Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has issued an unbelievably tough message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an interview to Al Manar TV in Lebanon, Nasrallah dared Israel to attack Iran or even Hezbollah. Israeli commanders “know our strength” and will not embark on an adventure which might spell “the end of the Zionist entity”. Because of the tough talk between the protagonists, or maybe despite it, Europe is going flat out to save the nuclear deal.
In expression and style, Mr Nasrallah resembles his spiritual guru, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. What makes it difficult for analysts to understand their approach to international affairs is their recourse to theology.
They contemplate the continuous battle between Right and Wrong in historical terms. What we celebrate at Dussehra is mythology. The battle of Karbala, fought on the banks of the Euphrates river in Iraq, is after all an event that took place in 680 AD. The first military probe into India by Mohammad bin Qasim took place in 711 AD. By an amazing coincidence, 711 AD also happens to be the year when Tariq Ibn Ziyad crossed the stretch of water from Tangier in Morocco and conquered the rock which he called Jabal al Tariq. Jabal means a rock. The British renamed it Gibraltar.
The point is that the Shias latched on to Karbala, a relatively recent event in history, as the ideal for morality and sacrifice. Romanticising sacrifice and martyrdom is what other traditions find disturbing. The great achievement of Prophet Mohammed was to settle the differences between the quarrelling Arab tribes. In fact, Islam, taking advantage of the vacuum in global power, soon expanded into an empire. Fissures reappeared after the Prophet’s death in 632 AD. By 680 AD, a usurper, Yazid, entrenched as the governor of Damascus, turned to the Prophet’s younger grandson, Imam Hussain, seeking endorsement of his rule. Legitimacy would always elude him without Hussain’s endorsement. Relentless pressure caused Hussain to leave his ailing daughter in Medina and travel to Iraq. On the second day of Muharram (which falls in September this year), he entered Karbala along with 72 of his closest relatives and friends.
When Hussain would not submit to Yazid’s dictates, sanctions (note the word) were imposed. In the torrid heat of the desert, water supply from the Euphrates was cut off. Children as young as six months, crying for three days without water, would, Yazid had hoped, force a compromise. But on the question of principle, Hussain refused. On the tenth day of Muharram all male members, one by one, went into battle against an overwhelmingly larger army, resulting in martyrdom — inspiring some of the greatest epic poetry of all time. Women of the Prophet’s household were taken prisoners. And all because Hussain would not compromise his core principles.
Karbala is the balance in which the clerical elements in the Iranian leadership measure rights and wrongs. Much to the discomfiture of Israel, Iran’s consistency on the Palestinian issue derives from these uncompromising belief systems. In other words, the principle of Palestinian rights is non-negotiable. Well, in which case Iran exposes itself to the most comprehensive sanctions Washington has imposed anywhere. But Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif told the Asia Society in New York recently: “You must remember we have a Ph.D. in coping with sanctions.”
Mr Zarif could not have meant that it is life as usual in Tehran despite the sanctions. By all accounts, the sanctions are hurting. Prices have risen sky high. But is this hurt causing the population to congregate in city squares to curse the regime for having invited US sanctions? Or is the opposite happening? Are people closing ranks behind the regime for standing up to what mural-size graffiti in Tehran describes as the “Great Satan”?
Why sanctions are not pinching is that there is sufficient food on the table. For example, meat consumption may have been pruned from four times a week to twice or even once. But there is nourishment aplenty.
Is it possible to apply comprehensive sanctions in a situation where, say, Qatar depends totally on Iranian supplies because of Saudi sanctions? There are loopholes.
The Iranian drama is being played out with a subtle give and take behind the scenes between the hardliner Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the moderate President Hassan Rouhani. Ayatollah Khamenei was always wary of negotiations with the United States, but it was his good political sense because of which he went along with the public mood for engagement, which Mr Rouhani had rightly gauged. But Mr Rouhani exceeded his brief when he called up US President Barack Obama during the 2013 UN General Assembly session. The touch of over-eagerness was not Ayatollah Khamenei’s style. But he protected Mr Rouhani, convinced that “Zionist arrogance” will sooner or later hamper the nuclear deal coming to fruition. In that sense, the supreme leader has been proved right.
Simmering differences manifested themselves at other levels too. Foreign minister Javad Zarif, very much the face of the nuclear deal, was slighted by hardliners like Gen. Qasim Suleiman of the Al Quds Brigade, causing Mr Zarif to resign. What was the slight? During Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran, Mr Zarif was apparently kept out of some meetings.
The unending chant from Washington and Jerusalem that Iran should become a “normal state” is, in the ultimate analysis, a demand for it to “soften” its stance on Palestine. While all the focus has been on Iran, the Bahrain Conference has with a sleight of hands worked towards formulations for virtually annexing the West Bank.
Not unrelated are developments in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu must win the September election if he is to escape a prison term for corruption. But such a victory can only be sustained with extreme far-right orthodox Jews who quite openly support an apartheid state. To thwart this outcome, who will be by the side of the Palestinians? Iran and Hezbollah, of course. Will there be war? If not, then President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton may be walking towards the exit door.