Yudhoyono Paints Himself into the West’s Corner

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ignited a storm of criticism in his predominantly Muslim country by backing last month’s UN Security Council resolution to escalate sanctions against Iran.

At issue is whether a largely Muslim country can stand against the interests of another Muslim country in a rapidly polarizing world. Despite the astonishing levels of violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, it is rare for one Islamic nation to publicly counter the policy of another on the world stage, as Yudhoyono did in backing the sanctions.

Certainly, Indonesia’s action, as an observer member of the Security Council, is prompting some among opposition lawmakers to criticize Yudhoyono for making Indonesia a pawn of United States and western foreign policy. With some public opinion polls showing large majorities opposed to the vote, the action also raises questions of how much damage Yudhoyono has done to his own political standing.

Two-hundred-fifty Indonesian legislators including the powerful speaker of the house, Agung Laksono, have signed a petition demanding that he explain his decision. Even the tiny Democrat Party, which Yudhoyono helped to found, opposed the move. One of his cabinet ministers, Minister for Cooperatives and Small- and Medium-scale Enterprises Suryadharma Ali also endorsed the demand for a presidential explanation.

The gist of the lawmakers’ angst is that Yudhoyono and Wirajuda have been pressured by Washington into betraying Indonesia's “solidarity” with Iran. If the formal explanation is not accepted by the legislature, the parliament can call on the People's Consultative Assembly to hold a special session to impeach Yudhoyono but the betting that it won’t go that far.

Wirajuda told legislators the government supports nuclear development for peaceful purposes, especially for energy, but objects to nuclear weapons proliferation. He said he hoped the public would understand the decision and not consider it as a betrayal of Iran or as support for Israel and the US.

Ahead of the vote, Yudhoyono – who counts himself a friend of hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ‑ had argued that the best way to resolve the standoff between the West and a recalcitrant Iran determined to go nuclear was through diplomacy.

Yudhoyono’s friendship with Ahmadinejad and his attempts to play a mediating role in Tehran’s stand-off with the West over its nuclear ambitions has put him in a delicate situation before. Ahmadinejad, with Yudhoyono standing by his side, delivered a blistering tirade against the US and other powers during the May 2006 summit of the Developing Eight (D-8) Muslim countries held in Bali.

Following closed-door talks, leaders of the D-8 group ‑ Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria ‑ issued a statement of support for development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Ahmadinejad had earlier been greeted as a hero and hailed with standing ovations when he spoke to students at the University of Indonesia and the State Islamic University.

He also signed a deal for $600 million in investments in Indonesia's gas and oil sector but had a parting message. Claiming that Iran wanted to use technology "for peace and the welfare of the Muslim people around the world," he said that the "arrogant powers" want to use it to invade other countries. "That is the difference between us and them"

Parliament is in recess till May when a decision on the demand for an explanation will be made by a plenary session.

While Iran may simply have been using Indonesia as the door to international legitimacy, cynics note that the US may be doing exactly the same, albeit for different reasons. Next to visit Jakarta after Ahmadinejad was the now-defenestrated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; in November, George W Bush himself stopped by to bolster Yudhoyono's role as a key ally in the war on terror. “Indonesia is an example of how democracy and modernization can present an alternative to extremism,” Bush said during that visit.

Indonesia is also playing a role in the International Conference of Muslim Leaders for Reconciliation in Iraq, which met in Bogor last Tuesday.

Several influential Shi’ite and Sunni leaders from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iran were at the meeting. Twenty-one clerics were expected but only 12 confirmed, according to Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim organization. The others claimed they were “upset” by Indonesia's inconsistency over the UN resolution.

"A number of influential Muslim clerics in the Middle East have now considered that Indonesia is no longer neutral, but has become a US supporter," Muzadi said.

Wirajuda said the Islamic leaders – who are worried about the chaos in Iraq ‑ could help to engineer change in Iraq and that the Bogor conference would also serve as a preliminary step for Indonesia's greater engagement in Iraq.

Indonesia's improved relationship with the US is too important to Yudhoyono and his government to be subordinated to that with Iran but he could expand his influence by taking the initiative on Iraq. “The entire Ummah (Islamic followers) is hurting, because of the factional violence in Iraq,” Yudhoyono said recently.