Friday, January 18, 2008

Pakistan & Iran Challenge the World

Iran and Pakistan--albeit dramatically different in terms of history, culture, ties to the U.S., religion, and government structure—nevertheless each pose a fundamental and strikingly similar challenge to the current world political system: each threatens to upset the international applecart by refusing to play by the rules of the current system. Pakistan’s longstanding policy of passing nuclear weapons technology around the Islamic world; Iran’s refusal (in principle, at least) to accept the permanence of Israel’s current military preeminence in the Mideast; Iran’s military and political support for subnational actors on Israel’s border struggling to escape from Israel’s shadow; and Pakistan’s military and political support for subnational actors fighting for control of Afghanistan and Kashmir are all enduring examples of the challenge these two states pose to the global political system as currently structured. Both states also pose a distinct implicit threat to the global system: the extreme danger that would be likely if the organs of state power controlling either state were to collapse. Whatever one may think of the governments in power in Iran and Pakistan, “the devil you know” is not an argument to be dismissed lightly, something of which the Pakistani Army, for one, is clearly well aware.

These remarks are not intended to imply any value judgments about the desirability of the current international political system; that is another issue entirely. It is simply a fact that Pakistan--a U.S. “ally” that may turn out to be on the edge of collapse or on the road to greater international power--and Iran—a U.S. “enemy” that has clearly been rising on the international scene during the years of the Bush Administration despite its severe domestic constraints—each pose a challenge sufficiently similar so as to raise the question:

Should the approach of the world community or any major player in it
toward these two countries be based on a single set of principles?

Before discussing further the implications of this question, it may be worthwhile to review the ways in which Pakistan and Iran constitute either a) two cases of the same class or b) two distinct classes.


  • Have fervently adhered for a generation to a policy of enhancing the Islamic World’s position vis-à-vis the West;

  • Both offered help to the U.S. when it invaded Afghanistan;

  • Have made the development of a domestic nuclear industry a core state policy for many years;

  • Have military establishments that greatly influence if not control their nuclear industry;

  • Have military establishments in which there is great sympathy for radical Islamic politics;

  • Have military establishments that operate to a significant degree outside of the control of the civilian government;

  • Have strictly constrained democratic space and are ruled by institutions that exist outside that democratic space and have frequently imposed their control over democratic institutions with extreme harshness;

  • Fund Islamic militant groups to manipulate domestic politics and as a foreign policy tool;

  • Are ruled harshly, with a storm of demands for better government seething just beneath the surface and repeatedly exploding into the open;

  • Have relatively good ties to China;

  • Constitute major foreign policy challenges for the U.S.;

  • Have powerful Islamic militant political forces whose domestic popularity is being enhanced by the U.S. policy of high-visibility pressure on them.


But the two countries differ in that:

  • Pakistan has developed nuclear bombs and proliferated the technology; Iran has done neither.

  • In Iran, the key power center is religious, albeit closely tied to the military; in Pakistan, the key power center is military, albeit closely tied to religion.

  • Pakistan created the Taliban; Iran was an enemy of the Taliban.

  • The US has been extremely hostile to Iran but calls Pakistan an ally and accuses Iran of dreaming of doing what Pakistan actually has long been doing.

  • Sunni Pakistani is very close to Saudi Arabia
    in terms both of state-to-state ties, educational systems, and ties between Pakistani political figures and the Saudi regime; Shi’ite Iran has a very delicate relationship with Saudi Arabia resulting from competition over control of the Persian Gulf, competition for influence in Iraq, and differing attitudes toward both Lebanon and Israel, all of which raises the specter of a proxy war between the two in Iraq.

  • Iran is emerging as a regional power, a process accelerated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq; Pakistan is overshadowed by India.

  • U.S. pressure on Iran is strengthening the regime against domestic proponents of democracy; U.S. support for the Pakistani military dictatorship is weakening domestic proponents of democracy.

  • Iran challenges Israel’s military domination of the Mideast; Pakistan does not, though there is little reason to assume that attitude is etched in stone.

  • Pakistan has been proliferating nuclear technology for years; Iran is on the receiving end.

  • Iran’s government effectively controls its territory, so Iran represents an island of stability in the Islamic world; insurgents control increasing stretches of Pakistan, in part because of sympathy from within the government for Islamic militants, in part because U.S. pressure enables the militants to appear (rightly or wrongly) as defenders of Pakistan, in part because the government has failed to address the grievances of ethnic minorities (e.g., Baluchistan).
In sum, then, are these two countries sufficiently similar so that it would be more effective to view them as two examples of the same class from which one might anticipate obtaining the same behavior in response to the same treatment? Following from this are two obvious further questions: 1) how should that “class” be defined? And 2) what behavior should be desired?

The class of which Iran and Pakistan are members would be something like the following: large Islamic states that “deserve” (as a function of their size and achievements) higher international status than they have, whose people deserve greater freedom and a better economic deal than they have, whose level of technological achievement makes them a serious long-term actor, and whose domestic conditions threaten to generate any number of disasters over the short-term (collapse and chaos, nuclear proliferation, nuclear war, or international terrorism).

As for the behavior to be desired, logically one would think that any foreign country that wanted to maintain the current global political system would want to minimize any terrorist threat, nuclear proliferation, domestic repression, ideological extremism, nuclear brinkmanship from each of these states.

History shows that case-by-case efforts to achieve any one of the above goals by means of short-term deals involving trade-offs that offer a pass on one (e.g., proliferation) in return for focusing on another (e.g., the Soviet presence in Afghanistan) just serve to make the situation more difficult and more dangerous over the not-very-long-term. One could be cynical and conclude that the leaders of the rest of the world really don’t care about the long-term survival of us all, or one could give them the benefit of the doubt and conclude that dealing with every problem that comes up regarding Pakistan and Iran on a case-by-case basis is simply too complicated. At a minimum, it seems fair to conclude that decision-makers need a theoretical framework to organize how they interpret the behavior of Iran and Pakistan. If this framework turns out to constitute a broader class of behavior that usefully informs our understanding of, say, the whole Islamic world, then so much the better.

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