Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Seeing things from your opponents' perspective

On those rare occasions where politicians advance the cause of peace and reconciliation, it is always partly the result of their having swallowed their pride and admitted that it is possible to see the "truth" about the situation from their opponents' or enemies' perspective. This is not about pacifism, it is about being realistic. Examples are abundant: the Great Powers decided not to repeat the punitive reparations of Versailles following the Second World War because they realised that from the German perspective, such measures were humiliating and led indirectly to Nazism; the ANC showed immense maturity and dignity by choosing the route of forgiveness and reconciliation, realising that to punish the white rulers would be counterproductive; the British Government accepted that it must actually negotiate with the IRA in order to bring about peace, and the IRA came to the same conclusion. None of this was easy for the warring parties. In each case leaders exercised moral strength, not weakness. They stood up to the hawks in their respective regimes, they showed vision and magnanimity.

All this is in stark contrast to the knee-jerk reaction of our leaders to Iran's launching yesterday of its first satellite. We hear that Western leaders are deeply concerned, and we read apocalyptic newspaper articles showing how Iran's new satellite capability must mean that we are now more at risk of being attacked by an Iranian long-range missile armed with a nuclear warhead.

And now for the difficult part. Let us imagine for a moment what Iranians reading our newspapers might legitimately feel. Their scientists have performed a feat which is clearly impressive, without outside help. They are now capable of launching communications satellites. Iranians might be rather outraged that we in the West should view this with such alarm. The subtext to Western responses is that Iran ought not be allowed to have this technology, that the world would be safer if Iran remained technologically backward, as it was in the past. If I were an Iranian, I might find this insulting, and it might make me more likely to view the West with suspicion and hostility. It is even more likely that I would respect my own leaders more, for having succeeded in the face of Western disdain.

The Ahmadinejad regime is clearly unattractive, and its abuse of the human rights of its citizens is well known, as is its malevolent interference in its neighbours such as Iraq. However, I merely suggest that our leaders and commentators might for once take a step back before issuing terrible proclamations about the "threat from Iran". If you remember, the knee-jerk reaction of the Western powers to the Russian / Georgian conflict of last year has been shown to have been misguided in that Russian guilt has by no means been established for that murky war.

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