Rouhani’s major challenges: Isolation, economy, relations with neighbours
Iran attracts international attention not merely because of its geographic location and its oil and gas resources. Its uneasy relationship with the Arab kingdoms in the neighbourhood and its continued revolutionary zeal has implications for regional and global politics. Above all, its nuclear porgramme is another issue of contention in the Gulf and the Middle East region. The United States and other western powers take a strong exception to the nuclear porgramme.
However, one can easily discern a difference in the disposition of the US and the European states towards Iran and its nuclear programme. The US has adopted a strident approach towards Iran’s nuclear programme and talks of employing all options, including military action, to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Despite the international pressures Iranian government is fully determined to carry on with its nuclear programme, which it claims to be peaceful.
When Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani assumes the office next month he will be faced with the above mentioned issues. It would be a challenging task to avoid Iran’s isolation at the international level without compromising on the basic policy planks. He will have to address the question of relationship with the neighbouring Arab states, how to respond to internal strife in some Arab countries, especially in Syria, Bahrain and Egypt, and how to convince the west that the Iranian nuclear porgramme does not have weaponization agenda. He will need to strengthen the working relations with the neighbouring states, especially the Gulf region states that view Iranian nuclear programme with a lot of suspicion. Above all, the economic problems will have to be addressed as the Iranian economy is under pressure because of the economic sanctions by the US, the United Nations and some European countries. Iran’s revenue from selling oil and gas abroad has declined over the last three years.
The conservative Arab kingdoms, especially Saudi Arabia, have uneasy relationship with Iran. These states have working relations with Iran. However, mutual distrust often mars the relationship. The conservative Arab states are perturbed by the appeal of Iran’s Islamic revolution in the Arab world, especially for the groups that challenge the ruling elite in these states. That is why the Arab states have attempted to project Iranian Revolution as a Shia movement but this has not put an end to the appeal of the Iranian Revolution for the ordinary people in the Arab world.
The conservative Arab states and Iran are supporting different groups in Bahrain and Syria. Iran supports the opposition in Bahrain and the Bashar al Assad government in Syria. It also supports the Iraqi government against the Al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamic-Salafi groups. The Arabs project this as an Iranian effort to boost the political forces with Shia orientations. However, such a skewed explanation falters when Iran’s support for the Hamas movement in Palestine and the Morsi government in Egypt (2012-2013) is taken into account. Iran is opposed to political accommodation towards Israel, as advocated by the Hamas movement. These governments do not fall into the Shia category. Iran has good working relations most Muslim states without any sectarian consideration. A good part of Iranian non-official business and commercial activity is based in the United Arab Emirates.
However, it is well-known that in the 1980s and the 1990s the Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq under Saddam Hussain and some other Arab states competed with Iran to build support for them in Muslim states, including Pakistan, by offering financial support to religious seminaries of their respective denominations. All this was against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Iran has maintained friendly relations with Pakistan with an emphasis on shared historical and cultural linkages and the sharing of views on major regional issues. However, problems arose in their relations on specific issues but such differences did not persist over time.
Pakistan was quick to recognize the Islamic government in Iran in February 1979 but the Iranian government viewed Pakistan’s relations with the US with a lot of suspicion in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Pakistan and Iran supported the opposite sides in the internal strife in Afghanistan. Pakistan supported the Afghan Taliban and Iran favoured the then Northern Alliance. In the post September 2001 period, the revival of Pakistan’s relations with the US in the context of countering terrorism revived Iranian fear of the US using Pakistani territory for military action against Iran. Pakistan assured Iran that its territory would never be used against Iran.
Iran provides over 70 megawatts electricity for use in Balochistan. It has offered additional 1000 megawatt to Pakistan. However, Pakistan has so far not erected transmission lines from the Iranian border to its electric grid system in Balochistan. The Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project faces an uncertain future as the present Pakistani government does not show much interest in it because it faces the US and Saudi pressure that want Pakistan to get gas from Turkmenistan and Qatar. Despite these problems, Iran and Pakistan are expected to maintain friendly and helpful interaction with each other.
A recently published book entitled “Iran and the Bomb – Nuclear Club Busted” by Ghani Jafar and Shams-us-Zaman provides an insightful and well-researched history and politics of Iran’s nuclear programme. It also places its nuclear programme in the regional and global context, pointing out the challenges Iran faces from the US and Israel. It also discusses how the Gulf and other Arab kingdoms view Iran’s nuclear programme.
This comprehensive study written in a straight forward manner presents a wealth of knowledge on Iran’s nuclear issues. The book acknowledges that Dr A.Q Khan helped Iran’s nuclear programme and makes a strong argument that if Iran decides to acquire nuclear weapons, it will neither destabilize the region nor threaten Pakistan. The authors argue that “a war-like situation between Iran and Pakistan involving nuclear weapons is next to impossible.” (p. 252). However, the Arab kingdoms are not expected to take such a soft view of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The book also makes a strong plea for greater cooperation between Pakistan and Iran in all walks of life. However, it needs to be mentioned here that Iran continues to insist that weaponization is not part of their nuclear programme which is solely for peaceful purposes. This claim is widely questioned in the Western and Arab world.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.