Iran -- Looking East

When U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos argued in Congress that negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement with Malaysia should be scrapped because of a $16 billion energy deal between Iran and the Malaysian state energy company Petronas, Malaysia pushed back and the talks would appear to be on track.

Iran's Asian footprint is lost on Washington where the talk is all about exploiting the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis to divide the Muslim world.

Beating up on Iran garners support from Sunni mainstream states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which fear the rise of Iranian-backed populist Islamic movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. But in fact, the Sunni-Shiite divide doesn't travel all that far -- and certainly doesn't embrace the Muslim majority in Asia.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim community, is home to less than 100,000 Shiites. This means that if the bombs start raining on Iran, the great majority of Muslims will simply see another Western attack on the Muslim world.

Asia could provide the key to resolving the crisis, which requires pressure on Iran and the United States to resolve their differences at the negotiating table. Because neither European nor Middle Eastern powers appear to have any heft or desire in this respect, it could be down to emerging powers like China and India to push for a peaceful settlement of the issue.

Encouraged by its successful role as mediator in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program -- where a deal on denuclearizing has just been reached -- Beijing could propose a similar framework to Washington with respect to Iran.

Michael Vatikiotis is a member of Asia Society's International Council and is the Southeast Asia Regional representative for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

The trouble is that in the partitioned world of the Bush administration, some parts of the axis of evil are more evil than others, especially if they affect interests in the Middle East.

More importantly, it is hard to imagine Iran, which considers itself an emerging global power, with the second-biggest proven oil reserves in the world, being bought off with a million tones of fuel.

Michael Vatikiotis is a member of Asia Society's International Council and is the Southeast Asia Regional representative for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

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