Jul 30, 2002

Malaysia and Iran: Axis of reason?

By Ehsan Ahrari

During a recent visit of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Malaysia, it was announced that Islam's role in fighting terrorism would be one of the topics of discussion. Given the unsuccessful role of Malaysia in attempting to forge a generally accepted definition of "terrorism" last April, and given the fact that Iran is accused of supporting the Hezbollah of Lebanon and other Islamist groups in Israeli-occupied territories, this meeting should be viewed as part of growing attempts by Muslim states to develop some credible responses of their own regarding transnational terrorism.
The international community's perceptions of Malaysia and Iran are different. The former is a Muslim country that once not only rode the tide of the "Asian miracle" of the 1990s, but also suffered a great deal because of the Asian "economic meltdown" of 1998. For the year 2002, however, the Malaysian economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cuts an interesting picture as an Asian authoritarian ruler, who insists on the primacy of "Asian and Islamic values". He labels Western values "merely Western" while Islamic values are "universal". He has long pursued the two-pronged policy of integrating Islam with modernization and economic progress - factors that made his country a leading East Asian nation. He might be right in believing that "Malaysia's influence would one day supplant that of the Arab Gulf states, whose prosperity was entirely dependent on oil revenues".
Mahathir may be considered a rightful heir to a venerable legacy, a long line of such charismatic Asian leaders as Mao Zedong, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno and Lee Kwan Yew, to name a few. He is decidedly an autocrat but, on the issue of terrorism, he has demonstrated a genuine desire to internationalize the concerns of Muslim countries, while expressing his willingness to cooperate with the United States in fighting it. While President George W Bush's approach to "war" on global terrorism focuses largely on the use of military power, in Mahathir's view this war comprises several intricate dimensions, including, above all, the use of multilateral forums for comprehensive debates for developing multilateral solutions. In that sense, his meeting with Iran proved significant.
The Iranian government of President Khatami is the successor of the Islamic revolution of 1979. As such, its political character is still a work in progress. Domestically, the Iranian government is still torn between the pragmatists - led by Khatami himself - and hardliners led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the revolution. This reality is most vividly manifested in the continued Iranian support of the Hezbollah Party of Lebanon, which has declared a ceaseless jihad on Israel, and in Iran's fervent condemnation of the almost moribund peace process between Palestine and Israel.
Even though Khatami had hoped to conduct a "civilizational dialogue" with the American people and would have preferred reaching a rapprochement with the United States government, the domestic climate in both countries has proved to be least propitious for such measures. Iran did seek some sort of low-level understanding with the Bush administration prior to the initiation of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; however, the United States appeared too busy with that military operation to consider Iran's overtures earnestly.
For Mahathir, the economic salvation of Muslim countries is through modernization, institutionalization of modern scientific knowledge and keeping pace with globalization as a highly intricate phenomenon. He admonished Muslim countries that their continued technological backwardness and poverty might result in their easily being bullied, or even recolonized, by the industrialized nations. This admonition is delivered as an exhortation, and a clarion call for Muslim countries to put their economic houses in order. Mahathir is of the view that, since Muslim countries themselves suffer so much from political extremism and terrorism, they should focus on systematically tackling it, rather than looking for scapegoats, advice that became of utmost significance in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. A good starting point in dealing with the scourge of terrorism, in his view, was to agree on its definition. However, when he suggested - during a conference of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that his country was hosting last April - that "all attacks on civilians, including those by Palestinian suicide bombers, constituted terrorism", he found virtually no takers. Arab leaders viewed those attacks as legitimate self-defense.
While opposing the expansion of the United States' anti-terrorism war to countries outside Afghanistan, Mahathir, during his recent visit to Washington, signed an agreement to cooperate with that country against Islamist groups operating in Southeast Asia. Thus, as a country that is engaged with Washington against transnational terrorism, it is important that Malaysia conduct its own dialogue with Iran on the issue that affects all Muslim countries.
Ironically, Iran's own support of the Hezbollah of Lebanon or other Islamist parties within the Israeli-occupied territories might remain virtually unaffected as a result of this meeting in Malaysia. That support has the powerful backing of the hardliners in Iran, who still envisage themselves as the true heir of the orthodoxy of the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and consider the activities of those Islamist parties as an integral part of a larger struggle between the Mustadafeen (the "downtrodden") and the Mustakbareen (the "arrogant) worldwide. From the perspective of the Khatami-led pragmatists, this mega-framework belongs to a bygone era, and should not be the basis of Iran's foreign policy. However, they cannot afford to be openly critical of it, especially while Iran's economy, after performing poorly because of fallen oil prices during the past years, has appeared to be on the mend only recently.
At the same time, since Bush's latest bumper-sticker lumping of Iran in a so-called "axis of evil" has left little wiggle room for the pragmatists. Thus, they must intensify their endeavors to find other avenues for economic interactions, such as widening the scope of Iran's trade with the European Union, and seeking similar cooperative undertakings with a Muslim entrepreneurial country such as Malaysia.
The Mahathir-Khatami rounds of talk might not produce immediate or significant breakthroughs on terrorism. However, they might lead to enhanced cooperation between these countries that bring to the negotiating table two very important assets. Malaysia has the economic know-how and a burning desire to intensify a scientific approach to solving the problems of Islamic societies. Iran has the oil revenues to bankroll ambitious programs of economic development and modernization. Its real gross domestic product (GDP) grew by about 4.3 percent for 2001, but is expected to be a bit lower in the next year. As a result of stabilization of oil prices for the past two years, Iran was able to establish a multibillion-dollar "stabilization fund", which will come handy during hard times and especially for bankrolling future economic development programs.
If Malaysia and Iran succeed in putting their tremendously productive forces to work, they will strike a major blow against terrorism that thrives under conditions of acute economic underdevelopment and its related human deprivation and misery.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is a Norfolk, Virginia, US-based strategic analyst.