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Iran nuclear deal and our evolving region

[featured Image: Courtesy  www.usnews.com]

After13 years in the wilderness, potentially dangerous row over Iran’s nuclear programme is hopefully coming to a close—at least for the time being. Iran has undertaken to review its nuclear research and development programme in return for lifting of crippling economic sanctions. Over play of Iranian nuclear bogey had caught the American policy makers by throat in the form of Israeli and Saudi pressure to use military option for settling the perceived Iranian nuclear threat. Likewise Iran had missed out on the dynamics of the World led by a single super power; it failed to comprehend that after making noises remaining countries of P-5+1 invariably submit to American pressure. Both sides have learnt their lessons in the form of nuclear deal.
Saudi and Israeli pressure is off the American back, and Iran hopes to ward off economic sanctions while keeping the core competencies of its nuclear programme intact. While attempting to gauge the strategic impact of the Iran nuclear deal, one is haunted by the dilemma about American as well as Iranian intent behind evolving the agreement in the form as it stand now. Is it a part of prior greater strategic understanding reached between Iran and the US, ultimately leading to gradually assigning Iran a key strategic role in the Gulf? If so, does it mean that has the US led bloc tacitly accepted the so far abhorred Iranian practices in statecraft as legitimate norms of diplomacy? OR Is it only a technical endeavour to plug in a proliferation attempt by a non-nuclear weapon state member of the NPT? If so, will Iran continue to carry the baggage of a pariah state minus the bomb phobia?
There are equally convincing arguments supporting either of the propositions. Technical parameters and performance evaluation criteria have enough elasticity embedded in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to go the either way. While implementation saga will take quite some time to unfold, all may not proceed the way it appears now. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate the impact while keeping in mind both these streams. Even if all actors are presumed to act in good faith, which is not the likely case, the treaty execution is likely to bog down into glitches. If the subsequent events are to be governed by the first assumption then implementation appraisals shall be subjective and perceptional— more of looking the other side. However, if matters move as per the second hypothesis; then again though appraisals shall be perceptional, but this time, biased with an objective to pin-down Iran irrespective of its implementation score.
If the utopian feat of implementation of accord, to the satisfaction of both sides, is accomplished, Iran will not only be reintegrated into the global system, it will also contest the long-standing partnerships between ‘moderate’ Arab states and the Western powers. It will be able to enhance its political clout in the region and will have enhanced leverage to play a complex stabilizing-destabilizing role—depending upon the prism through which its conduct is judged. Under these circumstance Iran is poised to gain and strengthen its national power potential. There will be status enhancing changes in Iran’s regional and international standing. Iran will continue to positively evolve on both fronts – be it the extent of global integration or its regional influence.
The Iranian Foreign Minister recently stated, “The purview of our [Iran-US] constructive engagement extends far beyond nuclear negotiations.” The nuclear deal has the potential to fundamentally alter the strategic landscape in the Middle East and South Asia by initiating a new security paradigm. This does not however mean that the US would abandon Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. At best the US policy would revert back to the ‘twin pillars’ of Iran and Saudi Arabia/GCC to protect Western interests in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East North Africa Region.
In the context of Afghanistan, Tehran has been engaging the Taliban and meeting their delegates; therefore the possibility of Iranian participation in the Afghan peace process, at a later stage, cannot be considered too far-fetched. India was Iran’s partners in Afghanistan in the 1990s; together they contributed towards instability of Afghanistan by nurturing erstwhile northern alliance and strengthening intra-Afghan ethnic divide. As of now, India is feeling isolated in Afghanistan with the emergence of a new axis for peace in Afghanistan, comprising Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan. Though India would like a replication of the Iran’s role of 1990s, but Iran has learnt its lessons and its recent engagements with Taliban indicate that Iran is likely to follow a different trajectory, and this time Iran would prefer to harmonize its effort with Pakistan.
With the sanctions gone, Pakistan could immensely benefit from economic relationship between the two countries. Both countries should work together to sign a free trade agreement (FTA). There is a need to dispel the impression that Gwadar and Chabahar ports are mutually exclusive; a way forward should be worked out for making these ports function in a mutually supportive way. If the issue is approached with an open mind, workable solutions could be found out. It will be in the interest of Iran to strive for a berth in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiatives rather than following an isolationist policy with regard to Chabahar port.
In the last decade, most bilateral discussions between Iran and India had nosedived to more of talk than action. Iran matters to India not only for cheaper energy but, increasingly, as a strategic partner in Afghanistan given the shared goal of limiting the Taliban’s role. Moreover India envisages to limit Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan after the Americans exit. Its investment in Chabahar port shall mean placing Indian assets (workers, equipment, etc.) on the ground in Iran. Under the garb of workers and technicians, India is poised to place intelligence operatives to augment its disruptive effort in Baluchistan and beyond.
India had forsaken Iran during difficult times, it voted against Iran in the IAEA, walked away from IPI project and joined the American bandwagon of sanctions by cutting its oil import from Iran. In contrast Pakistan voted in favour of Iran in the IAEA, remained steadfast in IP project and vehemently opposed any military solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. And Iran is not known for short memory.
Pakistan’s ability of maintaining a delicate balance in its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia during Yemen crisis and its efforts for reconciliation based solution in unison with Turkey are expected to now pay back dividends and Pakistan is likely to have better leverage than India over Iran as well as Saudi Arabia in the context of Afghanistan and other regional issues.
Pakistan should make an effort to formally induct Iran into Murree peace process so that it becomes a stakeholder in the political process. At the same time, Iran needs to do its part to dispel the public perception in Pakistan that it is not a party to the sectarian problem of Pakistan and that it is not involved in stalling the development of Gwadar port project. It will be worthwhile for Pakistan to support Iran’s induction into CPEC projects. Pakistan should complete the IP project and not fall in the trap of clubbing it with the revivals of IPI. If India seeks to revive the project, and most probably it would, then IPI should be negotiated fresh and independent of IP project. Pakistan stands to gain if the nuclear deal goes through smooth implementation; and wishes Iran God’s speed in this regard.

