By Jyoti Malhotra
20 Feb 2009
The clenched fist was easily the most powerful metaphor employed by Black America during the civil rights movement. But as he negotiates the minefields of the early days of his presidency, Barack Obama has spoken about America's "willingness to extend a hand if you unclench your fist". Inverting the old power salute, Obama addressed the Muslim world.
In the first TV interview of his presidency with Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-financed and Dubai-based TV channel, Obama said: "It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated."
The Islamic world is going to be at the heart of the Obama administration's foreign policy note George Mitchell's interventions in the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Richard Holbrooke's exertions in Afghanistan-Pakistan, the withdrawal from Iraq and the nascent engagement with Iran.
It couldn't get better for India. Even as New Delhi glowed after Obama rapped Pakistan's knuckles early on for not doing enough to fight the war against terrorism, the US president's willingness to examine the complexities of Islamist politics has opened a new door for Indian engagement.
With the second largest population of Muslims in the world, India is uniquely positioned because every strain of Islamic thought is found in this country. From the mystic Sufis to Wahhabis, from the Deobandis to the Hanafis and the Salafis, from Kashmiriyat to Kerala's Mappilas and Tamil Nadu's Maraikkayars, they're all here.
This is why the Indian Muslim connection with West Asia or the Middle East, if you like is so intimate. The Shias of Ghazipur, a dusty town in the backwaters of Benaras, believe that during Moharram Imam Hussein leaves the Karbala and comes to India. The Deoband school is said to have inspired the hard-line religious strain in the Saudi kingdom. The 'Sirapuranam' is a 17th-18th century Tamil poem on the life of the Prophet inspired by a Sufi master of the Qadiri order that was founded in Persia in the 11th century and spread from Baghdad.
Barack Hussein Obama and his administration could so easily learn from the varied Indian Muslim experience. Certainly, Obama's interest in the Islamic world is driven by America's stake in countering the al-Qaeda and Taliban. The US president is keenly aware that if he has to succeed where George Bush failed then every Islamic nation has to be leveraged and Afghanistan must be stabilised.
And if Afghanistan is at the heart of America's foreign policy vision, then Iran a neighbour of Afghanistan with whom the US has had no public dealing since the disastrous events of 1979 is the key towards transforming the greater Middle East.
Iran's overwhelming influence with the Hizbollah means that new beginnings are possible where Israel, Lebanon and Syria are involved. If Israel is assured about its own security it might be persuaded to soften borders for Palestinians, arrive at a cold peace with Syria over Golan Heights and keep the calm with southern Lebanon.
"The Persian civilisation is a great one", Obama told Al-Arabiya, "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." At the Munich security conference over the weekend, US vice-president Joe Biden unveiled the promise of a grand bargain between the former adversaries: Ending Iran's worldwide isolation in exchange for the shutting down of its nuclear weapons enrichment programme.
Iran's scholar-turned-speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani, returned the compliment and spoke of a "golden opportunity" for the US and asked it to change the nature of the antagonism into a "chess game instead of a boxing match".
This is also the perfect moment for India to make a few intelligent moves. If Iran's influence in Afghanistan, especially in Herat, makes Obama salivate as he contemplates the new great game, then New Delhi may well be advised to redouble its reaching-out to Tehran. Civilisational connections are always handy of course, but there's no harm in reminding everyone that it was the Iran-Russia-India triumvirate that kept the pro-Northern Alliance fires burning during those terrible Taliban years.
New Delhi could point out to the US the 220-km Zaranj-Delaram highway it has just built inside southern Afghanistan, close to Iran's Chabahar port, which connects to the ring road around Kabul. This is the perfect alternative to Pakistan's Chinese-built spanking new Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, and the US knows it.
With Iran, New Delhi could easily take a decision on the several oil and gas deals it hesitated to close during the Bush years for fear that it would affect the Indo-US nuclear deal. Now that the nuclear deal is out of the way, India must reclaim its destiny in Central Asia. The fact that India twice voted against Tehran at the IAEA in Vienna need not stand in the way of a reconciliation.
The Iranians are nothing if not pragmatists. With the price of oil falling sharply, the US offer for Iran to rejoin the brave, new world on the back of a region it knows like the back of its hand Afghanistan is also the perfect face-saver for Tehran. The new power salute has benefits for us all.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist.