As a student of Iranian politics and diplomacy, I have always regarded that a great thing about Iran in all these 3 decades after the 1979 revolution has been the unshaken faith it placed on diplomacy as the charioter of the country’s interests. Tehran always kept in view that “hard power” has its limitations (and inherent risks) in efforts to advance national interests in a complicated external enviornment. Actually, I see this as a Persian “civilisational” trait as well. While living and working in Tashkent, I had numerous occasions to study at close quarters the behavioural patterns of the so-called “Turkic” and Persian streams of consciousness on the Central Asian political landscape. In any given situation, Tajiks invariably take a far more nuanced attitude than the Uzbeks. (The Tajik ambassador in Tashkent had a brilliant mind and was a most useful source of guidance in comprehending the labyrinthine ways the Central Asian mind works.) Brain versus brawn? Possibly, that’s one way of looking at it. Personally, I am a great believer that diplomacy ought to be the first line of defence for a country and only if diplomacy fails, an option for “hard power” arises. And for a country like ours with abundant talents available in a highly professional corps of diplomats, India’s choice should always, always, always be to emulate Iran in trusting the country’s intellectual resources. Let us spend 5 percent of material resources on the MEA that we spend on the MOD plus RAW and the returns will be stunning.
I am saying this since I couldn’t help admiring how Iranians are beginning to make their first moves on Bahrain against the backdrop of the dramatic events there, where Iranian interests are admittedly rather profound. What happens in Bahrain will cast its shadows on several levels of regional politics and has the potential to prompt a rethink in the US policies toward Iran. I get the sense that the best Persian minds are on the job. Just read that Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has made his first phone call over the Bahrain developments - to the OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (by the way, a Turkish scholar in Istanbul whom I used to meet.) The move is shrewd.
Tehran knows that no sooner than the phone conversation ended, Ihsanoglu would be scrambling to get in touch with the highest levels of Saudi leadership. It means Tehran has already established a (additional) line of communication straight to King Abdullah and FM Faisal, notwithstanding the current fracas in Saudi-Iranian ties. Who knows what channels of communication would finally come handy? Two, Iran has signaled that it prefers to act within the framework of a consensus in the Muslim world rather than unilaterally. (In any case, I don’t expect an Iranian military intervention in Bahrain.) Surely, it is a significant gesture of assurance to the Saudis who know OIC will never ever move against Riyadh’s wishes. In short, Iran is also perhaps signaling it doesn’t propose to challenge the legitimacy of the Saudi interests in Bahrain. A bottom line is that Iran won’t allow itself to be seen as pitted against the GCC. And Saudi intervention in Bahrain carries a GCC mandate.
What Salehi told Ihsanoglu is equally significant. According to the official Iranian news agency IRNA, Salehi has essentially pleaded that the Saudis should behave with restraint in Bahrain and avoid bloodshed at all costs. Of course, if the Shi’ite blood is spilt in Bahrain - and about a third of the Bahraini Shi’ites are of Persian origin - it creates a serious problem for the Iranian religious establishment and a point of no return will be reached vis-a-vis Riyadh. Salehi has virtually warned the Saudis. Two, he has made sure Ihsanoglu conveys to the Saudi leadership in no uncertain terms that Iran will politically oppose Riyadh’s military intervention in Bahrain - “aggression”; “intervention of some Persian Gulf countries’ intervention”, “intensification of the aggressive moves”, etc.
I anticipate that the thrust of Iranian diplomacy will be to secure for Tehran a mediatory role of some kind, which would have many “collateral” advantages. Of course, Saudis won’t grant it on a platter to Tehran. Iran will have to earn it. And that’s where shrewd diplomacy is needed. To be sure, Iran’s diplomacy has swung into action.
Finally, isn’t it utterly fascinating that Iran’s religious establishment has not spoken a word so far. Tehran doesn’t want the “Bahraini awakening” to be characterised as a Shi’ite affair. Therefore, Iran’s response is on the “secular” plane - at the level of the MFA, underscoring this is a political and diplomatic issue and not a religious conflict with Saudi Arabia. Now, as the day wears on, we may expect Salehi making more phone calls - to Damascus, Beirut, GCC capitals, Ankara, etc. What else are phone lines for?