The American objective of isolating Iran continues to be a failure

Recent days have been witness to important events; The Middle East Conference at Warsaw, co-hosted by Poland and the US State Department on February 13 & 14, and the Munich Conference. Differences between the EU and the US over dealing with challenges in the Middle East, as well as Iran, were reiterated during both these events.

The Middle East Conference in Warsaw lacked legitimacy, as a number of important individuals were not present. Some of the notable absentees were the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, and the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, and Italy. Significantly, on February 14, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia to discuss the latest developments in Syria and how the three countries could work together.

Personalised aspect of Trump’s Diplomacy

In addition to the dissonance between EU and US over handling Iran, the dependence of Trump upon his coterie, as well as personalised diplomacy, was clearly evident. Trump’s son-in-law and Senior Aide, Jared Kushner, spoke about the Middle East peace plan at the Warsaw Conference, and which Trump will make public after elections are held in Israel in April 2019. The fact that Netanyahu may form a coalition with religious right wingers could of course be a major challenge to Trump’s peace plan. But given his style of functioning, and his excessive dependence upon a few members within his team who lack intellectual depth and political acumen, this was but expected.

EU and US differences over Iran

As mentioned earlier, the main highlight of both events was the differences over Iran between the EU and Israel, the US and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. While Israel, the US, and the Arabs seemed to have identified Iran as the main threat, the European Union (EU), while acknowledging the threat emanating from Iran, made it amply clear that it disagreed with the US method of dealing with Iran and was against any sort of sanctions. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the degree of stating that the goal of stability in the Middle East could only be attained if Iran was ‘confronted’.

The EU differed not just with the argument of Iran being the main threat in the Middle East, but also with regard to the methods to be used to deal with Iran. The EU, unlike the US, is opposed to the US decision to get out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and is all for engaging with Iran.

At the Warsaw Conference Vice President Mike Pence criticised European Union member countries for trying to circumvent sanctions which were imposed by the US. Pence was referring to the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) launched by Germany, France, and Britain to circumvent US sanctions against Iran. The US Vice President went to the extent of stating that the SPV would not just embolden Iran, but could also have a detrimental impact on US-EU relations.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton has, on earlier occasions, also spoken against the European approach towards the sanctions imposed upon Iran.

Differences at Munich Conference

The differences between the US and the EU over Iran were then visible at the Munich Conference as well. While Angela Merkel disagreed with Washington’s approach to the Nuclear Deal, she agreed on the threat emanating from Iran but was unequivocal about her commitment to the JCPOA. While commenting on the importance of the Nuclear Agreement, the German Chancellor said:

do we help our common cause… of containing the damaging or difficult development of Iran, by withdrawing from the one remaining agreement? Or do we help it more by keeping the small anchor we have in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas?

At the Munich Conference too, the US Vice President clearly flagged Iran as the biggest security threat to the Middle East. Pence accused Iran of ‘fueling conflict’ in Syria and Yemen, and of backing Hezbollah and Hamas.

GCC Countries at the Warsaw Conference

It is not just the US and Israel, but even representatives of the GCC which took a firm stand against Iran. (A video leaked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed this.)

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Khalifa went to the extent of stating that it is not the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but the threat from Iran which poses the gravest threat in the Middle East. Like some of the other delegates present at the Warsaw Conference, the Bahraini Foreign Minister accused Iran of providing logistical and financial support to militant groups in the region.

Similarly, another clip showed the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Adel al-Jubeir) saying that Iran was assisting and abetting terrorist organisations by providing ballistic missiles.

Iran was quick to dismiss the Middle East Conference in Warsaw, and questioned not just its legitimacy but also the outcome. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that the conference produced an ‘empty result’.

US allies and their close ties with Iran

First, the US cannot overlook the business interests of its partners not just in Europe, but also in Asia such as Japan, Korea, and India. India for instance is not just dependent upon Iran for oil, but has invested in the Chabahar Port, which shall be its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. New Delhi in fact has taken over operations of the Chabahar Port as of December 2018. On December 24, 2018, a meeting – Chabahar Trilateral Agreement meeting — was held and representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, and India jointly inaugurated the office of India Ports Global Chabahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ) at Chabahar.

The recent terror attacks in Iran as well as India have paved the way for New Delhi and Tehran to find common ground against terror emanating from Pakistan. On February 14, 2019, 40 of India’s paramilitary personnel were killed in Kashmir (India) in a suicide bombing (the dastardly attack is one of the worst in recent years). Dreaded terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad claimed responsibility. On February 13, 2019, 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide attack in the Sistan-Baluchistan province which shares a border with Pakistan. Iran has stated that this attack was carried out by a Pakistani national with the support of the Pakistani deep state.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Aragchchi en route to Bulgaria. In a tweet, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that both sides had decided to strengthen cooperation to counter terrorism, and also said that ‘enough is enough’. This partnership is likely to grow, in fact many strategic commentators are pitching for an India-Afghanistan-Iran security trilateral to deal with terrorism.

Conclusion

So far, Trump’s Middle Eastern Policy has been focused on Iran, and his approach suits both Saudi Arabia and Israel but it is being firmly opposed by a number of US allies. It is important that the sane voices are heard, and no extreme steps are taken. As a result of the recent terror attack in Pulwama, geopolitical developments within South Asia are extremely important. Thus, the US and GCC countries will also need to keep a close watch on developments in South Asia, and how India-Pakistan ties pan out over the next few weeks. New Delhi may have its task cut out, but will have no option but to enhance links with Tehran. Trump needs to be more pragmatic towards Iran and should think of an approach which is acceptable to all, especially allies. New Delhi-Tehran security ties are likely to grow, and with China and Russia firmly backing Iran, the latter’s isolation is highly unlikely.

