Looking East: Iran Will Not Go the Way of North Korea

Iranian President Mahmūd Ahmadinejâd speaking at Columbia University on September 24, 2007. (Daniella Zalcman/flickr)
Iranian President Mahmūd Ahmadinejâd speaking at Columbia University on September 24, 2007. (Daniella Zalcman/flickr)

by Michael Vatikiotis

ABC News International
February 22, 2007

When the United States threatened Iraq over its alleged acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein, the country's dictator, confined his responses to angry rhetoric and empty threats.

By contrast, Iran's response to U.S. pressure over its nuclear program has been to engage in canny regional diplomacy, looking east for allies and support, wielding access to trade and natural resources as a potent weapon against isolation.

From an Asian standpoint, this makes any looming conflict with Iran as much an Asian crisis as a Middle Eastern one.

Should the United States decide to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, perhaps the immediate effect will be felt in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are battling a resurgent Taliban.

Iran is a principal trading partner with Afghanistan, providing the landlocked state with access overland to the Persian Gulf. Kabul's ties with Tehran have been greatly helped by President Hamid Karzai's anti-Pakistan sentiments.

Karzai visited Tehran in 2005, and Iran's exports to Afghanistan are well in excess of $300 million. Indeed, U.S. military advisers fret that instability in Iran could have a destabilizing effect on Afghanistan.

This, of course, would play nicely into Pakistan's hands, where the long-held fear is of an Afghanistan that can check Islamabad with ties to India and Iran. Let's not forget that Iran, together with India and Russia, helped the largely Shiite Northern Alliance push the Taliban out of Kandahar and eventually Kabul.

Iran and Pakistan have made efforts to get closer, but ties are complicated by a large persecuted Shiite minority in Pakistan, as well as a serious tribal revolt in Balochistan, which Islamabad suspects receives a sympathetic ear in Tehran.

Given this complex entanglement, it's hard to imagine that Iran was not on the agenda when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew unannounced into Islamabad earlier this month.

Being such a close ally of the United States makes it certain that assurances and even backdoor support will be asked for in case of a U.S. attack on Iran. If so, Pakistan's ties with Afghanistan, India, as well as longtime ally China will be tested, and instead of a cakewalk you have the seeds of a broader regional crisis.

Tehran is probably banking on ties to Asia effectively stalling U.S. plans for a military strike. Much has been made of Iran being invited to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is China's bid to build a security body to counter U.S. power in the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in the last few months visited respectable moderate Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, using both countries as a platform to attack the United States. Unlike Iraq under Saddam, Iran has something to bargain with other than rhetoric.

In Indonesia there was talk of a multimillion-dollar Iranian investment in an oil refinery; in Malaysia, a jointly owned investment bank.

It doesn't seem to work the other way around, as the United States would appear to have limited leverage over Asia when it comes to Iran.

When U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos argued in Congress that negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement with Malaysia should be scrapped because of a $16 billion energy deal between Iran and the Malaysian state energy company Petronas, Malaysia pushed back and the talks would appear to be on track.

Iran's Asian footprint is lost on Washington, where the talk is all about exploiting the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis to divide the Muslim world.

Beating up on Iran garners support from Sunni mainstream states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which fear the rise of Iranian-backed populist Islamic movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. But in fact, the Sunni-Shiite divide doesn't travel all that far—and certainly