Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran was overthrown in 1979 by an Islamic revolution headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Until a few months before his overthrow, the USA and other western powers were optimistic that the Shah would stay in power. They propped him up with weapons and never asked any question when his ruthless secret service, the SAVAK, let loose a reign of terror in order to suppress dissent. Religion was not the main reason why the common Iranian on the street supported Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s popularity was more because the Shah’s regime was extremely corrupt and Iran’s oil wealth was not being shared with the poor. Western powers never addressed this basic flaw in the Shah’s rule.
Pakistan has a very similar flaw. Ever since the formation of Pakistan, there has been no attempt to redistribute wealth. Every politician who has held power has been from the landed gentry. Just as Ayatollah Khomeini captured power with a promise of an egalitarian Islamic rule, the Taliban are winning hearts and minds in Pakistan with their appeal to the poor and downtrodden. Islam has always been a powerful force in Pakistan, just as it was in Iran. When Islam is mixed with socialism and the promise to redistribute wealth, you get a potent mix that can’t be matched by the traditional political parties.
Pakistan is similar to Iran in another respect as well. In both countries, western powers have played the role of king maker in order to protect their interests, thereby propping up dictators and tyrants. In the case of Iran, it was initially the British who controlled the reins of power. In 1901, an English entrepreneur William Knox D’arcy obtained a 60 year oil search concession from the Shah of Persia. When oil was finally discovered, Persia got only 16% of the profits from the Anglo–Persian Oil Company (APOC). During the First World War, the British government took over APOC, which became the chief source of oil for the British. The Persians were unhappy with the state of affairs. Sensing the Persian dissatisfaction, the British supported a coup d’etat which brought Reza Shah Pahlavi to power.
Unfortunately, Reza Shah Pahlavi turned out to be pro-German and signed an oil concession with Nazi Germany. He also increased Persia’s share of the profits from the APOC. Persia was renamed as Iran and the APOC became AIOC (Anglo–Iranian Oil Company). So, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Britain and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran and deposed the pro-German Reza Shah Pahlavi. His son twenty-two year old son Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was made the ruler.
After the Second World War, the Iranians started clamouring for a greater share of oil profits. Iran’s pro-western Prime Minister, Ali Razmara was assasinated. The Iranian Parliament nationalised AIOC. An M.P named Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq was the guiding force behind the nationalisation and soon the Shah named him the Prime Minister. Britain suggested that Iran and Britain share the oil revenues equally. Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq did not agree. Britain imposed an oil embargo on Iran. Technical know-how was denied.
The UK appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague against the nationalisation of AIOC by Iran. The ICJ ruled in favour of Iran.
President Harry Truman refused to buy the ridiculous British argument that Iran was in danger of a takeover by the Tudeh, the Iranian communist party. However President Eisenhower did and Operation Ajax was initiated. A disinformation campaign was launched against Dr. Mosaddeq. The Shah was bribed, cajoled, threatened and forced to dismiss Dr. Mosaddeq and place him under house arrest. Pro-Western General Fazlollah Zahedi was made the new Prime Minister. Soon riots erupted in Tehran and a petrified Shah fled to Italy. Mobs paid for by the CIA clashed with Dr. Mosaddeq’s supporters. A column of tanks led by General Zahedi took control of the house where Dr. Mossadeq was kept under house arrest. The Shah flew back from Italy. Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq was given a show trial and put in jail. The Shah became the absolute ruler once again. AIOC came under the control of a consortium of British and American oil companies.
Operation Ajax was considered a success and the Shah suppressed all dissent using SAVAK. Islamic organisations run by Shia clerics like Khomeini were largely left untouched, though Khomeini himself went to exile in France. This again has striking parallels with Musharaff’s Pakistan where religious clerics and their madrassahs were left unmolested while democratic dissent was suppressed. When anger against the Shah spilled over in 1979, Islamic fundamentalists under Khomeini were in the best possible position to seize power.
However, Pakistan is different from Iran in many respects. The main difference is that it has a Sunni majority whilst Iran is predominantly Shia. Most Indian Muslims are Sunni, including the militants in Jammu & Kashmir. So far Pakistani assistance to Islamic militants in India has been unofficial and covert. If the Taliban were to take over Pakistan, such support will become official.
The other big difference between Pakistan and Iran is that Pakistan is a lot poorer. Even though the Iranian government is not very efficient and corruption is rampant, Iran manages to get by thanks to its enormous oil wealth. Pakistan does not have that luxury. Mullahs are usually very bad at managing an economy and mismanaging a poor country usually has disastrous results. If the Mullahs were to redistribute wealth in Pakistan without creating any, they will make it poorer than ever.
Pakistan is dominated by the Punjabis, but the Balochis, Sindhis and Pashtuns are also sizerable minorities. Sunnis form 80% of Pakistan. The Shiites who form 20% of Pakistan are scattered all over the country. The North West Frontier Province has a sizeable number of Shias. Though all these groups were keen to break off from India and form Pakistan, there has been a lot of in-fighting ever since.
