Clouds of War over Iran
09 May, 2006
By Ishtiaq Ahmad
As the clouds of yet another war hover across Pakistan's western borders with Iran, no other country but Pakistan will face its gravest repercussions in the region. The foremost consequence of this war and its aftermath will be the refugee influx from Iran, chiefly the Shia revolutionary clergy in the case of a possible regime change and the consequent insurgency or resistance against the US-installed authorities.
This is a real-time possibility given Pakistan's soft borders and deep linkages that our minority Shia population has developed with the Iranian clergy since the 1979 Revolution. After Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders and activists, the Mullahs of Iran should be the last thing we can afford to host. Even otherwise, Pakistan has had its enough share of refugees and illegal immigrants, and all of their respective pitfalls. In fact, the tale about possible repercussions of this war for us may go much beyond these pitfalls, even including the realm of domestic politics.
Why avoiding war over Iran is in Pakistan's best interest?
Given that, Pakistan's best policy today should be to do whatever it can on its own and with the help of its regional and global partners to avoid war in the first place. It is more than clear now that our leadership is presently pursuing exactly the same option not in words but through a concrete policy initiative.
Sunday's announcement in Islamabad after the conclusion of the three-day session of the Iran-Pakistan Joint Working Group (JWG) about the joint Gas Pipeline agreement, which the two countries are expected to finalize in June, is a pointer in this regard.
Like the EU-3 and China before, and Russia even today, Islamabad's strategy is to engage Iran in a bilateral process aimed to producing some specific mutually beneficial outcome.
That is why we are setting specific deadlines for the finalization of the Gas Purchase and Sale (GPS) agreement. For instance, the next JWG session in the third week of May in Islamabad will finalize remaining technical and financial modalities of the deal. This will be followed by the declaration of a Joint Communique on the agreement in Tehran in June.
While our energy-specific bilateralism with Iran is getting in full gear, the politically inspired multilateralism over Iran's nuclear programme is simultaneously gaining momentum. The former initiative gives the impression as if everything is normal for the two regional neighbours, while the latter development indicates a growing international crisis over Iran's nuclear issue.
There are two immediate reasons why we wish the Iranian nuclear issue to be settled diplomatically one security and another economic. First, with core disputes with India remaining unresolved, the situation in Afghanistan not corresponding to Pakistan's regional desires, and the Balochistan strife also showing no sign of disappearing, Pakistan can ill afford to have another crisis on its western borders.
Secondly, besides our regional security predicament, which is likely to worsen in the case of the war over Iran, we seem to have de-linked regional political issues be it the international crisis over Iranian nuclear issue or our dispute with India over Kashmir from our growing quest for energy as a direct outcome of the recent growth in domestic economy.
In the aftermath of the conclusion of the nuclear energy deal between Washington and New Delhi, and America's refusal to sign a similar agreement with us, Pakistan's search for external sources of energy has assumed greater urgency. If we are able to get 2.8 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas supply from Iran as provided for in the GPS deal being finalized with Iran this would be a great headway for the economy of the country.
However, our ability to prevent war over Iran is very much restrained and largely depends upon whether the international diplomacy over Iran's nuclear issue succeeds or not. If the latter does not succeed, then whichever pipeline deal we sign with Iran will become immaterial. Had the Indians not reneged on the originally proposed tripartite gas pipeline agreement, Islamabad's ability to contribute to the diplomatic settlement together with India could have mattered considerably.
Can international diplomacy over Iran's nuclear issue succeed?
Like Pakistan, the French and the Germans, as part of the EU-3, were also until recently pursuing a strategy of engagement with Iran, despite consistent push from the Bush administration to have a hasty international settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. However, Iran's rather bellicose stand on the matter forced them to get closer to the American approach, which is shared by the British.
As always, the Chinese have mostly remained ambivalent on the matter. This past week, however, they have started to be much more categorical intheir pronouncements. Like the Russians, China has declared its intention to oppose any US-sponsored bid to invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to impose economic sanctions or take military action against Iran.
