Iran’s new political chapter?

Assessing the political implications that the lifting of the sanctions against Iran can have for the Teheran-Riyadh relationship in the region

Since 1979, when the Shah was eventually overthrown after his steadiness on the throne had been decreasing by the day and Khomeini took that crucial Air France flight that brought him back home, Iran has been politically isolated in the Middle East and marginalized in the international community. In addition, since 2006, because of its nuclear program, it has been subject to economic sanctions imposed by USA, EU and UN that have reined in the country’s economic potential and condemned its population to economic hardships.
Now all this might change.
On 17th January 2016, after the IAEA confirmed Iran was complying with what agreed upon in last summer’s nuclear deal by sensibly reducing its nuclear activities, those sanctions that over the past years had doomed Iran to face a double-digit inflation were lifted. A breakthrough development, capable of opening –in Rouhani’s words- a “new chapter” for the country, a major event whose consequences will not interest Iran only but will affect the whole region – economically as well as politically.

On the economic side it is where the consequences are clear the most. With the country back in the international economy, new prospects and opportunities are on the horizon and optimism is slightly reappearing in the streets of Teheran.

Though, it is in the political field, where clear and certain predictions are much more difficult to be made -especially in a region as complex as the Middle East, where any new day brings about new crucial events and developments- that consequences are interesting the most.
As said, Teheran is considerably isolated since the earliest days of life of the Islamic Republic –an isolation that first emerged with undeniable clarity during the war with Iraq and that is still reflected in today’s regional dynamics- new scenarios might be now opening up.
Over the past years, the Middle East has witnessed a progressive disengagement of the United States -whose major strategic interests are shifting towards the Pacific and for which the Middle East is becoming nothing more than a source of continuous failures and worries- and a progressive heightening of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever more engaged in a struggle for power in which any loss is a rival’s gain, the two regional powers have turned Syria and Yemen into the preferred fields of a bloody proxy war whose prize is supremacy over the region, prestige and political sway.
Resisting the temptation of reducing everything to a Sunni-Shia divide that this time is just in the background, it is to be reckoned we are in front of a struggle for power whose balance is leaning in favor of Teheran – at all expense of a Saudi monarchy that its own most recent moves are dragging ever down. In front of a rival getting closer to the international community thanks to the nuclear deal, Riyadh has responded by escalating the conflict in Yemen -now destined to become a new endless, Syrian-like bloody stalemate- and by escalating sectarian and political divides through the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Both disputable choices that are not leading Saudi Arabia anywhere. Especially when on the other side of the Gulf’s waters Iran is on the rise and strengthening its standing at international and regional level.
Indeed, the reality that is now unfolding in the area, and that is bringing worries to the Saudis as much as it is bringing hopes to the Iranians, is that Iran, by signing a nuclear deal the population had been waiting (and asking) for long, is not only reaping the economic advantages that the lifting of sanctions brings. It is seen itself recognized as a power capable of sitting at a table with the world leaders, negotiate agreements and keep its promise. It might seem nothing big at a first look, but it actually is. The fact that today the international community begins to regard Iran not as a radical Islamic country, led by bearded religious leaders and ambiguous political figures, but as a country with which dialogue is possible and agreements are reachable, creates the possibilities for a new chapter to begin for real. Politics is made of perceptions, of ideas we have of ourselves and of the others, and of behaviors that by those ideas are instructed. A change in perceptions is therefore a change in behavior, and the perception today is that Iran is on the rise and that the future dynamics of the Middle East will depend much more on Teheran’s moves than on Saudi Arabia’s.
With an opening economy, political leaders such as Zarif who are giving the country a new face, and an educated population willing to work, travel and enter in relations with the outer world, Iran’s capacity of expanding its influence in the region goes now beyond the “proxy war rationale” through which Teheran and Riyadh have used to confront each other. Iran is now increasingly on the rise because it is believing in the possibility of founding its strength and regional influence on elements other than material capabilities: a new international image, new economic opportunities, new capacity of building relations with the outside.

That said, it is clear that Teheran will not reduce its indirect presence in Yemen, will not abandon its intervention in Syria, nor will it moderate its support to Hezbollah and other regional Shia militias. However, attention must be given to the fact that it is giving to its foreign policy a new dimension, competitive because centered on soft power. A dimension that Riyadh is proving it does not know how to compete with.

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India and Pakistan – Illusion of dialogue

Historical and current reasons are preventing the dialogue from taking off – and neither side has interest in changing thestalemate
The history of International Relations is – and has always been – characterized by deep and solid friendships, like that between the United States and Great Britain, and also by threatening and unsolvable enmities, like that between India and Pakistan.
Divided by a mortal rivalry emerged with the collapse of the British Raj in 1947, India and Pakistan are the neighbors whose bilateral relationship follows an exhausting and apparently endless cycle. Clashes along the border, steps towards an opening to dialogue, impossibility (and at times unwillingness) of finding points of agreement, collapse of the dialogue, mutual accusations, return to border clashes.

