Nuclear Deal: Implications for Iran’s Neighbors

Tehran's pro-America neighboring capitals like Baku, Kabul and Islamabad remain wary of Iran's post-nuclear deal ambitions

Posted on 02/12/14
By Naveed Ahmad | Via Today's Zaman
P5+1 Talks on Iran's Nuclear Program being held in Geneva on November 7, 2013. (Photo by US Mission Geneva, Creative Commons License)
P5+1 Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program being held in Geneva on November 7, 2013. (Photo by US Mission Geneva, Creative Commons License)

Iran will receive relief worth 7 billion dollars with a waiver of economic sanctions within the next six months. According to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Iran may get a potential benefit worth $20 billion from “unfrozen assets, recouped petrochemical and auto sales and an array of illicit trade.”

Suspension of curbs on gold and precious metals, the auto sector and petrochemical exports may generate some $1.5 billion in revenue for the country. With financial restrictions against most Iranian banks staying in place, Iran’s dependence on metals such as gold as a hedge against a balance-of-payments crisis will increase. Until last July, Iran used to buy $1.5 billion a month to keep its “rial” currency stable.

 

Moreover, US-Iran trade will return to normalcy, further strengthening Iran’s economy and image. Although the purchase of civilian aircraft parts will be allowed, the broader architecture of sanctions will remain in place as has been claimed by the Barack Obama administration so far.

 

The new arrangement will allow Iran to sell petroleum to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Taiwan against purchase of their local goods instead of receiving cash payments.

 

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will stamp the West’s eagerly awaited nuclear deal with Iran, the fact remains that it will continue to maintain enrichment facilities under a mountain, safe from missile or bomb attacks by its foes. Natanz, besides other nuclear facilities, houses thousands of centrifuges, providing Tehran with more than enough low enriched uranium to make a bomb. Eagerness to undo the sanctions to resume business with a rich and sizable country may not allow a sane leader to examine its pitfalls amid such high stakes from a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory.

 

For the world powers as well as Iran, there is a reason to celebrate the prospects of a nuclear deal. Before a final agreement is reached, politicians and business leaders around the world are lining up to see President Hassan Rouhani’s aides capture the oil-rich nation’s market.

 

Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared as the most eager for early bird advantage. Lining up his cabinet for a hearing before the ayatollah, he even shelved standard diplomatic protocols such as hoisting the Turkish flag alongside the host nation’s. With graft allegations at home, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) seems to be searching for more than business there. Calling Iran his second home definitely left many Pakistanis with an inferiority complex after their sudden demotion (Turkey has traditionally maintained very warm relations with Pakistan). However, the onus lies on Tehran to prove Erdoğan’s goodwill to be a reality.

 

The weary neighbors

The Turkish intelligentsia and the public see Iran as an antagonist, sectarian state rather than a friendly peaceful neighbor
The Iranian naval flotilla in the Atlantic or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hawkish statement may slow but not stall the process of détente. Tehran’s pro-America neighboring capitals like Baku, Kabul and Islamabad remain wary of Iran’s post-nuclear deal ambitions. The Turkish people, too, have vivid memories of defiance by the Persian state. Politically shaken Erdoğan is in dire need of friends not in Europe or the Middle East but in Iran, Iraq and Russia. About a million Syrian refugees in Ankara’s backyard, however, tell a different tale. The crisis in Syria is largely of the making of Iran and Russia. The presence of Syrian refugees in the touristic Fatih district and elsewhere in İstanbul are daily reminders of the volatility of the region.

 

In general, the Turkish intelligentsia and the public see Iran as an antagonist, sectarian state rather than a friendly peaceful neighbor. The mistrust at a societal level won’t diminish with mere words from their prime minister.

 

Pakistan, Iran’s 188-million-strong nuclear neighbor, has been battling the ayatollahs’ attempts to export the Shiite revolution since the fall of the shah of Iran. Tehran was the first capital to recognize Pakistan as a sovereign state in August 1947. Ever since, the two neighbors have enjoyed exceptional relations. Despite the ills of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) knitted Pakistan with Iran and Turkey. During the 1965 war (between Pakistan and India), Pakistani Air Force fighter jets flew to Iranian bases in Mehrabad and Zahedan for refueling and safety. Tourists drove from Europe to Kabul and vice versa. The İstanbul-Tehran-Quetta/Karachi-Kabul route was nicknamed the hippie trail.

 

The fall of the shah of Iran struck Pakistan like lightning. Pakistan had undergone a tumultuous phase resulting not only in a military coup but also the hanging of a controversial but popular leader, Zufliqar Ali Bhutto, from massive protests against election rigging. In less than a decade of losing East Pakistan, the country suddenly got stripped of a cordial southwestern neighbor. Tehran was furious at the West and its allied nations in the region. Within months of the revolution, Pakistan’s Shiite community formed Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafria (Movement for Imposition of Shiite Jurisprudence) in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reinforced Pakistan and the West’s alignment, which further angered Iran.

 

Thousands of Pakistanis lost their lives in Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence in the post-Iran revolution ’80s and ’90s. Up until the present day, Pakistan-Iran relations remain less than cordial
Thousands lost their lives in Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence in the ’80s and ’90s. Up until the present day, Pakistan-Iran relations remain less than cordial. Since 2001, more than 60,000 Pakistanis have died in extremism fueled by non-state actors, mainly the Taliban, a hard-line Sunni militia.

