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The Southern Silk Road

[Chabahar port in Balochistan, Iran. Image from Flickr.] [Chabahar port in Balochistan, Iran. Image from Flickr.]

1. Paralysis in Washington

US policy on Iran is paralyzed. A report from mid-September by the Iran Project shows how the Obama agenda is poorly considered. This report, “Weighing the Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” comes with the imprimatur of Washington’s retired eminences: politicians (Republican Senator Chuck Hagel and Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton), ambassadors (Frank Wisner and Thomas Pickering), and military officers (Admiral William Fallon and General Anthony Zinni). It suggests that if the United States attacks Iran, it would push back an Iranian nuclear program by only four years. If such an attack were to take place, the report suggests, it would galvanize the Iranian government to create a nuclear weapons shield.

A US attack on Iran would hasten an Iranian nuclear weapons program that is not on the agenda at this time. The intelligence agencies of the United States, Israel, and the International Atomic Energy Agency have concluded that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. “That assessment,” one US official told the New York Times’ James Risen, “holds up really well.” The talk of redlines and pre-emptive strikes, therefore, are disproportionate to the threat posed by Iran to the US client, Israel. The Iran Project report marvels at a policy establishment that wants to act against something it knows does not exist — to bomb a nuclear weapons program that is simply not there.

2. Distress in the Bazaars

Very few in the US military establishment are eager for an attack on Iran. Retired Lt. General Gregory Newbold, a former operations chief for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and a respected person in the military, told Robert Burns of the Associated Press, “Planners and pundits ought to consider that the riots and unrest following a Web entry about an obscure film are probably a fraction of what could happen following a strike — by the Israelis or United States — on Iran.” The Obama administration probably concurs with this view, although they have held their cards close to their campaign’s chest. No view adverse to Tel Aviv will be allowed prior to the November election.

US policy, currently, is to strangle Iran through economic warfare. The sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran have led to the Iranian currency, the Rial, losing half its value in less than a month. Food prices have skyrocketed and basic supplies have disappeared from the markets. Riots in the bazaars threaten to bring social distress to the country. US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Arms Services Committee in February of this year that the sanctions “probably will not jeopardize the regime,” but will certainly, “have greater impacts on Iran.” By “Iran,” Clapper means the seventy-five million Iranians. The US political class is in agreement: “Sanctions,” they say gleefully, “are working.” This is reminiscent of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s callous statement in 1996; when asked about the half-million dead Iraqi children resulting from the sanctions against the regime, she said, “we think the price is worth it.”

3. Tact and Trust

A military attack, or the Netanyahu Road, is out of the question. Economic sanctions, or the Obama Road, simply brings distress to the population and might even harden the regime’s attitude toward the West. Economic warfare is not the same as diplomacy, although by yoking the two ideas together, the Obama administration is trying to make this so.

Diplomacy is founded on confidence. Iran does not trust the United States. Its contemporary history militates against any belief in what the US leadership says. Much of this distrust goes back to the August 1953 coup against the democratically elected President Mohammed Mosaddegh. His regime nationalized oil production and started the country down the path of social reconstruction. A CIA report from January 1953 said that his reforms had “almost universal Iranian support.” Nonetheless, the agency removed him from power, and its director, Allen Dulles, personally escorted the Shah to his Peacock Throne. The CIA helped arm and train the Shah’s massive security apparatus, the SAVAK, which rivaled that of any authoritarian state. It was because of the thirty-year collusion between the United States and the Shah that the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 delivered its mandate not only to the clerics, but also to an anti-American dispensation. There has been no attempt to build trust across the divide. Instead, US President Jimmy Carter enunciated a doctrine to protect the Saudi monarchy from any threat (namely from Iran) and the Gulf Arabs with US egging pushed Iraq to invade Iran in 1980. Such a history deservedly leads the Iranians, not just the clerics, toward suspicion of US motives and fears of US action.