As far as Russia is concerned, its present approach to handle the Iranian case appears to be the same as that of Pakistan. Like us, the Russians are engaging the Iranians. Even after IAEA's confirmation of Iran's non-compliance with last year's Security Council resolution prohibiting it from enriching uranium, Moscow has concluded a $70 million deal to provide defensive missile systems to Iran for the protection of its nuclear installations.
Moreover, the Russian proposal to let Iran enrich uranium in the Russian territory under IAEA safeguards is still on the table. The Iranian leadership has also shown renewed interest in the exercise of this mid-range option which will allow Iran to pursue its programme for acquiring peaceful nuclear energy in a third country and, consequently,
allay US-Western apprehensions about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons pursuit in the guise of acquiring peaceful nuclear capability. Tehran has, however, linked this option with the handling of its nuclear case by the IAEA and not within the framework of the Security Council.
What is clear from the Iranian diplomacy throughout the time the international crisis over its nuclear programme has gained momentum is that Tehran first raises the stakes by showing a bellicose attitude. Once the international stakes for it increase to an extent that is perceived to be unaffordable, the Iranian leadership starts to back down. This has happened many a times before, and the same appears to be the case in the last week or so.
For instance, the day the IAEA chief Mohammed al Baradie confirmed Iran's non-compliance with the Security Council resolution essentially paving the way for another IAEA referral to the Security Council for possible action Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenai threatened to attack "US interests worldwide" in the case of any US-led attack on Iran.
If that was the "stick," the "carrot" followed soon afterwards with the Iranian Foreign Ministry officials indicating Iran's willingness to discuss the Russian proposal, and even consider short-notice inspections of its nuclear installation by the IAEA. The US reaction to Iran's renewed flexibility was a plain "no."
In the days ahead, the EU-3 will make a last ditch effort to convince the Iranians to freeze their nuclear enrichment process, and accept unconditional IAEA safeguards. The foreign ministers of Permanent Five at the Security Council plus Germany will make a similar effort in their meeting on Tuesday in Paris. The Chinese and the Russians will reiterate their intention to block any Security Council bid to impose economic sanctions or allow the use of force under Articles 41 and 42 of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, respectively.
At the end of the day, however, it is the United States and Revolutionary Iran who will decide whether diplomacy wins or the war occurs. The way the US-Iran conflict over the latter's nuclear ambition has evolved over the past year or so seems to suggest that we are in for a greater confrontation on the matter.
If the war over Iran occurs, what will be its causes?
The principal cause of a US-led war against Iran must be seen within the broader, post-1979 hostile ties between Washington and Tehran. The United States does not seem to have forgotten the humiliation it suffered at the hands of Iranian revolutionaries when they took the entire staff of the US embassy in Tehran hostage for full 444 days after the February 1979 Revolution.
The Americans did make an unsuccessful bid to release these hostages, which led to top-level rifts and resignations in the Carter Administration. The disastrous happening also led to the electoral demise of the Democrats in the 1980 elections, brining the hawkish Republican President Ronald Reagan into power.
The 1980's saw recurrent rounds of Iran-US hostility with the US backing the Saddam-led Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran, and Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeni declaring America as a "great Satan" of the world, to name only a few. Even though the rise to power of moderates such as Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami did provide avenues of accommodation in ties between Washington and Tehran in much of the 1990's, the Bush administration's pursuit of unilateralism in the post-9/11 era, and the ascent to power of an equally hawkish Ahmedinejad have dimmed all hopes for a compromise.
The conflict between Iran and the US, therefore, is not specifically related to Iran's recent nuclear ambitions. There is a long history of 27 years behind it. We simply cannot ignore this reality. Both countries have equally contributed to raising the stakes in their hostile relationship. Iran's nuclear issue is just the latest episode in this relationship. The difference this time is that the issue is becoming a means for the long-awaited direct showdown between them.
Does the Russian and Chinese threat or use of veto at the Security Council really matter?
The argument that the Russians or the Chinese will veto the Security Council resolution for either economic sanctions or use of force against Iran a possibility that both Moscow and Beijing made clear on Tuesday is debatable on two grounds.
