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WOUNDED NATIONALISM

Tehran summer

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Iran’s presidential elections are not likely to see the country change course, but will offer India some options

Iranians went to the polls on Friday to elect a president. After eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during which he was re-elected in 2009 after much bloodshed and popular protests, you would think the Iranians would welcome a successor with a more nuanced ideology, where economic well-being would triumph over the prevalent sense of wounded nationalism.

That's unlikely. The number of serious candidates came down to six -Saeed Jalili, Ali Akbar Velayati, Hassan Rouhani, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, Mohammmed Gharazi and Mohsen Razaee. Since the candidates are vetted by the country's top authority, the Guardian Council, whose members are handpicked by the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it's safe to say that those left standing are by and large people whom he can "deal" with. The US complained that the vote was not "free" or fair". Khamenei cheerfully told them to go to hell.

The "moderate" or "reformist" vote should go to Hassan Rowhani, possibly the last man standing who is not a conservative hardliner. Which probably means there will be all efforts to defeat him. Rowhani has had a last minute surge in opinion polls, which gives hope to the reformists. The field became skewed after Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a staunch opponent of Khamenei threw his hat in the ring;and was promptly rejected by the guardians. Rafsanjani is a founder of the Iranian Revolution - actually the only one along with Khamenei who fought with Ayatollah Khomeini, but his prescriptions for the Iranian nuclear programme and the Iranian economy are at odds with Khamenei. Rafsanjani has thrown his weight behind Rowhani - the bet is if Iranians, particularly the nation's many youngsters, vote in large numbers, the elections could throw up a surprise.

But don't hold your breath;because the "system" is inordinately powerful. Saeed Jalili is tipped to get the bulk of the conservative vote, despite the fact that the conservative field is crowded. The tough nuclear negotiator is running on a nationalist plank, refusing to do a deal with the west on Iran's nuclear programme, and offering economic promises that are a cross between the late Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Bhutto's "we-will-eat-grass" and the old Nehru swadeshi line. Western sanctions have crippled Iran's economy, as always, hurting the ordinary Iranian much more than the leadership. The west reckons continuing sanctions could even bring about a regime change, but that is wishful thinking - Iran's nuclear ambitions have widespread support.

Despite being a conservative, Jalili is a pragmatist. And that's the kind of leader India would be comfortable with. India, unlike others, believes Khamenei himself occasionally flirts with pragmatic solutions. Iran needs several pragmatic solutions if it is not to incite widespread unrest against the regime.

Iran's nuclear programme has awful implications for the region. India therefore is not at all unhappy with the covert attempts to slow down the programme. Stuxnet, Flame, Gauss, have all affected the speed and efficacy of the programme. Last week a reactor "malfunction" in Bushehr pointed the needle of suspicion even at the Russians. In the murky world of computer warfare, whether the malware is routed through Israel or Russia or Estonia, the target remains the same.

Meanwhile, it's becoming difficult to find Indian entities to buy oil from Iran, particularly as Iraq has opened its taps and is rapidly filling up oil barrels for the world.

And Syria is the real problem. Iran and Russia are backing and arming its leader Bashar al-Assad, while now the west has decided to arm the opposition. Sunni clerics have just declared multiple jihads against Iran and Syria so we're looking at a very messy sectarian war, where the west will side with the Sunnis, and Iran, Russia and perhaps China will help the other side, though each for their own reasons.

We can argue that western countries are playing into the hands of jihadist elements, which could turn ugly just as they did in Libya. But India has very little influence on the actions of either side, and frankly, nobody in South Block has the appetite to wade into this particular ideological and geopolitical cesspool.

India should. Israel, for instance, is a heartbeat away from attacking Syria. If the White House decides to act on its announcement this week that Assad had crossed the "red line" using chemical weapons against his own people. With all three - Iran, Israel and the US - India can exercise some influence.

Libya was far enough for India to feel it could remain largely untouched by the consequences of NATO intervention. Syria is much closer home and the prospective jihadi fires much closer to Indian shores. A sectarian war radiating out of Syria will singe everyone. The US can fight a war with technology from afar, not us.

It's time for India to have some serious conversations.

The new Iranian president could be a start.

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