India’s near-abroad: Iran’s regional moves

Close attention was paid by sections of India’s strategic community (and understandably so) to the statement of Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Javad Zarif, during his visit to Pakistan, in which he extended an invitation to Pakistan to join the ambitious Chabahar Project (about 70 kilometres from China’s ambitious Gwadar Project).

Zarif, while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), stated:

We offered to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have also offered Pakistan and China to participate in Chahbahar

He further went on to state that Iran’s ties with India were not in any way targeted at Pakistan, just as Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh were not against Iran.

Surprise in India

This invitation surprised many in India, given the fact that it has provided financial assistance for Phase 1 of the project and will operate two berths. During Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit in February 2018, one of the tangible outcomes was the lease contract signed by IPGL (Indian Port Global Limited) and Iran’s Port and Maritime Organization, for operating Phase 1 (Shahid Beheshti Port) over an 18-month period. The joint statement also made a clear reference to India’s unwavering commitment to the Chabahar-Zahedan Rail Line, which will enable transportation of goods all the way up to the Afghan border. The Indian side also stated that it would like to see Chabahar as part of the INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor). The INSTC will help in connecting India to Russia and Europe, via Iran.

Chabahar as India’s answer to Gwadar

Many in India have looked at Chabahar as India’s answer to the Gwadar Project, and of course its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The project is especially important to New Delhi because it enables India to bypass Pakistan, which has flatly refused to give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2016, during Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to Iran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan had signed a three nation transport and transit corridor pact to enhance connecitivity. While leaders of all three countries spoke about the relevance of this agreement in the context of connectivity, the Iranian President had made it clear that it was not targeted at anyone. Said Rouhani:

[This pact is] not against any other country […] it is beneficial to the entire region.

India also sent a consignment of wheat (15,000 tonnes) to Afghanistan through the Chabahar Port in 2017. The shipment was dispatched from Kandla (Gujarat, India) and reached Chabahar in Iran. From Chabahar it was transported by road to Nimroz Province in Afghanistan.

India’s response

Replying to Zarif’s statements in a press briefing, India’s Spokesman Raveesh Kumar stated that:

[It is the] prerogative of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to choose its partners for the development of infrastructure facilities there.

Kumar also explained the strategic relevance of the project given its geo-political importance.

India-Iran ties beyond the Chabahar Port

Ever since the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries, business linkages – and not just the Chabahar Project – between Iran and India have gotten a fillip. In 2017, India’s oil imports from Iran went up to 4.37 million barrel per day, even though there was a dip between April-December 2017 due to tensions between both countries on the Farzand B gas field. (Iran was supposed to award the gas field to India, but there have been differences on terms and conditions.) During Rouhani’s visit, both countries decided to address the obstacles related to banking and taxation, in order to bring about closer economic linkages.

Iran has thus emerged as an important strategic and trade partner for India.

What may have surprised sections of Indian government, along with its strategic thinkers, would be the Iranian invitation given to Pakistan, in spite of bilateral tensions between the two. In May 2017, for example, the Iranian Army Chief, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, had threatened to strike terror camps in Baluchistan (Pakistan) after the killing of ten Iranian guards by Jaish-Al-Adl in the Sistan-Baluchestan province. Said Baqeri:

[…] unless Pakistan control[s] the borders, arrest[s] the terrorist[s] and shut[s] down their bases […] we will hit their safe havens and cells wherever they are.

Since then tensions between the United States and Iran have also risen, and the latter has a close relationship with China. This has reshaped the Pakistan-Iran dynamic.

New Delhi’s real challenge

The real challenge for India in the near future is the hawkish stand of US President Donald Trump’s most recent appointee: Michael Pompeo (who was earlier head of the CIA, a main American intelligence agency). Trump is also likely to replace his current National Security Advisor, HR Mcmaster, and one possible replacement is John Bolton (former US Ambassador to the United Nations), a known hawk on Iran.

Pompeo would go along with Trump, and have no qualms in scrapping the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018, the next date when the issue comes up for consideration.

Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had differed with Trump on this issue on more than one occasion. During the election campaign, Trump had criticized the Nuclear Agreement. He had dubbed the agreement a ‘disaster’ and ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’. In an address to a Pro-Israel Lobby group, AIPAC, the US President had gone to the extent of stating that dismantling the deal would be his first priority.

Tillerson, no dove on Iran by any stretch of imagination, had categorically stated that dismantling the deal was not in US interests, though the US President disagreed. Commenting on their disagreements about Iran, Trump had stated:

When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible […] it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.

Tillerson was closely working with European countries to rework the deal, and address some of the Trump administration’s concerns.

The Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, has also predicted that Trump will walk out of the Deal: “The Iran deal will be another issue that’s coming up in May, and right now it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be extended.”

More aggressive Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is likely to become more aggressive after the exit of Tillerson. In fact, on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s arrival in the US, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, criticized the Iran Nuclear deal. Said the Saudi Foreign Minister:

Our view of the nuclear deal is that it’s a flawed agreement.

During the Saudi Prince’s visit, Trump too did not miss out on an opportunity to lambast the Iran nuclear agreement. While commenting on the future of the deal, the US President stated:

The Iran deal is coming up soon and you will see what will happen […] Iran hasn’t been treating that part of the world, or the world appropriately.

According to the Arab News it was also decided that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the US would set up a trilateral security forum which would look not just at issues pertaining to Middle East and Iran, but also South Asia.

Conclusion

India would be advised to be cautious, and while some sections the Right have been ecstatic with Trump’s stance vis-à-vis Pakistan (not to mention China), New Delhi needs to be prepared for some turbulence as a consequence of the recent changes within the Trump Administration. New Delhi needs to articulate its strategic and economic interests in Iran, not just to the US, but also to Saudi Arabia. In the past, the US has not objected to Iran’s close ties with India, but it remains to be seen whether or not Trump and his team will exhibit flexibility and pragmatism vis-à-vis Iran.

New Delhi has a myriad of foreign policy challenges, and Trump’s rigidity towards Iran is likely to be a major one in the near future.

Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.

India needs to work harder, both in its own backyard and in its near-abroad

While there is absolutely no doubt that Donald Trump has on more than one occasion sent harsh warnings to Islamabad – calling upon Pakistan to give up its support for terrorist groups or face the consequences – Trump’s predecessors had begun to reduce aid to Pakistan. During the Obama years, for example, American aid to Pakistan dropped from over 2 Billion USD in 2014, to a little over 1.1 Billion USD in 2016.

In his latest tweet, Trump minced no words, saying that Pakistan had fooled the US all these years, and that US will not take this lying down:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump tweeted early morning on New Year’s Day.

Earlier in the year, during his August speech pertaining to Afghanistan, Trump had categorically stated that it no longer could be business as usual, and that Pakistan needed to stop extending support to the Haqqani network and other groups. Said the US President:

We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.

A number of senior officials in the Trump Administration, such as the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence have hinted that harsh steps for Islamabad are a real possibility, some of which include not just withdrawal of aid to Pakistan, but also the removal of Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status.

During his recent visit to Afghanistan, Pence stated that President had put Pakistan on notice. Said Pence: “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the President said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

In an oped written for the New York TimesTillerson stated:

Pakistan must contribute by combating terrorist groups on its own soil. We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terror organisations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.

China – which has strategic and economic interests in Pakistan, with the primary one being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – has stood by Pakistan. While reacting to Trump’s August 2017 address, State Councillor Yang Jiechi said:

“We should attach importance to Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.”

India’s reactions

New Delhi has understandably been closely observing these events. Trump’s warnings to Pakistan are viewed as positive news for India, and the Trump Administration has also pleased New Delhi by speaking against violent groups that are targeting India. The US, for example, has lent support to India’s demand for declaring Jaish-E-Muhammed (JEM) Chief, Masood Azhar, a designated terrorist by the UN (this move has of course been stalled by China).