No surprise, then, when this cycle repeated in late August, in the occasion of a dialogue between the security advisors of the two countries on which Modi and Sharif had agreed in Ufa months back. Once again in fact (repetition of what had already happened as early as last November) a few days before the meeting Pakistan stated its intention to meet Kashmir’s separatist leaders, and India reacted setting a red line on the issue. What followed after that (when no one was longer hoping that the meeting could move on) was that Pakistan refused India’s ultimatum, saying that a meeting limited to discussing terrorism would be futile. And everything went up in smoke as we are used to seeing it go.
Little hope, then, that the meeting between the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers, held in Delhi between the 10th and 12th of September, can lead to an actual and long-term arrangement on such a delicate issue as the common border is. In fact, despite both sides stated at the end of the meeting their commitment to increase cooperation through renewed CBMs in order to avoid clashes along the border and violations of the 2003 ceasefire, it is difficult to believe such an entente will be durably respected once back to the reality of the tough and tense coexistence in Kashmir.

And though, looking back and around us, it is clear that two neighboring countries always have more to gain from a peaceful coexistence than from hostility (be it covert or open). This because their shared border implies the existence of shared interests, and is therefore more than a mere point of geographical contact. France and Germany, for instance, understood this more than 60 years ago, when in the dispiriting environment of post-war Europe they moved towards a solid cooperation through the Schuman Declaration and the ECSC.
And despite the distance between France and Germany in the ‘50s and India and Pakistan today, cooperation is still the best card two neighbors have to play in the game of their bilateral relations, and not even Delhi and Islamabad can escape this plain truth. In fact, if for a while we removed from the picture the historic rivalry between the two countries, it would be quite difficult to deny that reasons for cooperation – in the current political, security, and trade dynamics – do exist.

So why is dialogue and cooperation between the two South Asian countries such a chimera? What is that makes it so difficult for them to seat and work to find – of course through considerable efforts and with no little time – agreements that they are sincerely (and not just rhetorically) disposed to be bound by?

The fundamental problem is that we are talking of a dialogue none of them wants.

Born out of the painful process of partition in 1947, Pakistan has always legitimated its birth, its raison d’être, and its later survival in an anti-India perspective. Born as a territorial and political entity distinct from the one under New Delhi, born as a pure Muslim country distinct from the majoritarian Hindu neighbor, it has since the dawn of its existence as autonomous reality adopted an anti-India political identity and an anti-Hindu religious identity (identities that paradoxically can only survive thanks to the existence of an “Indian enemy” to oppose).
In Pakistan’s case – somewhat differently from what happened in most cases of secession in the XX century, where people were fighting to build their own state on the basis of a strong common identity – the process of identity building (that came after a secession the common people had never really planned) was structured more than around what Pakistanis were, around what they were not: non-Indians and non-Hindus.
Quite evidently, from an identity conceived in such terms it couldn’t but stem a political view centered on the opposition to India (view that has always allowed those who detain power to legitimize any use they make of it as long as aimed at contrasting the neighboring enemy); centered on the objective of gaining a strategic depth that could threaten India’s position in the region (and this has indeed been the major driver of Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan since the ‘70s); centered on the perception that India is a real existential threat for Pakistan (a distorted view that has always been used by the Pakistani army as a pretext for assertiveness).
The opening to dialogue with India would cancel all this. It would cancel the way in which Pakistan has perceived itself and its role in the region during its 68 years of life, and it would make it necessary to define a new identity, to find a new legitimacy to its existence, elaborate a new foreign policy, and carve out a new regional role to play. Changes that Pakistan’s political and military elites are today not ready for.

Moving to the other side of the border, it is necessary to reckon that here too (though India has an autonomous and independent national identity that finds its roots in a millennial history of which 1947 is just the latest chapter) the political discourse has been characterized for 68 years by an anti-Pakistan rhetoric that has never faded and that – on the contrary – any clash along the border (and beyond it) and any collapsed dialogue do ignite and deepen. Thus, for an Indian population that has always regarded the western neighbor as its main enemy, the reasons that in economic, political and security terms could be adducted for a re-approach to Pakistan appear to many simply not enough to justify an opening to dialogue with a country they think they just can’t talk with. The demonization (at times understandable, at times pretentious) Pakistan was – and largely still is – subject to in India has produced a general mood of suspicion and closure that makes it difficult for Modi (or anyone else in his place) to collect enough support for a dialogue. Let alone for concessions, and let alone on Kashmir.
Even more important though – or at least element that has become ever more so in the last year – is the constant growth of India’s power. Indeed, the implications such a rise has on the Pakistani issue are that the more Delhi presents itself (and gets recognized by others) as a solid economic power, the more it widens its alliances with both old and new partners, the more it diversifies the areas of intervention where to exert its influence, the more it gets involved in extra-South Asian dynamics, the more it emerges as an autonomous, coherent and confident actor of the international arena, and the more it perceives Pakistan and the easing of relations with it as a non-priority of a foreign policy agenda that moves on regardless of what Islamabad does or does not.

In conclusion, unless Pakistan embarks on the process of defining its own autonomous identity and regional role, and unless India sees how it is precisely to increase and defend its great power status at the eyes of the world that it should make of the stabilization of relations with Pakistan a priority, there are no economic, security and political advantages that cooperation can promise capable of successfully stopping and breaking that vicious, decade-long cycle that dooms dialogue to failure even before it starts or as soon as parties are back home.