 

Not only has Pakistan defended Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear technology, it has been actively involved in dissuading Iran from pursuing a nuclear program. Wikileaks revealed that General Pervez Musharraf, Premier Shaukat Aziz and Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri had held seven meetings with their Iranian counterparts besides numerous telephonic contacts by mid-2000. Islamabad tried to mediate between Washington and Tehran as well.

 

The nascent move of rapprochement between Iran and the West makes Pakistan’s policy-makers nervous. While Islamabad has been concerned at Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the emerging scenario is no less worrisome. Hypothetically speaking, if Iran agrees to the P-5 demands and satisfies the IAEA in line with the NPT, the economic and technological sanctions will be undone.

 

Tehran observers fear increased financial support for Pakistan’s well-placed, vocal and tightly knit 13 percent Shiite population, which has faced its share of terrorist attacks along with their Sunni counterparts at the hands of hard-line Taliban militia. The tit-for-tat sectarian killings have been gaining pace since 2013 across the country. Over the years, Shiite communities from Pakistan’s length and breadth have not only been frequently traveling Iran for pilgrimage, but seminaries in Qom and universities elsewhere in the Persian state offer them scholarships.

 

Pakistan is set to see Iran as a more confident and stronger competitor in post-2014 Afghanistan, where Washington and Iran have common friends and foes
The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline has meager prospects to realize the exorbitant tariff hurriedly agreed by the Asif Ali Zardari-led government (in Pakistan). Iran’s religious elite has prioritized Shiite Islam over realpolitik in the case of neighboring Muslim states. Pakistan is set to see Iran as a more confident and stronger competitor in post-2014 Afghanistan, where Washington and Iran have common friends and foes. Post-shah Iran’s relations with India have been particularly worrisome for Pakistan. With India’s growing petrochemical needs and Iran’s regional power aspirations, the scenario does not hold much promise for a financially weak and religiously polarized Pakistan. Realizing the future risks, Riyadh has recently been according greater attention to Islamabad’s challenges.

 

Azerbaijan sees Iran as a complex neighbor that has not only befriended its arch-rival Armenia but has also invested heavily in exporting the Shiite revolution since its independence after the Soviet breakup
Like Iran’s other neighbors, Azerbaijan is equally less likely to see a silver lining in the emerging scenario. The Central Asian nation sees Iran as a complex neighbor that has not only befriended its arch-rival Armenia but has also invested heavily in exporting the Shiite revolution since its independence after the Soviet breakup. Though contained to a good degree, still Azeris graduating from the Qom seminaries are on the rise. Such alumni act more like emissaries of Iran than nationals of Azerbaijan.  Baku, too, has much at stake if the Tehran-Washington rapprochement occurs. With the increase in Iran’s hydrocarbons, petroleum prices are expected to fall, directly hitting the Azeri economy. Iran has increased support for Armenia’s aggressive designs towards the conflict involving Nagorno-Karabakh. Resultantly, Azerbaijan has developed deeper ties with the United States and Israel.

 

While armed clashes between Iranian and Azerbaijani border guards have become more frequent over the past three years, the bilateral trade turnover has also shrunk from $539 million to $263 million.

 

The challenges of Revolution 2.0

President Barack Obama and his European allies have exhibited resolve to move ahead in reaching a deal with Rouhani’s Iran, who has defied the hard-liners so far. The Western capitals have ignored the new regime’s domestic policies towards minorities, women and press freedom. Like his European and American friends, the Iranian president is putting a premium on removing political and economic isolation.

 

Rouhani is no Gorbachev by any measure. He can neither reform the political system nor challenge the rationale behind the country’s policies towards the Muslim world
Rouhani is no Gorbachev by any measure. He can neither reform the political system nor challenge the rationale behind the country’s policies towards the Muslim world. Except for a proactive Turkish leader, none of the neighboring states’ leaders have reached out to Rouhani. Tehran’s Syria policies remain no different from those of his predecessors as Shiite fervor remains a dominant factor in Iran’s foreign policy towards the Muslim world.

 

True to its character, Iran will project lifting of the IAEA sanctions as its victory. The confidence thereof will be tantamount to Revolution 2.0. Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Afghanistan seem anything but ready to withstand its resurgence and assertiveness yet again.

 

Erdoğan’s closeness to Iran is costing him his credibility, while his policies against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are taking their toll on the country’s economy and society. He won’t be able to handle the inherent contradiction towards Iran’s Syria redline. There is a cost for him if he settles either way.

 

With the situation in Syria worsening by the day, the region is at greater risk of a sectarian flare-up
Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif has extended a hand of friendship and reconciliation towards India. Delhi has not reciprocated with much warmth. Iran, however, poses more challenging questions for Pakistan’s new government. Amid a growing pull from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan can’t afford any hostility with Iran, which has invested heavily in creating an effective lobby over the past two decades.

 

Azerbaijan, too, awaits positive overtures from Iran’s new leadership. Given the conflict of interest at multiple levels, Baku and Tehran both require enormous political will to lessen the tensions. With the Arabian Gulf on the one hand, Iran is asserting itself in the Caspian on the other, with its increased military presence and rhetoric both.

 

With the situation in Syria worsening by the day, the region is at greater risk of a sectarian flare-up, the signs of which have already manifested themselves. A softening of Iran’s pro-Assad stance may ease nerves not only in Saudi Arabia but elsewhere in its neighborhood.

 

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic with a focus on Pakistan and the Middle East, as well as a co-founder of Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges. Twitter @naveed360; naveed@silent-heroes.tv

Today’s Zaman is a leading newspaper of Turkey.

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