Realists in New Delhi will however be keeping an eye on the following issues.

First, sections of the political class in Pakistan, as well as old hands in the American administration will not allow things between Islamabad and Washington to go downhill. A number of Pakistani politicians, such as Sherry Rehman, have already stated that while Pakistan should have its own independent policy, and it should not be submissive, it need not be excessively aggressive. While such politicians may not publicly say so, the fact is that there is a large swath of the Pakistani population which may not be very comfortable with the US, but is even more uncomfortable with the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan as a consequence of CPEC.

In the US too, there are sections in the State Department which follow the approach of engaging with moderate forces in Pakistan given the country’s strategic importance. There is a section of the US establishment which does not want Pakistan to totally drift away from Washington’s orbit, mostly because China is beginning to take a larger role in the whole of South Asia, including Afghanistan. One of the declarations of the first Foreign Minister-level trilateral dialogue between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was the extension of (CPEC) into Afghanistan.

Said the Chinese Foreign Minister:

So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend CPEC to Afghanistan.

Both New Delhi and Washington will closely watch this development.

Apart from Beijing, Pakistan will rely on Saudi Arabia to soften Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Pakistan. The Sharif brothers, both Nawaz and Shahbaz, have strong connections in Saudi Arabia and while there were speculations that the Saudis were trying to broker a deal between the Pakistani military and the Sharifs, there is also a view that there’s an understanding between the Pakistani army and the Sharifs, and that the latter would use their links in the Saudi establishment to soften the Trump Administration, which has strong ties with Riyadh.

In conclusion, there is an increasing awareness with regard to the nexus between the Pakistani army and terror groups targeting India. Yet New Delhi should be more realistic in its calculations, and it needs to not just bank on Washington. Instead, India should also leverage its economic ties with Riyadh and Beijing to put more pressure on Pakistan. While there is no doubt that strategic convergence with Washington has increased phenomenally, Trump’s harsh words against Pakistan are not just driven by any conviction, but also by simple transactionalism. This very transactionalism has also created space for China to become more pro-active in South East Asia and South Asia. New Delhi thus needs to be pragmatic, deft, and leverage its economic rise more effectively.

Worth a gander

  1. good update on the mayhem in the Middle East
  2. as good as that update is, though: Iraq, Saudi Arabia to reopen border crossings after 27 years
  3. great read on Russia’s Far East and Russia’s travel writing genre
  4. in Russia, Lutheranism (Protestantism) is considered a “traditional” religion (h/t NEO)
  5. how social is reason?

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Saudi-Iran Conflict Is Not America’s Fault
  2. Gains from trade: China and the United States
  3. How Bad Is Trump’s Brand of Authoritarianism?
  4. How Hiroshima Became A War Crime
  5. Art and Porn in Edo Period Japan
  6. The [True?] Meaning of Marxism

What’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State?

One has captured the rent associated with being a state in the post-World War II world order. This means that one of these polities gets to build embassies in other states. It gets to participate in congresses. It gets to fly its flag at the United Nations and has access to the World Bank, military hardware markets (“for defense”), and FIFA tournaments.

Rent capture isn’t all good, of course. There are still costs. When Saudi Arabia beheads people, for example, it gets condemned internationally. Its reputation suffers. It has to repair relationships and launch rigorous public relations campaigns. Saudi Arabia has to do these things because if it looks intransigent to enough of its fellow states, there might be official repercussions for its actions. Saudi Arabia can’t just go around killing and looting and raping at will. It has to formalize its killing, looting, and raping through the international order by coming up with a national interest. (A national interest is also important for shoring up domestic support for such activities.)

But incorporating Islamic State into the international order is unfathomable. It’s an immoral action rewarding an immoral pseudo-polity. Besides, the sovereignty of the states of Iraq and Syria would be violated and their borders destroyed. It’s better to just keep bombing the region Islamic State claims to govern and arming the factions that claim to be its enemies. That’s been our policy towards the post-colonial world since 1945 and, while imperfect, it’s been working out well so far…