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Iran's Failure Discredits the Ayatollah's Theocracy

July 31, 1988|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, the author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years

NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's unconditional acceptance of U.N. Resolution 598, which amounts to unconditional surrender, calls into question the basic concept of the Islamic state. Iran's humiliating failure has discredited Khomeini's velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the theologians. Thus the Sunni Muslim abhorrence of any priestly caste, of ayatollahs and hojatoleslams, has been both justified and strengthened.

It is the religious aspect of the Islamic state that contributed very largely to its defeat. It was Khomeini who dragged God into the war as his, and Iran's, battlefield ally. That was all very well when the battles were victories; but when the battles were defeats, the only explanation was that the God of Battles had changed his mind, had changed sides and had withdrawn what the Chinese called "the Mandate of Heaven."

That divine desertion was apparent to even the most devout member of the Basij, the volunteer army, or the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard. Their morale, based on faith and martyrdom, was shattered, which is why for 18 months they have either refused to volunteer or have been drifting away into desertion by the tens of thousands. With a population five times that of Iraq, it is sheer lack of manpower that has brought Iran to its current military situation where the Iraqis can march in and out of Iran, scooping up booty and prisoners.

This convincing failure of the Islamic state in theory and practice should give pause to the Islamizing ambitions of the rulers of Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Sudan. For the Afro-Asian countries in which there is a continuous tussle between pluralistic secularism and various forms of religious fundamentalism--from Indonesia and Malaysia to Sri Lanka and Turkey--it is of the utmost importance that Iraq's secular nationalism has prevailed.

And Iraq's Arab nationalism prevailed over Shia particularism--the subversive calls by Shia Iran to Iraq's Arab Shia majority to rise against its Sunni Muslim rulers. This means that the Islamic revolution has failed to export itself even to a neighboring Shia country--a crippling disillusionment for Shia groupings in other Muslim nations. Thus the Shia community in Pakistan which, stirred up by Khomeini's missionaries, had become arrogant and demanding, will be less defiant of Gen. Zia ul-Haq as a Sunni Muslim ruler. Most affected is the Hezbollah group in Lebanon. Its leaders, frustrated and bewildered, can only say that the sudden Iranian turnabout has to be seen as a contribution to regional and world peace--a likely tale.

The Gulf War has already brought into existence a new pattern in the pan-Arab balance of power. Under the direct impulsion and supervision of President Saddam Hussein, Iraq moved out of the group of radical, socialist, rejectionist Arab states (which all supported Iran) and joined the bloc of moderates, both in their internal and their external policies--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and, farther afield, Jordan and Egypt.

Abandoning socialism, Iraq's internal economic arrangements can now best be described as Thatcherism on the Tigris. With peace and victory, Iraq will emerge as the leader of the moderates, unchallenged either by Saudi Arabia or Egypt, still shackled by its treaty with Israel. Under that leadership the moderates will wield political predominance in the Arab world. A direct beneficiary of this shift would be Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which broke earlier cordial relations with Khomeini's Iran to back Iraq. Now Iraq's support will more than counterbalance Syrian hostility toward Arafat.

Iraq also emerges now as the major power in the gulf and will remain so until Iran reconstitutes its armed forces, a task that would take several years. Fears have been expressed that Iraq may try to throw its armed weight around by, for instance, reviving its long-maintained territorial claim against Kuwait. But this is not likely, and not only because it is a foolish claim (Hussein, after eight years of war, is nobody's fool). It would also be rank ingratitude toward Kuwait which, with Saudi Arabia, never wavered in its support for Iraq, even when both of them came under what looked like a very real threat from Iran.

Hussein is expected to use muscle on one issue against Iran--the question of freedom of navigation in the Shatt al Arab waterway, one of the main original causes of the war. The day before Iran accepted Resolution 598, Hussein announced that Iraq would assert its claim to full control of the waterway, which it could certainly impose for some time. In law, however, Iraq does not have a good case and would merely be storing up trouble for the future. Hussein should resist the temptation of shoving the ayatollah's face into the Shatt al Arab mud.

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