Protests in the Islamic world were hardly a surprise whenthe Queen of England, Elizabeth II, last month awarded aknighthood to the controversial author Salman Rushdie. BothSunni Pakistan and Shia Iran summoned the British ambassadorfor a diplomatic dressing down.
In Tehran, Fars News Agency reproduced the religiousruling of February 14, 1989, from the late Imam RuhollahKhomeini authorizing the killing of the novelist as anapostate. But the overall reaction in Iran was surprisinglymild, with nothing of the popular outcry seen in Pakistanand no repeat of the embassy attacks last year after theDanish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Times have changed since 1989, when Iran was at theforefront of radical Islam just ten years after the 1979Revolution brought down the Shah, regarded by Washington asimpregnable until toppled by a mass movement headed byAyatollah Khomeini.
The big difference is the rise of Wahhabi Sunni Islam inthe 1990s, including the emergence of al-Qaeda. This has notonly driven a deep wedge between Sunnism and Shiism buttaken the edge of Shia militancy.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tried his bestsince his 2005 election victory to return to the radicalismof the Iranian Revolution’s early years. But he isstruggling to undo all the compromises, at home and abroad,made in the 1990s under presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjaniand Mohammad Khatami. Iran will assert its “rights,”especially on the nuclear program, and defend its friends,including Hizbollah, but fewer and fewer Iranian politicianssee themselves as in a war of existence with the West.
Hence, despite Ahmadinejad’s call for the Zionist state ofIsrael to be removed “from the page of history” (a quotationfrom Imam Khomeini) and his vilification by the US andIsraeli PR machines, he has achieved little other thanimprove his popularity rating across the Islamic world.
Just six months after Ahmadinejad was elected president,his reformist predecessor Khatami put his finger on theproblem in an interview with IRNA news agency where hewarned of “deviating and inflexible currents” in Islam.
Khatami did not name names, but few doubted he wascriticizing his successor. The nub of his argument was thefollowing: “I advise the radicals who are upset [Osama] binLaden is so well known in the world that no matter what youdo and how radical you become, you will be at the end of thequeue that bin Laden heads.”
Iraq has brought all this home. While some in the USadministration have been spinning the media that Iran issending arms westward, the reality is that the bulk of armsflow has been the other way round since US forces failed tosecure the Iraqi army’s weapons in the 2003 invasion.
The vast expansion of al-Qaeda’s violence in Iraq since2003 has alarmed Iran as a state based on Shia Islam withmainly Sunni countries to its west and east. As Ali Allawiargues in his recent book, “The Occupation of Iraq,” thepolitical situation in Iraq has driven a sizeable proportionand perhaps a majority of Sunni Arabs towards some kind ofpolitical Wahhabism.
Wahhabis have long attacked, as a violation of monotheism,the Shias’ veneration of long-dead Imams — those the Shiabelieve to have been the legitimate successors to theProphet Muhammad. And last month’s destruction of theminarets of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, just the latestattack on Shia holy places in Iraq, showed the visceralhatred felt by Sunni extremists for Shia religiouspractices.
Iran itself has been largely spared the atrocities carriedout by al-Qaeda groups in Iraq, but long ago 1994 a militantSunni group based in Pakistan and possibly linked toal-Qaeda was suspected of the bombing of the shrine of theseventh Shia Imam, Reza, in Mashhad, killing 26 people.
In April, Iran was alarmed by an interview on the US-government’s Voice of America with Abdul-Malek Rigi, leaderof Jundullah, a militant group based in Iran’s Baluchistanprovince that ABC News reported was being secretlyencouraged by American in its bloody attacks on Iranianofficials and civilians.
All this leaves Iran ever more wary of Sunni radicalismand hesitant about putting itself at the head of any pan-Islamic militancy through issues like the Rushdie affair.
A former Iranian official once told me Tehran’s fear ofal-Qaeda meant it had no desire to distract its attention.“Al-Qaeda is like a dangerous snake,” he said. “If you seeit attacking someone who says he is your enemy, you will notattract the snake’s attention so it attacks you. With thissnake, there are no effective half measures. Either you killit or leave it free, as wounding it will make it angry andmore dangerous.”
Gareth Smyth is the Iran correspondent for the Financial Times