Repercussions of the US bid to isolate Iran

by Asif Haroon Raja

Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi enjoyed best of relations with USA as well as Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Their relations dipped to lowest ebb once Imam Khomeini came to power in March 1979 and the King had to take refuge in Cairo. Iran under Khomeini crashed the twin pillar policy of USA for the Middle East based on Iran and KSA. Islamic revolution in Iran which had a ripple effect in the entire Muslim world including six Muslim Republics of Central Asia was one reason which impelled former Soviet Union to step into Afghanistan in December 1979.  KSA supported Saddam Hussain regime in its nine-year war with Iran (1980-88) owing to its ideological rivalry with Iran. However, KSA led GCC States severed relations with Baghdad when Saddam occupied Kuwait in August 1991. They not only provided military bases to USA but also paid the expenses incurred by US-NATO forces in fighting the First Gulf War in November 1991. The GCC States once again extended support to US-NATO forces in their occupation of Iraq in March 2003, and were on board in 2011 when civil war was triggered in Syria to topple Bashar al-Assad regime, and when Libya was attacked in the same year to knockdown Qaddafi. Despite the Iran-US antagonism, Iran didn’t object to the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 since it was opposed to the Sunni Taliban regime and viewed it as its ideological rival. It helped US-NATO military by assisting the Afghan Northern Alliance (ANA) which it had hosted since 1996, and in league with Indian military had trained and equipped it. Subsequently, Iran provided support to US-NATO forces in their venture against Iraq in March 2003. Iran-US relations strained again when ostracized Iran was ruled by Ahmadinejad and his regime started to actively pursue nuclear program and develop missile power with the help of Russia.  Over the years, the influence of USA waned in Iraq owing to its policy of ruthless persecution of Sunni Muslims and resistance movement launched by the Jihadists and Baathists. In the wake of mounting casualties of American soldiers, the US military had to abandon Iraq in 2011, but it left behind a monster ISIS, which seized bulk of northwestern Iraq including Fallujah and Mosul in 2014. Conversely, Iran enhanced its influence in Iraq substantially mainly because of Shia heavy southern Iraq contiguous to Iran and the installation of Shia heavy regime under Nurul Maliki and later under Haider Al-Abadi in Baghdad. Later on, Iran spread its influence into Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been the main backer of Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary force. IRGC, Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Iraqi Kurds together with Iraq National Army managed to oust ISIS from Iraq. IRGC Commander Gen Nasseri was killed in the battle of Mosul. The US lost the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and had to pullout bulk of ISAF forces (120,000) from Afghanistan in December 2014, leaving behind a token force of 12000. Iran, which had considerably lost its influence in Afghanistan during the five-year Taliban rule (1996-2001),  once again increased its sway in Shias heavy western Afghanistan and Hazaras dominated Central Afghanistan due to its close ties with ANA heavy government under Hamid Karzai and later under Ashraf Ghani. Assisted by Afghan refugees and Al-Qaeda which it had hosted for a long time, Tehran established contacts with Taliban groups and allowed them entry into Iran. It is now supplying arms to them covertly. Presence of Daesh (ISIS) in Afghanistan since mid-2014 and desire to have a say in resolution of Afghan tangle are the main reasons behind arming the Taliban. Afghanistan brought Iran-India closer and coolness in Iran-Pakistan relations. Iran strengthened its nexus with Syria, its most consistent ally since 1979, and Lebanon based Hezbollah, by adding Iraq and Huthis controlled Yemen. Officers and men of IRGC have been taking active part in Syrian war against the rebels and Daesh. Provision of logistics, technical, financial support ($6 billion annually) coupled with deployment of IRGC (up to 10,000 operatives) by Iran and participation of Hezbollah fighters in the war helped Bashar al-Assad regime to stay in power. IRGC suffered 2000 casualties including Brig Gen Abdollah Khosravi in Syria. Entry of Russian air force in September 2015 helped Assad regime to recover territory and regain balance.  Expansion of Shia arc in the Middle East together with Russia assisted nuclear and missile programs of Iran consternated KSA led Gulf States, Israel and USA. KSA feels it has been strategically encircled by Iran and is well poised to create disturbances in Arab States, while Israel feels its dream of establishing Greater Israel has been shattered. Alarmed by the growing power of Iran, Israel and USA actively worked on contingencies to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. Besides imposing four-fold harsh sanctions, hurling threats and developing bunker busting bombs and missiles to be able to hit underground nuclear sites, aircraft carriers were deployed near Suez Canal to dissuade Iran from manufacturing nuclear bomb. In November-December 2011, Israel had come perilously close to exercising the military option but was restrained by USA. Iran managed to keep them at bay due to its nuclear/missile capabilities and Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe out Israel off the face of earth and to block Strait of Hurmuz. While speed boats were offensively deployed in the Persian Gulf to counter sea invasion, two intruding US drones were shot down by Iran.    