The Iran nuclear deal has changed the strategic map in our part of the world. We thought the Sunni Middle East would oppose it along with Israel, and a new Cold War threatening to become hot would ensue. But the Arabs have cooled down after blowing their top earlier on. It appears that the Gulf sheikhdoms embraced realism first: the UAE foreign minister visited Iran and met the leaders there; and the Saudis have invited the Iranian “deal-negotiating” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to a regional security dialogue happening in December. A Saudi statement has already looked at the deal as starters for a nuke-free zone in the Mideast and the Gulf.
Pakistan and India, both tied to Iran strategically but opposed to each other, are preening themselves on opportunities the Iran deal has offered. But they are doing it separately, studiously avoiding looking at each other. Pakistan’s Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi lost no time counting Pakistan “among the winners” from the deal and boasted of completing Pakistan’s section of the 80km gas pipeline “within six months”. Pakistan had been reprimanding itself for signing the pipeline deal in 2013 when it was under sanctions, allowing Iran a punitive clause if it didn’t build its section by 2015.
Iran had spent big money taking its section of the pipeline up to the Pakistani border. India and Pakistan didn’t give much thought to why Iran did this — and waived the fine Pakistan had to pay — but the fact is that Iran is looking to sell its gas big to India more than to Pakistan.
Iran has a lot of gas which it has not exploited as it should have and runs the risk of losing it to a much more active Qatar if their subterranean deposits are joined under the Gulf. India was originally the big market and Pakistan was to figure as the transit country, but no one in the world
can figure why the South Asian neighbours carry on the way they do.
But there is a pipeline waiting to cross into energy-starved South Asia, a pipeline more credible than the Turkmenistan pipeline called TAPI that Pakistan and India have signed up to, which has to cross areas of Afghanistan not expected to simmer down enough to allow passage for years ahead. Shortsighted Pakistan is gloating over a north-south economic corridor with Chinese help, not thinking it could become the world’s biggest trading hub with Indian trade plying through it to Central Asia in addition to the Chabahar route that it has built with Iran. Chabahar port and the Iranian gas-pipeline project could practically attract Iran into becoming a South Asian state for the economic good of the region as opposed to Afghanistan, which became a member of Saarc only to stage a remote-controlled India-Pakistan battle on its soil. What China might not be telling Pakistan yet: It is spending $46 billion as a Silk Road to India too.
In India, there are hard-nosed people with vision enough to grasp the new strategic opportunities. C. Raja Mohan, writing in The Indian Express, thinks the Iran deal “helps remove a number of recent constraints on Indian foreign policy”, enabling “a larger Indian role in the Greater Middle East” and that “India’s thinking about the Middle East has tended to be ideological and rooted in domestic political considerations”. He thinks Prime Minister Narendra Modi is temperamentally suited to reach out to Iran to set things right. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif too is focused on the economy rather than ideology and has taken the brunt of Pakistan’s anti-India lobbies without changing his outlook.
The opposite of war is not peace, but trade and investment. Ideological Pakistan is subject to occasional spasms of trade egotism after coming under China’s pragmatic pressures. It has been vaguely aware of the advantage of being a median state on whose soil neighbours seek transit routes to trade with the states of the outer circle.
But Pakistan’s ingrained militarism looks at this advantage as hostile leverage: Block passage and become important rather than give passage and become important. The good thing is PM Nawaz Sharif is an ideological deviant focused on the economy by his own confession. Iran thought of selling its gas within South Asia in 1990. As the idea gelled with Pakistan, India joined too, and the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline began to be called the “peace pipeline”, a not too hidden pun on smoking the peace pipe.
Then Iran fell back on its global ideological rivalries and got itself besieged with sanctions, which everybody wrongly thought would be ineffective. South Asia was also a vector of what may be called the “nuclear disease”; and Pakistan passed it on to Iran after saying it had caught it from India. India then signed a civil nuclear power deal with the US in 2008 and pulled out of the project.
In Persian, hero is called “qaharman”. After many years of crippling sanctions, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei okayed the deal, saying it was Iran’s heroic flexibility (“narmish-e-qaharmanana”). It’s time South Asia showed some of its own “narmish-e-qaharmanana” to welcome
Iran into its economic zone where a pragmatic China is already extending its silk roads.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’