By: Our Correspondent

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.