It took Bush/Obama Administrations and CIA over 8 years of covert operations to be able to remove hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from power and replace him with Reformist Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. After two years of sustained efforts put in by John Kerry, Iran agreed to roll back nuclear program under a deal with the US, China, Russia, France Germany, UK (P5+1) in July 2015 in return for lifting of sanctions which were badly hurting Iran’s economy. Another reason of cozying up with Iran was to reduce dependence on Pakistan for supplies to ISAF troops and to make use of Afghan-Chahbahar route because of coolness in Pakistan-US relations. Israel and KSA were unhappy with the nuclear deal, former expressing fears that Iran was continuing to develop weapon-grade uranium bomb. Netanyahu wanted re-imposition of sanctions and to cut Iran’s potent missile program to size. Although Obama expressed his reservations that Iran was not living up to the spirit of the deal, but he gradually lifted some of the sanctions and unfroze $1.7 billion assets in foreign banks. Israel view Iran as an existential threat to Israel because of its nuclear/missile capability, linkage with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and its bellicosity. Miffed by Obama’s disinclination to jeopardize the deal, Israel and American Jewish lobby succeeded in sidelining frontrunner Hillary Clinton and empowering Donald Trump in January 2017.One of the tasks assigned to Trump was to cancel the nuclear deal, or else restore sanctions to force Iran to curb its missile development program. In compliance with the dictates from Tel Aviv, Trump has adopted a highly confrontational posture against Iran from the very outset. This was evident from his declaration that the nuclear deal is the worst kind of deal which he will tear off. Iran was included in the list of seven Muslim States that were denied US visas.    Iran is accused of violating the nuclear deal by carrying out 12 ballistic missiles tests. IRGC which has been blacklisted is on the hit list and is accused of fomenting instability in the region. Sanctions have been imposed on 25 individuals/entities connected with IRGC and plans are afoot to declare it a rogue outfit. Washington is pressing Europe to stop doing business with IRGC. Taking advantage of the heightened tiff between Riyadh and Tehran, Trump decided to attend the US-Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh in May 2017. During his highly pungent speech, Trump expressed his open ended hostility against Iran. He declared Iran as the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world. He backed the Saudi led 41-member Islamic Alliance and signed $110 billion defence deal with Riyadh. All this was done to pitch GCC States against Iran and to isolate and contain Iran. Another significant development which took place soon after the Summit was the standoff between KSA and Qatar. Strengthened by the US support, King Saud decided to take a tough line against Qatar which it felt had become an eyesore on account of its close economic ties with Iran and its support to Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Doha controlled Al-Jazeera which lambasts Gulf States is another point of friction. KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt snapped diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in June, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and cozying up with Iran. A de facto blockade was imposed on the country by closing the air, sea and land routes to isolate Qatar.The US which maintains a large airbase in Qatar stood by Riyadh since tiff between Muslim States suits its overall policy of ‘divide and conquer’. To start with President Trump took credit for the Riyadh-Doha tiff, which he implied was an intentional US-led strategy. However, in its bid to isolate Iran, the US is now trying to deescalate tensions between KSA and Qatar but so far no breakthrough has been achieved since Doha is defiant and refuses to cut off support to the MB, break its ties with Iran and close Al-Jazeera media outlet as demanded by Riyadh. Qatar is in the know of KSA’s policy of promoting Wahhabism and supporting Salafi Jihadists. Moving ahead with its policy of isolating Iran, the US under Trump played a role in bringing a thaw in Riyadh-Baghdad relations in 2017. In its bid to wean away Iraq from Iran, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has succeeded in wooing the Gulf allies to cozy up with Iraq with a view to isolate and contain Iran and to counter its growing assertiveness in the region. Haider has assented since he is badly in need of the US monetary assistance to reconstruct war torn Iraq.The big question is what happens if the nuclear deal is scrapped by Washington? Obviously, Iran will recommence its frozen nuclear program and double its efforts to manufacture a uranium bomb at the earliest irrespective of re-imposition of sanctions. The next question is whether Israel will singly, or backed by USA attack Iran’s nuclear sites?  The problem at hand is that while Netanyahu and his hawkish cabinet are war mongers, Trump is impulsive and will prefer a military action over restraint policy as practiced by Obama. Furthermore, Trump’s core national security team was against the nuclear deal and James Mattis consider Iran as “single most enduring threat to the stability and peace in Middle East”.  On the contrary, Russia, China and most Europe are eager to preserve the deal and to do business with Iran. Russia which has signed S-400 air defence system deal with Riyadh, and is close to Iran and Syria is likely to play the US and Iran off each other to make Iran more dependent upon Moscow. Over one-year breather has allowed Iran to refurbish its economy. It has escape doors in Europe, China, Russia, South Korea and India to export its oil and gas. Undoing of nuclear deal and sounding of war drums by Israel will have dangerous repercussions for the region which is already in turmoil. Military adventure by Israel will evoke a very strong response from Iran and could trigger war in the region. IRGC Commander has already threatened to raze the US military base in Bahrain and to devastate Tel Aviv with its missiles. Blockade of Strait of Hurmuz will deprive the world of one-thirds of oil trade. Anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments have once again begun to gather steam in Iran. If Iran is ditched by USA, it will hasten to join the block of China-Russia-SCO, towards which Turkey and Pakistan are also inclined.The US already stuck in the quagmires of Afghanistan and Syria and having no clue how to get out of them, has antagonized nuclear North Korea and is now infuriating Iran. It is also showing eyes to Pakistan. China, Russia, Turkey and most of Middle East countries are wary of USA because of its jingoistic foreign policy, dangerous designs and duplicities. Many European countries are also cagy in their dealings with USA under Trump. Instead of isolating Iran, the US itself is getting isolated. So is the case with India under extremist Modi trying to isolate Pakistan! Without the US intimate support, Israel will become a Pariah State. The warmongering US, Israel and India are spoilers of peace and have made the world insecure. Conversely, China through its One-Belt-One-Road policy has become the leading promoter of peace and development and is on its way to become the leading economic power.    The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence and security analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre.

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