The Iran Genie is Out

THE SEQUENCE is established. You first release the genie, we are reliably informed by Middle East folklore, and then it grants your three wishes.

America has set free a genie called Iran from three decades of isolation within the world’s most congested conflict zone. Over the next six months we shall find out whether Iran will grant  America’s three wishes, or actually one wish written in three codes: forget the bomb. The one thing a genie will not do, however, is return to the bottle which was its prison. Whether Iran’s nuclear ambitions get punctured, or deposited into some storehouse of mind and memory for revival at some later date, the Geneva deal between America, five other major powers  and Iran has already begun to redraw the strategic map of the region and beyond.

This  Geneva deal is extremely good news – for India. It eases, and could over time even eliminate, America’s dependence on Pakistani space in its crucial battles with Taliban and its myriad terrorist associates. It cannot be a coincidence that the historic agreement came  on the eve of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. America is trying hard to establish distance between retreat and defeat. It knows that the war against Taliban must continue; and its generals are now convinced that Pakistan’s army is a dubious, if not duplicitous, ally against extremist Islamist militants driven by a frenzied conviction that they can recreate Sunni empires of the seventh century.  There are no on-the-record statements yet, but the obvious does not need advertising.  Iran is potentially a more reliable ally than Pakistan in this conflict, since the Sunni Jihadists hate  Shias as apostates.

Witness the  recurrent anti-Shia violence in Pakistan. For four decades Pakistan, with subdued but compliant American acquiescence, has ring-fenced India out of a region vital to India’s security interests. For the region, 2014 marks not the end of war, but the beginning of a variation on an old conflict. There is already talk in Taliban and terrorist circles of a plan to flood Kashmir with fighters on a scale comparable to  1947, with the Pakistan army providing safe passage for this offensive.

The Jihadi narrative is resurgent. It can claim to have driven out both the superpowers of the 20th century from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union first and Nato next. Pride is contagious. There will be an influx of fresh recruits. But India is not the only target of “liberation” from “infidel occupation”. China’s only Muslim-majority province, Sinkiang, is also within their assault zone.  China is not oblivious to this danger. And Russia is worried about the consequences for Muslim regions of central Asia, including its own border territories. Russia, China and India will need Iran as much as Iran needs them; all three have kept their relations with Tehran  alive through years of sanctions.

The strategic advantage, therefore, could shift slowly, imperceptibly, to Iran as  negotiations begin to turn the Geneva deal into a pact. America and its West Europe allies cannot afford to  fail in a process that they started with eyes wide open. If Barack Obama, undermined by the US Congress, falters, America risks damage to an alliance over Iran sanctions it has fostered with much effort.  Russia,  China and India will not feel any great need to cater to the demands of American politicians influenced by parish compulsions in voting districts. Sanctions cannot be effective without multilateral unity.

The four big purchasers of Iranian oil, China, South Korea, Japan and India, were required to curtail  their imports further this year. This has already become irrelevant. But if what is perceived as a quibble by the international community  prevents the logical culmination towards a final pact, these countries could place their national needs above international commitments.

Israel and Saudi Arabia, as odd a couple as there could be conceived, are leading the challenge against any final agreement. The  Saudi angst is  ideological [in Islamic terms], geopolitical and visceral. Apart from schismatic fervour, it cannot forget Iran’s  challenge to the Saudi monarch’s  prestige as custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Riyadh has also invested heavily in a Pakistan-Talib Afghanistan-Gulf-Saudi bulwark against the Shia line from Herat to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel, under Benjamin Nitinyahu, has propagated an existential fear of the future, with Iran as the epicentre of such dread. But Obama has flexibility. Washington  is no longer dependent
on Saudi oil, and American public opinion, tired of multiple confrontations, is in favour of rapprochement with Tehran. The coming year could become a swivel moment in history.

John Kennedy pointed out that foreign affairs is the one truly important issue for an American President to handle. Barack Obama rubbed the lamp; he must now ensure the genie grants his wish. A genie in the sky can be  a dream come true, or a nightmare.

—MJ Akbar is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.

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