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INDIA MUST BE THANKFUL FOR SMALL MERCIES

The whole Muslim region to India’s north and west, from Egypt to Pakistan, is in the process of a great churning, along with an extraordinary combination of ironies. Three years after the people’s ouster of the army-backed Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, there will be the installation of yet another army-backed dictator. A new Constitution and the first-ever democratically elected president were mere blips in the Egyptian political continuum because the fear of fundamental Islam triumphed over the democratic principle.

Saudi Arabia supports the deposed Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi, and, together with an unlikely collaborator in Israel, is fulminating at Washington’s engagement with Iran and at its neighbour, Oman, which hosted secret talks between Washington and Tehran. Unable to bend the Gulf countries or Turkey to its view, it has resorted to terrorism against the Hezbollah in Lebanon, threats against the Winter Olympics in Russia, reaching out to Pakistan to outflank Iran, and supplying weapons to armed insurgents in Syria, who include jihadists seeking to establish an Islamist caliphate from Iraq to the Levant. Both Riyadh and Tel Aviv are exerting considerable influence in the US Congress to sabotage the legitimacy conferred on Iran with the interim nuclear agreement and the phased lifting of sanctions.

After the departure, in 2003, of the Coalition of the Willing, and the abject failure of Western nation-building in Iraq, that country has become prey to Shia-Sunni conflict and Muslim extremism. Al Qaida and even more extreme militants have emerged with murderous agendas and have taken over important cities. Nine thousand Iraqis died last year, and this year will see another bloodbath. The fiercest fundamentalists are the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant or ISIL, an affiliate of al Qaida in Iraq, which is implacable in its doctrinaire methods, and has become so dominant in Syria that it is opposed by the mainstream opposition to President Assad. Among the multiple ironies of the Syrian civil war are that the West, together with paragons of democracy like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, make common cause to support insurgents against Assad who include jihadists, and both the ISIL and the so-called Free Syrian Army abuse each other as Assad’s agents. The stark alternative of the ISIL, and the presence of foreign fighters in Syria, including Europeans and Pakistanis, has motivated some contacts between Western and Syrian intelligence and a modicum of introspection even in Turkey, which allows jihadists to cross its border with Syria.

Indirect talks between the Assad government and the Syrian National Coalition in Switzerland are in stalemate, to no one’s surprise. With territory slipping out of the latter’s grasp to either Assad’s military or radical Islamists, its credibility is low, as is the inclination of Assad to step down. The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Syria, pitting Sunnis against the rest, continues with 1,00,000 deaths thus far. The United Nations’ instinct to invite Iran to the talks was correct and those countries who vetoed obvious good sense were not friends of the Syrian people.

In Syria, as in much else in this troubled region, Iran may hold the key to an eventual solution. The United States of America and the West have finally arrived at that belated conclusion, reversing 35 years of Cold War, during which other countries’ interests, like those of the Gulf Arabs and Israel, were amply served. With the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s influence from Lebanon to Afghanistan cannot be gainsaid. Building confidence with Iran through removing the sanctions will be a game-changer, opening the route to cooperation on many fronts, not least energy security and nuclear proliferation. It was not only the West that has broken with the past; the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is not abrasive, unlike his predecessor, and so far enjoys the fickle support of the ayatollahs. It is worth recording that there are more American PhDs in Tehran’s cabinet than in Washington’s.

Buyers of Iran’s oil and gas like China, Russia, India and Japan were getting restive at implementing sanctions; perhaps the West tired of singing from Israel and Saudi Arabia’s hymn sheet; maybe sanctions were affecting Iran’s economy to an unsustainable degree; probably a combination of all the above; but the easing of sanctions in return for a pull-back of uranium enrichment and stringent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency raise expectations that decades of adversarial relations are over. During the initial six-month period during which attempts will be made to reach comprehensive agreement, Iran has agreed to halt its 20 per cent enrichment program, which produces uranium just steps away from weapons grade, but will continue enrichment up to 5 per cent. It will convert half of its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium to oxide, and dilute the remainder to 5 per cent. In return, sanctions are lifted on petrochemical products, insurance, gold and precious metals, passenger-plane parts and services, and $4.2 billion in Iranian blocked assets of oil revenues. For an importer like India, lifting the sanctions is excellent news. India was on the horns of a dilemma; opposed to any new nuclear-weapon countries, but also opposed to sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas exports. It had curtailed its annual imports from 21 million tonnes to 11, but there will now be more oil and gas in the world market, causing prices to decline. However, arriving at a permanent settlement will be difficult despite international opinion almost universally endorsing this outcome. It will necessitate Washington finessing the rejectionist Israel and Saudi Arabia and the American hard-core Right. The main issue is to accommodate Iran’s refusal to suspend its civil nuclear programme permitted by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, despite Israel’s objections that Iran is not to be trusted even with its legitimate entitlements.

Iran wields considerable influence in Afghanistan through the Shia Hazaras that represent the third biggest ethic group, and through its strong cultural ties with Tajikistan. The Americans plan to end their combat mission this year while a bitter quarrel has broken out between them and President Karzai, who has refused to conclude an agreement for about 10,000 soldiers to remain in nine bases, despite the approval of 3,000 tribal leaders in a loya jirga and the potential loss of financial and military capacities if there is no accord. Karzai wants this issue held over till his successor is elected in April, but he also has other motives. He wants the US to endorse his candidate for president, release Taliban prisoners held in Guantánamo, and press Pakistan to endorse peace talks between his government and the Taliban without the involvement of the US or Pakistan. Karzai does not wish to be the first Afghan to invite foreign forces to have a permanent presence in the country, knowing that will generate popular resistance. Meanwhile, the Taliban see no reason to compromise, rejecting the elections and emphasizing that even a single foreign soldier remaining in Afghanistan would constitute occupation. They have insisted on the reinstatement of the Islamic political system. In other words, even if there was a US-Afghan agreement, the dismal prospect is of a long-drawn out conflict between the government in Kabul, financed by the US, and the Taliban. This will lead to heightened jihadi activity in Pakistan, and consequently, affect India as well.

Military bases in Afghanistan become unviable without transit routes, and Pakistan becomes central to any settlement in Afghanistan, though nowhere is Pakistan more detested than in Afghanistan. The American objectives are that Afghanistan should not become a base for anti-Western terror, and its chaos should not destabilize Pakistan with its nuclear weapons and Islamist militants. Pakistan’s interests are to minimize Indian involvement in Afghanistan and to maintain the sanctity of the Durand Line. Pakistan is adept at turning any development, however adverse, to its advantage and has convinced Washington that unless the Kashmir problem is settled and Indo-Pakistan ties improved, there can be no stability in Afghanistan. Pressure on India is the price demanded by Islamabad for cooperation. Beset by the spate of Taliban attacks on military and public institutions, the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is giving Pakistan’s Taliban a ‘last chance’ to engage in peace talks before launching an all-out offensive against them. But he knows very well that the military option would have unforeseen negative consequences for his country.

The churning from the Suez Canal to the Wagah border stops at our frontier with Pakistan, thanks to our fragile but still surviving democracy. The present infirmity in New Delhi is, for once, an advantage; any misstep in policy towards the unfolding events to our northwest will prove extremely damaging. We must be thankful for small mercies.