's internal business".
Theocracy versus republicanism Beijing understands Iran's
revolutionary politics very well. China was one of the few
countries that warmly hosted Ruhollah Khomeini as president
(in 1981 and 1989). In contrast, India, which professes
"civilizational" ties with Iran, was much too confused
about Iran's revolutionary legacy to be able to correctly
estimate Khamenei's political instincts favoring
republicanism. Most of the Indian elites aren't even aware
that Khamenei studied as a youth in Moscow's Patrice
Be that as it may, the Hu-Ahmadinejad meeting in
Yekaterinburg on Tuesday once again shows Beijing has a
very clear idea about the ebb and flow of Iran's politics.
Hu demonstrably accorded to Ahmadinejad the full honor as
Beijing's valued interlocutor.
Chinese media have closely followed the trajectory of the
US reaction to the situation in Iran, especially the
"Twitter revolution", which puts Beijing on guard about US
intentions. Indications are that the US establishment has
begun meddling in Iranian politics. Rafsanjani's camp
always keeps lines open to the West. All-in-all, a degree
of synchronization is visible involving the US's "Twitter
revolution" route, Rafsanjani's parleys with the
conservative clergy in Qom and Mousavi's
uncharacteristically defiant stance.
Obama faces multiple challenges. On the one hand, as Helene
Cooper of The New York Times reported on Thursday, the
continuing street protests in Tehran are emboldening a
corpus of (pro-Israel) conservatives in Washington to
demand that Obama should take a "more visible stance in
support of the protesters". But then, a regime change would
inevitably delay the expected US-Iran direct engagement and
upset Obama's tight calendar to ensure the negotiations
gained traction by year's end, while Iran's centrifuges in
its nuclear establishments keep spinning.
Also, a fragmented power structure in Tehran will prove
ineffectual in helping the US stabilize Afghanistan.
However, top administration officials like Vice President
Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would
like the US to "strike a stronger tone" on Iran's turmoil.
Cooper reported they are piling pressure on Obama that he
might run the risk of "coming across the wrong side of
history at a potentially transformative moment in Iran".
A Thermidorian reaction No doubt, the turmoil has an
intellectual side to it. Obama being a rare politician
gifted with intellectuality and a keen sense of history
would know that what is at stake is a well-orchestrated
attempt by the hardcore conservative clerical establishment
to roll back the four-year-old painful, zig-zag process
toward republicanism in Iran.
Mousavi is the affable front man for the mullahs, who fear
that another four years of Ahmadinejad would hurt their
vested interests. Ahmadinejad has already begun
marginalizing the clergy from the sinecures of power and
the honey pots of the Iranian economy, especially the oil
The struggle between the worldly mullahs (in alliance with
the bazaar) and the republicans is as old as the 1979
Iranian revolution, where the fedayeen of the proscribed
Tudeh party (communist cadres) were the original foot
soldiers of the revolution, but the clerics usurped the
leadership. The highly contrived political passions let
loose by the 444-day hostage crisis with the US helped the
wily Shi'ite clerics to stage the Thermidorian reaction and
isolate the progressive revolutionary leadership.
Ironically, the US once again figures as a key protagonist
in Iran's dialectics - not as a hostage, though.
Imam Khomeini was wary of the Iranian mullahs and he
created the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as an
independent force to ensure the mullahs didn't hijack the
revolution. Equally, his preference was that the government
should be headed by non-clerics. In the early years of the
revolution, the conspiracies hatched by the triumvirate of
Beheshti-Rafsanjani-Rajai who engineered the ouster of the
secularist leftist president Bani Sadr (who was Khomeini's
protege), had the agenda to establish a one-party
theocratic state. These are vignettes of Iran's
revolutionary history that might have eluded the
intellectual grasp of George W Bush, but Obama must be au
fait with the deviousness of Rafsanjani's politics.
If Rafsanjani's putsch succeeds, Iran would at best bear
resemblance to a decadent outpost of the "pro-West" Persian
Gulf. Would a dubious regime be durable? More important, is
it what Obama wishes to see as the destiny of the Iranian
people? The Arab street is also watching. Iran is an
exception in the Muslim world where people have been
empowered. Iran's multitudes of poor, who form
Ahmadinejad's support base, detest the corrupt, venal
clerical establishment. They don't even hide their visceral
hatred of the Rafsanjani family.
Alas, the political class in Washington is clueless about
the Byzantine world of Iranian clergy. Egged on by the
Israeli lobby, it is obsessed with "regime change". The
temptation will be to engineer a "color revolution". But
the consequence will be far worse than what obtains in
Ukraine. Iran is a regional power and the debris will fall
all over. The US today has neither the clout nor the
stamina to stem the lava flow of a volcanic eruption
triggered by a color revolution that may spill over Iran's
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.