Hopes of autumn

From Syria to US-Iran,signs of a thaw.

Written by T P Sreenivasan | Published: October 11, 2013 5:48 am

From Syria to US-Iran,signs of a thaw.

The salubrious early autumn in New York offers the ideal setting for the United Nations General Assembly,which takes place in the third week of September every year. This year,war clouds were visible in the Syrian firmament as delegates packed their bags to head to the General Assembly. Analysts around the world had declared that war was inevitable,given that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his citizens,and thus breached the red line. The United States,they said,could not help but militarily intervene in Syria to maintain its status and credibility among allies. Money,it was opined,was no problem,as the oil-rich Arabs would finance the war.

The experts were obviously wrong. The Americans,British and French people were in no mood for war,even if their leaders were. A regime change in the Middle East did not seem very attractive in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Mohammed Morsi’s removal from presidential office in Egypt and the cold-blooded murder of the American ambassador to Libya,who had also been the architect of the new Libyan regime,had dampened the enthusiasm for change. Assad still seemed strong and fundamentalist elements had crept into the dissident movement. A dithering US administration,therefore,grasped the straw that Russian President Vladimir Putin extended by way of a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. President Barack Obama claimed that Syria accepted the deal because of the gravity of his threat. Others thought that this episode signified the defeat of imperialism and triumph of the “communist” Putin,who had threatened the Americans through The New York Times. There was an element of wisdom in Obama’s and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s preference for avoiding war.

The beginning of the thaw in US-Iran relations was more dramatic,as the two countries had not spoken to each other since 1979. The first feeble signs of change after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took over were dismissed as unreal. But the announcement of direct contact between the two countries’ leaders,in a telephone call from Obama to Rouhani,shook the foundations of the theory that war was inevitable. What was more,Obama said that it was not merely a goodwill call. Iran’s nuclear programme was discussed and the US president was even persuaded that there was basis for an agreement. The discussion was termed an important breakthrough,after a generation of deep mistrust,by Obama. He also suggested that it could serve as the starting point for an eventual deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and for the renewal of relations between the two countries,which once were close allies. “The test will be meaningful,transparent and verifiable actions,which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place”,added Obama.

Sceptics have ruled out the possibility of change and have pointed out the geopolitical compulsions on both sides. They expect the mirage of peace will give way to war clouds,as it is unthinkable for Iran to give up its nuclear programme as long Israel is perceived as a threat.

India also contributed to this autumn of hope,with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House. An agreement was signed to begin work on the installation of a Westinghouse reactor in Gujarat. It is not known whether India relaxed its liability law,or the US its insistence on no supplier liability. But one irritant in India-US relations seemed to be fading away.

One exception to the general mood of change for the better was the disastrous India-Pakistan meeting in New York. Indian and Pakistani leaders did not even have the courage to announce the meeting beforehand. The situation along the Line of Control remains tense. The only substantive outcome of the summit was an agreement that the director general of military operations on either side would look into ceasefire violations. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not even have the courtesy to avoid referring to Kashmir in his speech at the General Assembly. Whether he referred to Manmohan Singh as a “dehati aurat” or simply narrated the story of a village woman who constantly complained about her neighbour,Sharif’s body language did not show any warmth. The meeting did more harm than good,because it highlighted that the two leaders are hostages,Sharif to his army and Singh to Indian public opinion. The claim that nothing was lost is untenable. We lost at least a dozen lives on the eve of the meeting.

Though the meeting failed to take things forward,in the eyes of international observers,it fits into the general trend of the relaxation of tensions.

The writer,a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA,is executive vice-chairman,Kerala State Higher Education Council

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