Nightcap

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  2. A grim portrait of human nature Lou Marinoff, Footnotes to Plato
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  4. What can history tell us about the future of international relations? Sørensen & Møller, OUPblog

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  3. Sustainable dystopia: a form of permanent stagnation Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
  4. French is an Indian language Blake Smith, the Wire

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  2. A classic account of travel in Laos Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  3. The remarkable rise of John Lilburne Jackie Eales, History Today
  4. The dilemma of India’s undersea nuclear weapons Yogesh Joshi, War on the Rocks

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  1. Trump still trying to squelch media’s left-wing slant Robbie Soave, Hit & Run
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  3. The painted towns of Rajasthan (India) John Butler, Asian Review of Books
  4. Beyond the SETI paradigm Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

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  3. A forgotten Indian hero TR Vivek, Pragati
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Sri Lankan strongmen and Chinese initiatives: India’s neighborhood is as bustling as ever

On October 25, 2018 Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena suspended Parliament (till November 16, 2018) and sacked his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with Mahindra Rajapaksa (who served as President of Sri Lanka for a decade, from 2005 till 2015). Sirisena had wrested power from Rajapaksa in 2015. Wickremesinghe decided to battle it out, saying that Sirisena’s decision was illegal since none of the conditions under which a Prime Minister can be removed, under provisions 46(2) and 48 of parliament were applicable to the current situation. Rajapaksa announced that the President will reconvene Parliament on November 5, 2018.

Rajapaksa has been gaining ground in recent months

First, Rajapaksa, who had been written off totally, set up a new political outfit, SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna), which performed well in the local elections of February 2018.

More recently, Sirisena, who was initially considered Pro-China, accused Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) of meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs and plotting his assassination. He supposed to have denied this in a conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As President, Rajapaksa had a close relationship with China (there were allegations of a Chinese company even providing financial assistance for his campaign) and New Delhi was relieved to see his back.

The strategically important Hambantota Port Project was awarded to the Chinese during Rajapaksa’s presidency. China provided assistance to the tune of $190 million, and Sri Lanka had to lease out the project for a period of 99 years to Beijing in 2017, since debts to Beijing are mounting (total Sri Lankan debts to China are estimated at $13 billion). The Hambantota Project is now presented as a symbol of what has been referred to on more than one occasion as China’s debt trap diplomacy.

It would be pertinent to point out that the project had first been offered to New Delhi in 2010, but India declined stating that the project was not economically sustainable.

It would also be pertinent to point out here that, after his removal, Rajapaksa has made some statements in favor of close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. Indian PM Narendra Modi has met him on both his visits to Sri Lanka. In September 2018 Rajapaksa was himself in New Delhi.

How to approach the China factor

While there is no clarity as to how long this new arrangement will last in Sri Lanka, there are some broader issues which need to be dealt with.

The first question which arises is: should New Delhi view China’s involvement with suspicion or work jointly? While there is absolutely no doubt that, in recent years, India too has tried to come up with its own responses to the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia. This includes promoting greater connectivity within South Asian countries through the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) framework on the one hand, while also exploring synergies with Japan in order to check Beijing’s growing clout on the other. This includes not just cooperation under the umbrella of Japan’s PQI (Partnership for Quality Infrastructure) initiative, but also in areas like infrastructure and energy (two key instances being the metro project in Dhaka, where India’s Larsen & Toubro and Japanese companies are working jointly for developing Line 6, as well as an LNG terminal in Sri Lanka where Petronet and Japanese companies are making a joint investment to the tune of $300 million).

During Wuhan Summit one of the important issues discussed was that India and China will work together in Afghanistan (only recently both countries set up a joint training program for Afghan Diplomats). Pakistan has been trying to obstruct any big ticket cooperation between both countries, and that is cited as one of the main reasons why Beijing is shying away from any big ticket investments into a joint project in Afghanistan.

If Japan and China can work together in connectivity projects (Japan has even expressed its willingness to join the BRI), as was discussed during Abe’s recent China visit, New Delhi and Beijing too can explore certain instances where they work together. It would be pertinent to point out that the Global Times made an interesting argument in favor of New Delhi and Beijing working in tandem for Sri Lanka’s infrastructural development. While this may appear to be a pipedream currently, in the long run it can not be ruled out given the changing geopolitical equations.

Apart from this, there are clear lessons for New Delhi: that it should not put all eggs in one basket, and realize that certain leaders will have good relations with China. A former Diplomat, Ashok Kantha, who was India’s envoy to Sri Lanka, made the point that India needed to stop looking at domestic politics from a lens of ‘Pro-India and Pro-China’, as this is too simplistic.

While India was apprehensive about the election of K.P. Oli as Nepalese Prime Minister, he has been speaking about close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. During his visit to China in June 2018, Oli spoke about the possibility of Nepal emerging as a bridge between China and India.

In conclusion, New Delhi has to watch out for it’s own interests in South Asia, and should certainly ensure that no country has a stranglehold, but paranoia will be of no use. India needs to come up with viable alternatives to the BRI, while also being open to cooperation, as and when feasible. Apart from this, New Delhi needs to realize that countries in the neighborhood will give precedence to their own interests and even if they do maintain close economic linkages with China, it is not always targeted at India.