Just like Pakistan, Iran is ethnically and linguistically very diverse. 90% of Iranians are Shiite. However, only about 50% of Iranians are Persian speakers. Azeris form around 24% of Iran and most of them are Shia. The Iranian Azeris are ethnically identical to the people living in Azerbaijan, the neighbouring ex-Soviet republic. Kurds form around 7% of the population and are largely Sunni. Iran also has over a million or two Turkmens (who are ethnically the same as Turkmens in Turkmenistan, the ex-Soviet Republic, China and Iraq. Turkmens are mainly Sunnis, but some are Shia. Iran also has a Balochi community, who are mostly Sunni. Arabs form 3% of Iran and they are almost entirely Shiite Arabs. Iran also has ethnic groups like the Bakhtiaris and the Qashqais, most of whom are Shia. Even among Persian speakers, there are subgroups like the Mazandaranis, the Lurs and the Gilakis, who are also Shia.
The (Shia) Islamic fervour which swept Iran in the late 1970s was able to bury the abovementioned ethnic and linguistic differences in the desert sands and mountains of Iran. It is a moot point whether the Taliban will be able to do something similar in Pakistan. There is no love lost between the Taliban and the Shia. Even now, the Shia are continuously targeted by Taliban through bombing, random shootings and even suicide attacks. It seems unlikely that Pakistani Shias will at any stage form part of the Taliban’s vision for an Islamic utopia. I have a general theory that a Shia majority is capable of living with a Sunni minority. However, Sunnis consider the Shias to be heretics and a Sunni majority, as you have in Pakistan, will not let a Shia minority live in peace. Nevertheless, the Taliban may be able to unify the Sunnis of Pakistan through their message of social welfare and reform.
It may be possible (for the USA) to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if there is an imminent danger of a Taliban takeover. May be they already are under some form of secret US supervision as part of the US deal with Asif Zardari. However, even if the nuclear weapons are taken away, the know-how for making nuclear weapons will remain in Pakistan in the forms of its trained scientists and technicians. As Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan proved a few years ago, many Pakistani scientists have fundamentalist sympathies. As soon as the Taliban take over Pakistan, such scientists can be put to work, making nuclear weapons, if necessary from scratch.
If the Taliban do not manage to win the hearts and minds of poor Pakistanis, the danger of a Taliban take-over outside the Pashtun heartland is not very high. Even though Pakistani paramilitaries have been reluctant to fight the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATAs) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and have surrendered in their hundreds, the Pakistani army will put up a tough fight if there is a threat to other provinces. Crack Pakistani troops currently stationed on the Indian border are unlikely to sit by and watch if the fighting spreads beyond the FATAs and the NWFP. Unless, that is, the Taliban’s pro-poor message catches the imagination of the common Pakistani on the street as Khomeini’s message did a few decades ago in Iran. If it does, the situation will not be much different from that in the FATAs and NWFP. Pakistani soldiers will have to fight their own brothers and friends and as we all know, such a fight is morale sapping and can’t be won.
Highly respected Indian journalist Vir Sanghvi has argued in this article that a weakened Pakistan is often the best guarantor of peace. Sanghvi wants India should go out of its way to keep Pakistan weak. He says that the traditional argument that a strong and prosperous Pakistan is vital for India’s security and prosperity has been proved wrong. Most if not all Pakistanis are unwilling to speak out openly against Islamic fundamentalists. Sanghvi wants India to support resume clandestine operations in Pakistan and hit back every time India is attacked. Sanghvi says that Pakistan did not harm India for twenty years after the 1971 war which created Bangladesh and weakened Pakistan.
With great respect, I think that the approach suggested by Sanghvi is fraught with danger. For one, India will lose the moral high ground vis-à-vis Pakistan in the eyes of the global community. Even more importantly, if for some reason if India manages to weaken Pakistan by supplying weapons to separatists in Sindh and Balochistan, and Pakistan breaks up, the Taliban will easily gobble up such pieces one by one, a much easier task than capturing power in a unified Pakistan. Sanghvi is right in saying that after the 1971 defeat, Pakistan did India no harm for nearly two decades. But the Taliban didn’t exist in those days. If Pakistan splinters now, Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan will fall under the Taliban’s sway one by one like dominoes. Indian weapons will find their way to the hands of Islamic insurgents and will be trained on India without much delay. The American experience with the Afghan Mujahiddin and India’s experience with the LTTE show how easy it is for terrorist chickens to come home to roost.
Of course, India may succeed in keeping Pakistan weak without breaking up. However, a weak Pakistan will continue to harbour terrorists like those who attacked Mumbai in November 2008. Mind you, I can understand Sanghvi’s frustration and that of other Indians like him. Ever since Pakistan came into existence, there hasn’t ever been a period when Pakistan hasn’t wanted to harm India. To be very honest, I don’t see India and Pakistan becoming friends and existing side by side. It is possible that if both countries prosper economically, religion will take a backseat in the subcontinent and the levels of animosity will come down. If that happens, there will be no need for the Islamic nation of Pakistan and Hindu majority India to remain separate. This is a possibility in, may be, fifty years time. But friendly co-existence for India and Pakistan is in my opinion, impossible. Either they remain enemies or they will reunify.
In short, a weak or splintered Pakistan is likely to be just as hostile to India as a ‘strong’ Pakistan.
Right now, it is important for the Americans to arm-twist the Pakistani government into carrying out some Soviet style redistribution of wealth, especially in the villages. If the Pakistanis don’t do it, the Taliban will do it for them and turn Pakistan into a Sunni version of Iran. Albeit a much poorer one, with nuclear weapons, and hence a much more dangerous one.