The first step to build trust from the US side would be to come clean about this terrible history. Saturated with American exceptionalism and with the blindness of American innocence, such a pathway is unlikely to unfold. The United States is trapped by its own arrogance – and by its fealty to Israel, whose current leadership is obsessed with Iran. It is true that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes dangerous threats against Israel and makes ridiculous assertions about history, particularly the Nazi genocide of European Jews. Ahmadinejad won the presidential election in 2005, and was re-elected in a highly disputed election in 2009. He leaves office in 2013. For the United States to build an Iran policy based on the antics of Ahmadinejad, who is unpopular in his own country, is to make a grievous error. Since that is precisely what the United States has been doing, it has left itself very few options apart from economic warfare and military strikes. Real diplomacy is off the table.

4. Geography is Destiny

Iran, by dint of geography, is an important actor both in Central Asia and in West Asia. The two major US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dethroned Iran’s enemies, the Taliban and the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein. In their place came governments friendly to Tehran, the governments of Hamid Karzai and of Nouri al-Maliki. As part of its attempt to strangle Iran, the United States has put pressure on those who import Iranian oil to stop this immediately. However, US-occupied Afghanistan is landlocked and continues to import half of its oil from its neighbor Iran. The Obama Administration accused Iraq’s Elaf Islamic Bank of punching a hole through the embargo, and it has accused Iraq of allowing Iranian aircraft to fly over its airspace into Syria. No threat has been able to bring Iraq to heel, and no alternatives to Iranian oil have been able to persuade Karzai to cut his imports.

Iran is currently in the middle of significant negotiations to create a “southern Silk Road,” which would give India direct access to Central Asian and Iranian markets. Since 2003, Afghanistan, India, and Iran have jointly worked to build the port of Chabahar in southeastern Iran, and to link this port to Afghanistan by Indian and Iranian built road and rail systems. About seventy percent of the port is complete, with most of the investment coming from Iran. A meeting at the sidelines of the 16th Non-Alignment Movement Summit in Tehran in September brought assurances that India would be able to invest to complete the port. Iran has built a road from Chabahar to the Afghan border, and India has substantially completed a road from the border to Zarang/Delaram, which is on the Kandahar-Heart highway. In other words, Chabahar is linked to Kabul and to Central Asia. The Indians plan to build a railway line from Chabahar to the mineral rich area of Hajigak in Afghanistan (assets estimated at one to three trillion dollars). The Iranians plan to build a freight line from Herat (Afghanistan) to Mashhad (Iran), and then onwards into Turkey. This project will take a decade to complete.

The United States has put considerable pressure on India to cut back on its oil purchases. India now imports between ten and fifteen percent of its oil needs from Iran, a figure much reduced from five years ago. For the past two decades, India has cultivated close ties with the United States. It was willing to pay a stiff price (voting against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 and 2009) to come out of the nuclear cold (through the 2008 United States-India Civil Nuclear Agreement) despite not being a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), unlike Iran. Nonetheless, India remains a major trading partner with its close neighbor, even crafting an interesting payment vehicle to help circumvent the harsh European and US sanctions regime against Iran (Iran will accept forty-five percent of its oil payments in Indian rupees, which will help bolster Indian exports into Iran). The opportunity of Chabahar has now put India in a mini-bind: should it invest more in this major project and gain access to Central Asian trade, or should it make Washington happy and snub Iran?

Afghanistan remains under US occupation. India seeks a close equation with the Unite States. Iran and the United States are hostile powers. Yet, these three countries, with very different relations with the United States, now find that geography is their destiny. A pragmatic foreign policy built on the urgency of economic development draws these states together. Afghanistan needs access to a port and oil, as well as manufactured goods. Iran needs to sell its oil. India wants to find markets for its manufactured goods, and to find a ready supply of oil. Such linkages are hard to ignore.

The southern Silk Road is an important development in the creation of regionalism, linking South Asia to Central Asia, and West Asia to China. No longer will these regions need to go through US and European-dominated routes to conduct their trade. The hub (US-Europe) and spokes (the rest) approach to world affairs is being rendered anachronistic by these developments. As a result of the growth of regionalism, US primacy and its unipolar approach is being set aside. The deepening links with Iran are a testament to the lack of US domination in the region, and of its political failure to isolate Iran.

To isolate Iran and threaten it will only make the caged tiger roar louder. To build confidence for the web of relationships in the region is the only way to build a stable foundation for what the Iran Project calls “the best and permanent way” to end the standoff. Such an approach would have to recognize that the time of US primacy is over, and that the time of multilateralism and regionalism is now at hand.

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