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Elusive Afghan Peace: Between Fire and Ceasefire

In an interesting development while Afghan government announced four days cease fire on Eid eve, Taliban refused to assume a cease fire posture and took their operations to Kabul, at least notionally, where they fired rockets on Presidential palace; though rockets missed the mark. The ensuing hours-long battle involving insurgents’ rocket attacks and military airstrikes ended with the death of two insurgents. “Two attackers were involved. The enemy was firing mortars,” General Murad Ali Murad, commander of Kabul´s garrison, told a press conference. Taliban assault coincided with President Ashraf Ghani’s conditional offer of a three-month ceasefire on first day of Eid. If Americans are looking for good news from the battlefront, then Afghanistan is not the place to look. Taliban are having success after success against the best equipped army in the world. 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NATO’s command in Afghanistan has been intentionally misleading the public about the status of seven of Ghazni’s districts. Three additional districts have also been overrun by the Taliban. Resolute Support claimed these seven districts were under government control. In reality, the Taliban physically controlled the terrain while the Afghan government operated them remotely from Ghazni City. Battle for Ghazni has been quite fierce. Over 100 security force members were killed during a recent Taliban attack. The city hospital was reported overcrowded with hundreds of wounded people and dozens of bodies and people desperately searching for relatives among the dead and wounded. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was providing dressing packages and oral and intravenous medicine to treat wounded at the provincial hospital. The ICRC also sent fresh water and electricity generators for trauma surgeries and delivered material for the management of remains. The ICRC is organizing emergency water supplies by trucks to cover the needs of about 18,000 people. “They were facing severe shortage of food and drinking water and the power supply”. Fleeing citizens reported. A humanitarian crisis may just be in the making. In the Faryab province, the Afghan forces surrendered after a 48 hour siege; the Afghan Army base in Ghormach District was surrendered outright to the Taliban. Security forces ran out of ammunition and badly needed reinforcements, which never came. Government troops apparently had no choice but to give up. Over 40 surviving troops were taken prisoner in the surrender. For the second time in the week, Taliban insurgents attacked and overran an Afghan Army base in the country’s north, this time in Baghlan Province. The offensive lasted for about five hours, and left the Taliban in control of the military base and a nearby police checkpoint; Taliban killed nearly 50 Afghan police and soldiers and took 36 prisoners. 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Contrast this bloodbath with what the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during an unannounced visit to Kabul on July 09 that there was “now hope” for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. “An element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is now hope,” Pompeo told a press conference. “Many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily. That’s very deeply connected to President Trump’s strategy”, he added. Earlier in January this year, President Ashraf Ghani had offered the Taliban peace talks without conditions. United States has dropped its previous refusal to talk to the Taliban; and both have spoken directly in Qatar, where they maintain a political office. Systematic retreat indicates that while maintaining a state of denial, Americans may have actually covered a substantial space for reaching a political deal with Taliban. 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