Iran Talks augur well for Pakistan
Weekly Pulse
15-21 November 2013
The historic round of talks in Geneva between Iran and the P-5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) over Iran’s nuclear issue ended abruptly on November 10, but on a promising note: Both sides agreed to pursue the path to peace and meet again on November 20. It is being widely hoped that the second round of these talks may sort out remaining differences and produce a preliminary accord—ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful, and international sanctions on Iran are significantly relaxed.

Of course, given the serious lack of trust and confidence between Iran and the West, it may take a while before US-Iran rapprochement reaches a level of irreversibility. However, the fact that for the first time since 1979 - when the Iranian revolution put Iran-US relations on a potentially colliding course - Tehran and Washington are motivated by pragmatic reasons to normalise relations is, indeed, reassuring.

Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and, therefore, has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The reason US and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, particularly France, Israel and Saudi Arabia, seem unwilling to grant this right to Iran is because of its bellicose approach on the nuclear issue. Such intransigent attitude on Iran’s part was apparent from former Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statements threatening Israeli security or denying the Holocaust.

Also undeniable were Iran’s consistent efforts to upgrade its nuclear potential in a manner that naturally arose international suspicions of its nuclear intensions. Issues of concern in this regard are the construction of a heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak and Uranium enrichment up to the weapon-grade level, as well as Iran’s refusal to give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the former and dispose of the latter as per IAEA demand.

It was precisely because of Iran’s unwillingness to compromise on such controversial aspects of its nuclear program that the United States and the European Union eventually came on the same page—after years of failed diplomacy in which the US pursued a hard stance by toeing the Israeli line, and major EU states like France opted for a flexibly policy. Consequently, Iran had to face the brunt of the most stringent international sanctions regime.

The impact of these sanctions on Iranian economy was massively hurtful. Assets worth billions of petro dollars were frozen. Whatever economic connectivity Iran had with the outside world, including reliance on crucial imports for industrial and civilian consumption, was severely disrupted. The currency also nose-dived. With a bulk of the youth segment of the working population unemployed, the internal reality was ripe for a major change of leadership. This is where the legacy of Ahmadinejad ended—with moderate leader Hassan Rouhani getting elected as new President and offering an olive branch to America.

As for US approach to Iran, the Obama Administration has, since the first term, been willing to stand up against the pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the strong Israeli lobby at the Capitol Hill. In his historic Cairo speech, President Obama had addressed the Muslim world, acknowledging Iran’s right to peaceful uses of atomic power. He has ended the Iraq war and is taking NATO troops out of Afghanistan. Now if US-Iran relations also normalise, then this will be President Obama’s most important foreign policy accomplishment.

However, as argued before, the path to rapprochement in Iran-US relations—for which the conclusion of a preliminary agreement guaranteeing peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, and easing of international sanctions on Iran will be an important first step—may still take a long time. Part of the reason for the purpose is the enduring nature of their conflict since 1979. However, perhaps more importantly, US allies in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel may continue to act as the spoilers of peace.

Whatever incremental progress the US-Iranian rapprochement makes in coming months will have crucial implications for Pakistan. The first positive impact will be on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, whose Iranian leg is complete and only Pakistan’s section of the pipeline remains to be completed. One of the main reasons for the lack of progress on the project is the pressure on Pakistan from the US, and also reportedly from Saudi Arabia, not to proceed further. Perhaps that is why an Iranian minister went public recently in saying that Iran was no more interested in the project, with Pakistan subsequently seeking Iranian clarification on the issue.

If the US and Iran make progress on the nuclear issue, then Pakistan may not be constrained by international sanctions to pursue the pipeline project. This will go a long way in tackling its acute energy crisis. As for Saudi reservations, just as the US is currently trying to assure its Gulf allies, particularly Riyadh, that it should not worry about P-5 +1 talks with Iran; Pakistan can likewise attempt to convince the Saudis that the acute energy crisis leaves it with no other choice but to expedite the work on Iran pipeline.

Second, Iran is our next-door neighbour, with whom we have centuries of cultural and economic links. Pakistan’s search for extra-regional, religious identity has eventually had a violent extremist backlash, which necessitates immediate improvement of Pakistan’s regional relations. Until 1979, the two countries were arch allies, and relations in recent years have brought them together once again on the same platform, including in Afghanistan—which was a major source of division in the 1990s.

Finally, the US-Iran rapprochement will have a crucial effect on the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, whose success is extremely important for Pakistan’s security. Tehran has influence in western-central Afghanistan. Moreover, on the issue of establishing an inclusive Afghan regime, the interests of almost all of Afghanistan’s regional and international stakeholders - including Iran, Pakistan and the US - seem compatible. Thus, for all of these reasons, Pakistan should welcome progress in the Iran-P5+1 talks, as and when it occurs.