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Confronting Iran

Munir Akram

HOURS after US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and reimpose the ‘highest-level’ of sanctions on Iran, Israel launched extensive aerial attacks on what it alleged were Iranian militias that had fired rockets into Israel. The Middle East appears to be on the brink of another, wider war.

Trump wants to replace the JCPOA with a ‘comprehensive’ agreement binding Iran to foreswear fissile material production forever; accept intrusive inspections of Iranian nuclear and military facilities; and freeze its long-range missile programme. Simultaneously, the US wants to reverse Iran’s extended military role and political influence across the Middle East. Many believe that Trump’s ultimate aim is regime change in Iran. There are ominous parallels to the prelude to the Iraq war.

The JCPOA was adopted unanimously by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and is legally binding on the seven countries that negotiated it and on all UN member states. If the US reimposes unilateral sanctions, which were explicitly lifted under the JCPOA, it will stand in violation of Security Council resolutions and international law. Of course, with its veto power, the Trump administration will prevent any censure of its actions by the Council.

If the US sanctions, as expected, stipulate ‘secondary sanctions’ against countries, companies or banks transacting with Iran in contravention of the US sanctions, it could have a significant impact on Iran’s trade and economic relations with European and other countries that are vulnerable to such secondary US sanctions.

Pakistan’s interests may suffer in the current tensions involving the US and Iran.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has declared that Iran will continue to adhere to its commitments under the JCPOA, ie it will not resume enrichment, so long as the rest of the parties to the agreement respect it as well. China and Russia will obviously do so. The three European parties: France, Germany and the UK have criticised Trump’s exit from the JCPOA and declared they will continue to adhere to it.

However, despite their stakes in keeping the JCPOA alive, it is uncertain if the Europeans will be able to face down the US if their global commercial interests are adversely affected by ‘secondary’ US sanctions. On the contrary, Trump may hold them to the offer they had made, prior to the US exit, to press Iran for the more comprehensive restraints demanded by the US president.

Iran may then have no choice but to denounce the agreement and resume nuclear enrichment. This, in turn, could provide the US and Israel with the ‘casus belli’ they may be seeking to initiate military action against Iran.

Oil prices have risen over the past weeks in anticipation of Trump’s decision and the Venezuelan chaos. The modest supply shortfall from Iran can be easily made up by expanding Saudi and US production. However, if military actions are initiated, threatening all Gulf oil exports, prices could skyrocket to unprecedented levels, with a major dampening effect on the world economy and especially the emerging markets.

The transition from rhetoric to kinetic has already happened in Syria. Israeli attacks have caused Iranian casualties. Tehran has threatened ‘consequences’ for these attacks but has not taken any overt action so far (apart from the rocket attacks Israel alleges were fired at it by Iranian militias). These militias and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah have the capability to launch thousands of rockets and short-range missiles at Israel. Hamas may join the fight.

Tensions in Iraq are also likely to escalate as the US and Saudi Arabia attempt to neutralise Iran’s predominant influence and militia presence by mobilising Sunni politicians and tribes, disaffecting Shia groups and exerting economic pressure on the Baghdad government. The Sunni elements could find themselves in a de facto alliance with remnants of the militant Islamic State (IS) group and Al Qaeda still present in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Tehran could also escalate pressure on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies by supplying the Houthis in Yemen with more lethal weapons, including longer-range missiles that could credibly threaten Riyadh. Shia-majority areas and enclaves eg in Bahrain and eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia, are also vulnerable to destabilisation.

The US itself is most vulnerable to an escalation of Iranian support to the already ascendant Afghan Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Tehran also has historical ties with the Tajiks, Hazaras and Shias in Afghanistan, which could be activated to disrupt any semblance of stability in Afghanistan. If Pakistan and Russia joined in such disruption, it would make a continued US presence in Afghanistan untenable.

The US believes its decision on the Iran deal conveys American determination to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. But he is now more unlikely to accept denuclearisation on the basis of US commitments alone.

Russia’s military cooperation with Iran is extensive across the region. Both are convinced that IS is a US creation. If Russia suffers extensive casualties because of Israeli or US air operations in Syria, Moscow is likely to retaliate forcefully in Syria and elsewhere, including Afghanistan.

The impending confrontation between Iran and the US, supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia, may defuse American scapegoating of Pakistan for its plight in Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s interests may suffer in several ways.

The biggest danger is a Saudi-Iranian proxy war on Pakistani soil, as happened in the 1990s. Pakistan must remain vigilant against any attempt by either side to use its territory for hostile operations against the other.

Second, a political settlement in Afghanistan may become even more difficult if it becomes a theatre of US-Iranian confrontation.

Third, Pakistan’s economy will be negatively affected. Higher oil prices will slow Pakistan’s already faltering economic growth. Trade with Iran will freeze or decline as Pakistani banks and companies try to avoid secondary US sanctions. Progress will stall, again, on the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline. Difficulties may arise in dealing with some Russian and Chinese companies that may be subjected to secondary US sanctions.

Unfortunately, in its present circumstances, Pakistan is unable to do much to prevent a dangerous escalation of regional and global tensions following the US renunciation of the Iran nuclear agreement. Its first priority must be self-preservation.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2018

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