First, both Russia and China will surely resist the American attempt to change another regime in the Middle East. For, just as in the case of Iraq war and its aftermath, such a regime change will largely benefit the United States and its vital allies, primarily Great Britain and Israel. It will further consolidate American influence in West Asia in particular and the Middle East in general.
However, the key question is whether Russia and China have the guts to confront America for the sake of a Revolutionary Muslim regime. After all, both are intermittently depended upon the United States and the G-8 world for aid, trade and a host of other issues, including their perceptions of terrorism being largely emanating from the world of Islam. Chinese President Hu Jintao was recently in the US, concluding an array of agreements with American corporations including a multi-billion dollar deal for buying over 2,000 Boeing planes in the next decade and a half.
As for Russia, we should not forget the several reversals that Moscow has suffered since the Soviet collapse primarily at the hands of the US and its NATO allies the Balkan wars, the Iraq war, the uneven nuclear deals, the so called orange revolutions next-door.
We can particularly recall the Russian reaction to two events in the Balkans in the 1990's: the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina followed by the war over Kosovo. When the Russians could not save their Orthodox Christian Slavic race from defeat and humiliation, how can we expect them to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Iranian Revolutionaries?
The second ground on which we can debate the possible use of veto by Russia and China is to recall what happened in the run up to the Iraq war. In that case, even America's European allies Germany and France were opposed to the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 permitting the use of force. The Americans finally by-passed the Security Council process and went for a military action with the help of a "coalition of the willing."
There is, therefore, a clear-cut precedent of the US-led use of force against a third country premised upon pre-empting the threat or the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction against vital Western interests. In the case of Ahmedinejad's Iran, which has threatened to wipe Israel off the world map the option of pre-emption cannot be ruled out.
The preemption in Iran's case could be a unilateral Israeli air strike of Iran's nuclear facilities. After all, in this case again, we have the precedent of an Israeli air strike against Iraq's nuclear reaction at Osirak in the early 1980's. The Western media has already started to speculate about such an eventuality before September, when Iran will be able to secure its nuclear installations with the deployment of the Russian defensive missile systems.
The latest indication of a possible Israeli air strike on Iran, which will most likely lead to an Iranian military response, triggering a wider war, was the Tuesday statement by Israeli Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz on the eve of the country's Independence Day. He said that Iran's nuclear programme represented an existential threat to the Jewish state, and that the world had the military might to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it clear the United States would seek a Security Council Resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could be enforced through penalties or military action.
Ten questions that we need to consider in the run up to a possible war over Iran.
What should we do if Israel undertakes a unilateral nuclear strike against Iran's nuclear facilities?
Can we, or, for that matter, other major Muslim countries in the region remain neutral in the case of a war over Iran?
Will not the war over Iran complicate our role as a frontline state in the US-led war on terrorism in the region?
What should be our stand if yet another US -led "coalition of the willing" succeeds in changing the current regime in Iran and replace it with a pro-US/Western transitional authority?
How will we cope with the start of another insurgency next-door, especially with likely accusations of Shia insurgent infiltration from across the Balochistan-Iran border?
If the Russians and the Chinese under pressure from the US agree to a Security Council resolution to economically isolate Iran, what will be the future of our pipeline deal with Iran?
Do we have any alternative in mind to secure our growing energy needs for example, securing a nuclear cooperation deal with the US in exchange for being neutral in the war?
Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan has already indicated at a press conference in Washington that in case the Security Council passes a resolution to economically isolate Iran as a punishment for its nuclear weapons ambitions, Pakistan will be obliged to enforce the UN-mandated economic blockade of Tehran. If that were the case, what measures would we consider to implement the UN decision? After all, our role in implementing similar resolutions against Taliban was less than satisfactory for obvious reasons.
Last but not the least, with a heavy influx of Shia refugees, including the leadership of the Iranian clergy, how will we manage the political consequences of the war on Iran?
Our leadership should be rest assured that the public outrage on the possible war in Iran, or even its economic isolation, could be of cataclysmic orientation. Does the already precarious fabric of the state have the capacity to manage the enraged public nationwide?