What America Can Learn From India About Iran

Iran does not pose an existential threat to the United States, writes Raj Bhala.

(Image: BloombergQuint)
(Image: BloombergQuint)

Next up on the list of international agreements from which candidate Donald J Trump had pledged to withdraw as President is the July 2015 ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA). To rip up the Iran Nuclear Deal next month, at its two-year anniversary, would be to abandon the rest of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) and Iran.

No problem!

The President withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Change Agreement, abandoning the other 11 TPP parties, and the other 195 Paris countries. Iran is an easier case. Trump’s “Number One Priority,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March 2016, is to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” which on the hustings he dubbed “the worst deal ever negotiated,” one that could cause a “nuclear holocaust.”

That’s false, of course, as the 159 pages the P5+1 and Iran carefully crafted across 20 months illustrate, and as Iran’s record of compliance to date indicates.

Again, no problem!

Perjury about treaties is quasi-official policy. In June 2016, Trump dubbed TPP “another disaster … a continuing rape of our country,” and “the greatest danger yet.” In April 2017, he alleged the Paris Agreement treated the United States unfairly, thanks to India, China, and others “paying virtually nothing” with America “paying massive amounts of money.” The merits of a deal don’t matter. Limits on Iran’s IR-1 centrifuges, dismantling the Arak heavy water facility, and mechanisms to resolve disputes about inspecting possible military dimension (PMD) nuclear sites are ‘alternative facts’.

But, worse than peddling falsehoods about the Iran Nuclear Deal, is the scandalous disinterest of the Trump Administration in improving relations with Iran.

Consider India’s Lead

Seven Presidents and two Āyatollāhs after the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, relations between the United States and Iran remain hostile. This has been to their detriment and that of all but a few regimes feeding off their mutual distrust that has ossified into hatred. No American administration has had a clue as to how to build genuine peace with Iran: “peace” meaning not just the “absence of conflict,” but also the “ability to handle conflict by peaceful means” (as Ronald Reagan put it), and further, the “presence of justice” (as Martin Luther King Jr intoned).

No one, that is, except India.

Iranian students scale the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)
Iranian students scale the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

That means President Trump made a mistake in not selecting India as his first foreign trip.

He sought to unite the three Abrahamic Faiths against Iran. A sword dance with the Saudis, cavorting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and an audience with Pope Francis surely would cement Islam, Judaism, and Christianity against Iran, he mused.

The smarter tour would have been to India, to see how the world’s largest free-market democracy has managed decent relations with Iran, without a break, from ancient times of Cyrus the Great (who reigned from 559-530 B.C.) to the modern era of the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (Shah from 1941-79), and Āyatollāhs Khomeini (1979-89) and Khameini (1989-present).

What Has India “Got Right” About Iran That America Needs To Learn?

Something, for sure: a 2005 BBC poll showed 71 percent of Iranians think India’s influence is positive – the highest rating they gave to any country.

Trade is an answer, as there are import-export complementarities: India needs Iran’s energy; Iran needs India’s industrial products, generic pharmaceuticals, and services – not to mention rice, a staple in Persian cuisine. There’s a similar economic case for robust American-Iranian trade. But, since the 1979 Hostage Crisis, and especially since the 1986 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, the United States has spearheaded primary and secondary trade boycotts against Iran.

There is a less obvious, yet broader, deeper answer than trade. India understands Iran in three dimensions: civilisation; religion; and defence.

Dimension 1: Civilisation

India appreciates Persia as a great civilisation.

Starting with the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century, and extending into the Mughal Empire through the 19th century, Persian linguistic and cultural influence was strong on the Subcontinent. Persian was the official language in the Sultanate and Empire (it was the British Raj, in 1839, that ended Persian as the lingua franca). Modern-day Urdu (spoken and written by Muslims across India and Pakistan) is indebted to that influence, as are some ragas and classical Indian musical instruments.

The Persian Alphabet. (Image: 
The Persian Alphabet. (Image: 

Most famously, the Taj Mahal is inconceivable without Persian designers (including the chief architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri), whom the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan (1592-1666), admired and imported for their services. Less famously, but no less important, is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273) arguably the greatest of all Muslim poets. This ethnic Persian Sufi mystic poet, born in Afghanistan, is as big a name in world literature as is Shakespeare, in part for his expression of a universal desire to be with the Beloved, as in his Persian-language book of poems, the Masnavi: “Everything perishes except His Face.” Today, Indians see that as heirs to the Persian civilisation, the Iranian people are, for the most part, young, well-educated, hard-working, creative, and flexible.

Dimension 2: Religion

India appreciates Iran as the world’s only Twelver Shī‘īte nation.

“Twelver what?” most Americans might ask.

The level of ignorance in the United States about the distinction between the two great denominations of Islam is shocking. Here are four points about Shī‘īsm that should have become familiar to Americans after the Hostage Crisis:

  • Iranian Shī‘ītes think about the “organisation chart” of their religious leaders. Shī‘īsm has a vertically organised clerical structure, loosely akin to Roman Catholicism, as chronicled by this columnist’s former colleague, Jim Bill, in Roman Catholics and Shī‘ī Muslims (2002). Sunni Islam inclines to greater decentralisation, and with no central Papal figure, sometimes is analogised to Protestant denominations.
  • Iranian Shī‘ītes debate the proper role of clerics in politics under a doctrine called “velayat e faqih.” There is a difference of opinion between schools in Qom (Iran) and Najaf (Iraq).
  • Iranian Shī‘ītes are inspired by a mystical element. The Holy Trinity – three persons in one Godhead – is a mystery. So, too, is the Greater Occultation, which occurred in 940 A.D., when Imām al-Askarī went to a different realm, to return at a time appointed by God. As Christians await the Second Coming, Shī‘ītes await the return of the Hidden Imām.
  • Shī‘ītes are conscious of the historical persecution their faith has suffered. For Christians, it was first at the hands of the Romans, for the Shī‘a, at the hands of early Caliphates, and for both, it persists in various countries. Both have their narratives about martyrs, lights that must be extinguished to enlighten the world.

