By Brig Samson S Sharaf
What is the worse that could happen to a country under sanctions for more than three decades, especially when the country is prepared to eat grass and not compromise its national self-esteem?
For over two decades the US policy selectively targeted Iran’s oil industry and limited the involvement of non-U.S. firms in Iranian petroleum projects. Iran remained defiant. In 2006, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions after Iran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The embargo now extended from USA and its trading partners to almost the entire world. Even independent countries under USA’s economic clout restricted their trade relations with Iran. This included China and Russia.
During this period, Iran also had to face an onslaught of Sunni dissidents along its Pakistani and Gulf border, a prolonged invasion and war with Iraq, Kurd uprisings, an unstable Afghanistan and incremental assassination of its nuclear scientists. Politically it absorbed the buckling of its closest ally Libya and endured Syria under siege. Iran was effectively circled and contained.
Quarantine in a globalised and interdependent world took its toll on the Iranian economy, central bank and common kitchen. In the early nineties, Richard Haas of Brookings Institute commented that sanctions as a coercion instrument do not work, rather cause human misery. He was right then and perhaps after being propelled to State Department, not so right now. Americans assessment that a long war with Iraq and economic hardships with peaking hyperinflation would result in social upheaval and a counter revolution was flawed. USA is more than prepared to display reciprocal flexibility towards Iran in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives rather than a humane compulsion of seeing Iranians suffer. Appointment of Chuck Hegal and John Kerry as cited in Pakistan’s Uncertain Portals (Nation 10 January 2013) signalled an Iranian thaw. Iranians unequivocally created conditions that would strengthen their bargaining position.
Iran has braved over thirty years of political isolation under with its national pride intact. Geopolitically, it has consolidated its position in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Syria; used its Persian connections to good effect in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan; engaged India to maintain economic lines; and opened cautious and limited windows to Russia and China. It also managed to maintain some connections with the invisible US government through the infamous Iran Contra Affair and operations of US oil and gas companies selling products to countries outside USA. Some level of contacts between USA and Iran was visible in the infamous US-Iran Contra Affair and now the visible correspondence between the heads of states. Everyone knew of the trickle of non-combat NATO logistics moving through Iran.
Strategically, Iran used its ethnic and sectarian cards to cover the flanks of US covert and overt operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran helped USA install Hamid Karzai as the President of Afghanistan and contain the ilk of Osama Bin Laden. Iraq War consolidated the hold of Shia majority in Iraq. The international surge against Syria was diffused through Iranian backed Russian diplomacy isolating Saudi Arabia. Iran also established a rapport with President Morsi of Egypt who was later ousted through a military coup backed by Saudi Arabia and USA.
Economic constraints could not deter Iran from developing its nuclear programme and providing the bargaining chip for future. 20% enrichment of uranium is now a foregone conclusion while the world keeps guessing the extent of its covert facilities capable of producing weapon grade uranium. Iran has developed an opaque and ambivalent nuclear deterrence.
Diplomatic circles believe that US-Iran negotiations were a foregone conclusion. All issues had been resolved through top secret contacts. Despite apparent hostilities, the two countries had secretly cooperated on issues of mutual concern and benefit. During the recent nuclear talks in Geneva, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius acted as a ‘bull in the china shop’ under Saudi and Israeli demands to place under safeguards 300 Kilograms of enriched (perhaps weapon grade) uranium. Allegedly, this stock can be used to tip five nuclear warheads. Given that France has signed a $4 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, this acrimony is understandable. The immediate deal provides limited relief to Iran but will most likely be consolidated into a comprehensive nuclear pact in six months. There is no moving back and the world will see an emerging Iran in West, South and Central Asia.
Despite cynics, analysis suggests that Iran has lost nothing and gained everything.
Epitomised in the flurry of events for the world to witness, Iran has agreed to suspend enrichment of uranium beyond 20%. Iran’s enrichment programme within this limit would continue under international safeguards to meet civilian needs. Iran has also agreed to cap its heavy water plant at Arak nuclear facility being used to extract plutonium. Plutonium is a less dense and compact nuclear fuel to make smaller nuclear warheads. It is processed through a production reactor like the one at Arak. Iran will retain 300- 500 kilograms of uranium it has already enriched beyond civilian use. Iran has also agreed to freeze further production of centrifuges and alleged rocket casings. However, there is no bar on the use of using existing ones under safeguards. As a confidence building measure Iran has agreed to facilitate IAEA visits to its nuclear facilities at Arak, Natanz, Fordow (Qom), Isfahan and Bushehr.
Reciprocally, all restrictions on Iranian international trade and travel have been removed. UK, USA, EU, Russian and Chinese companies will help Iran’s aviation industry to revamp and modernise. Iran will be facilitated to repair and refit more than 60 passenger aircraft dumped at Imam Khomeini International Airport (Tehran) and import 20 passenger aircraft on easy instalments. Iran’s banking sector will once again get its international operational linkages and conduct its international business without restrictions.
Iran is likely to secure US waivers worth $7 billion for the first year. It will be allowed to sell oil in any currency to the tune of $10 billion. EU will be free to do trade with Iran. Germany and UK alone have offered over 5 Billion Euros of trade. There is no limit on import of educational, engineering, IT, pharmaceutical and medical equipment. Iran will be allowed to buy aerial surveillance equipment to guard its borders with hostile states and allowed to sign contracts with any partner to boost its science and technology sector. If all goes well, Pak-Iran gas deal will get through if it is competitive.
Within neighbourhood, Iran has also secured its strategic position. It is now in a better position to take on the hostile Saudi diplomacy built around containment of Shia Islam. With considerable influence in Syria and Iraq and Shia populations in Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, it will limit the influence of Sunni militant organisations with connections to Middle East. Its Chabahar route connecting with Europe and constructed with Indian assistance will open up to global traffic. It will also be able to strengthen its relations with Pakistan beyond the existing border trade to mutual cooperation. Chabahar, Bandar Abbas and Gawadar combined have the potential of becoming the biggest economic corridor of the world.
India diplomat Mrs Chitra Narayanan was often seen in the lobbies of Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel but any Pakistani diplomat was conspicuous by absence. These are the lessons and winds of change. The government of Pakistan must take notice.
The article is written in consultation with Dr. Ejaz Hussain.