In all four respects, Shī‘īte differs from Sunni Islam. Indians get the distinction.

True, India has suffered hideous communal violence episodically since the August 1947 Partition, But, more noteworthy is that its secular Constitution respects, and is respected by, the country’s roughly 200 million Sunni and Shī‘a Muslims, and by the remaining 1 billion non-Muslims representing all faiths.

The market around the Charminar, in Hyderabad, India. (Photograph: Raj Bhala)
The market around the Charminar, in Hyderabad, India. (Photograph: Raj Bhala)

Dimension 3: Defence

India appreciates Iran does not pose an existential threat to India. To the contrary, the two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in December 2002, even though their relations have had their ups and downs since March 15, 1950, when they established diplomatic ties. Additionally, as Iran enjoys decent relations with both India and Pakistan, it is positioned to moderate their disputes – a role America cannot well play.

Iran does not pose an existential threat to the United States.

Iran has no capability to deliver a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) inter-continentally from which America would be unable to shield itself. That would be an existential threat. Iran does not seek to present it. Iran’s signature to the JCPOA evinces how different it is from North Korea.

Conversely, for Iran, the existential threat is to Shī‘īsm from Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS and their sponsors. Iran is less interested in projecting power into the American homeland than in engaging in proxy conflicts to support Shī‘īte interests it perceives threatened. That threat came to its homeland on June 7, 2017, when ISIS attacked its Parliament and Mausoleum of Āyatollāh Khomeini, killing twelve. For Iran, this threat is not new. In Game Theory terms, it is an indefinite (hopefully not infinite) game that started in the 7th century A.D., with no end in sight.

Smartly, India knows it is not a player in that game. India gets the lesson of history: in the Elizabethan Age (1558-1603), when Catholics and Protestants hacked each other to death, no Indian, not even Akbar the Great (who reigned from 1556-1605), could have reunited them. Rather, they needed an internally generated Enlightenment to help them.

Road traffic fills a highway and underpass in present-day Tehran, Iran. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)
Road traffic fills a highway and underpass in present-day Tehran, Iran. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Ditto for America. Arming the Saudis with another $100 billion in ordnance is picking sides in a schism raging in Islam since 632 A.D., or 680 A.D. (depending on your read of events).

The Sunni-Shī‘īte fight is not America’s fight, and there’s no military solution to it.

They need to shift their paradigm to a catholic (as in “diverse,” “open-minded,” “tolerant,” and “universal”) one.

Same conclusion, same rationale, for Saudi-U.A.E.-Bahrain versus Qatar. America needs good relations with all sides. India’s got’em. Bahrain hosts America’s Fifth Fleet. Qatar is home to the largest American Air Force base in the Middle East.

No Future Without Forgiveness

America can’t follow India’s lead until it fulfills a precondition. It must free itself of its anger towards Iran. To borrow from the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 2000 book, there is “no future without forgiveness.” Forgiveness requires empathy, which means the United States must see its bilateral relationship from Iran’s perspective. A good starting point is Mohammad Mosaddegh (1882-1967), a name virtually meaningless in America, but of momentous importance in Iran. The United States needs to apologise for the now publicly disclosed 1953 coup d’état against Mosaddegh, which the CIA engineered at the behest of Britain’s MI6.

A pro-Mohammad Mosaddegh demonstration in Tehran, Iran, in 1952. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)
A pro-Mohammad Mosaddegh demonstration in Tehran, Iran, in 1952. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

Will the Āyatollāh reciprocate, and apologise for the Hostage Crisis and other grave offenses? That question is reasonable, but the answer should be “Who cares?” The apology is not aimed at Khamenei. All Āyatollāhs come and go. Next month he turns 78. It is aimed at the Persian people, who endure. Besides, Christian forgiveness is offered unconditionally.

Let’s Be Clear...

Iran is not a model world citizen adhering to the Golden Rule of treating its neighbours as it would wish to be treated. Iran’s harassment of United States Navy ships in the Gulf is unprofessional – and dangerous. Iran’s human rights record (including on women and religious minorities, and holocaust denial) speaks for itself – poorly. Though Iran’s President and Majlis parliamentarians are elected at the ballot (meaning there is no crown passed across a brotherly line of royals), senior most clergy constrain the candidate choices – a democracy within a theocracy. And, support for terrorism and violent extremism, in word or deed, cannot be justified – regardless of the source of that support.

Let’s Also Be Clear…

The next generation of Americans is not doomed to inherit a dysfunctional relationship with Iran. Yes, since this columnist was a kid, watching ABC News Nightline count the 444 days of the 52 innocent Americans held hostage, the United States has accused Iran of being behind every conflict in the Middle East. And yes, Iran has reciprocated with the same charge. But, across the decades, this columnist has journeyed from America to India, transiting through Tehran in the mid-1970s. Maybe India can guide America and Iran on the journey to real peace.

Then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, at the White House in Washington D.C. on November 15, 1977. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, at the White House in Washington D.C. on November 15, 1977. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Staying with the Nuclear Deal, assuming Iran does, might help ensure an “absence of conflict.” Following India’s lead might yield true peace – nonviolent conflict management, and justice – as President Reagan and Reverend King defined.

Raj Bhala is Associate Dean for International and Comparative Law and Rice Distinguished Professor, The University of Kansas, School of Law. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the State of Kansas or the University.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.