BY SHASHI MALLA
Iran today is one of the most powerful nations in West Asia/Middle East. It is also scientifically and technologically quite advanced that it could become a nuclear power within a year. Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it has been opposed by the United States internationally. Regionally, its fiercest opponents are Saudi Arabia and Israel. With a land area of 1.648 million sq. km, Iran is the 17th largest country in the world and with a population of 81 million, it is the world’s 18th biggest. It is an Islam-majority country with the world’s largest Shia population and the best versed Shia clergy.
It is strategically placed west of Afghanistan and Pakistan, south of Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Armenia, east of Turkey and Iraq, and north of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Saudi Arabia. It straddles the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman connected by the strategic, but narrow Strait of Hormuz — geo-politically of utmost significance for supplies of oil and natural gas.
In ancient times and in the middle ages, it was as Persia a centre of a great civilization. In pre-history, it was also populated by part of the mass-migrating Aryans from the northern Volga basin (in today’s Russia), some of whom migrated further east to the Indus and Ganges river valleys, including the river valleys of (today’s) far western Nepal. These Khas-Arya folk gradually migrated eastwards, until in 1768 Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha, captured the emerald Valley of Kathmandu. Persia was thus at the crossroads of various Asian civilizations, and its modern cultural influences are indeed great and far apart.
The United States re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran last week following its May unilateral withdrawal from the landmark 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement. This dealt a heavy blow to the already troubled economy. US President Donald Trump had offered fresh negotiations on a “more comprehensive deal’, but Iran has refused talks under the pressure of sanctions. Instead, it is now depending on its increasingly close ties with fellow US sanctions targets Turkey and Russia and perhaps also China.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bluntly rejected the notion that there was any plan to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The latter was already sweating it out with regard to the nuclear negotiations with North Korea. His boss Trump was playing the ‘Great Juggler’ with his vain effort to juggle many ‘sanctions balls’. Zarif stated categorically: “No, there will be no meeting.” He also said that there were also no plans for a meeting with US officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this September, which both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump are due to attend. Zarif further told the conservative news agency “Tasnim”: “On Trump’s recent proposal (of talks), our official stance was announced by the president and us. Americans are not honest and their addiction to sanctions does not allow any negotiations to take place.” Trump’s visit to the United Nations this time around will not be so welcoming, especially after his many denigrating remarks on the venerable institution.
It was Iran’s most unequivocal rejection of [bilateral] talks to date, after much international speculation that massive unilateral US economic pressure would force Iran’s leaders back to the negotiating table with Washington or at least to engage in back-room discussions at the United Nations in New York. In this, the Trump administration has been grievous at fault , it didn’t work out as they anticipated, and they are in for further surprises.
Zarif has now gone on to the attack and taken sides in the mounting row between the US and Turkey: “Trump’s jubilation in inflicting economic hardship on its NATO ally Turkey is shameful ,” he wrote, taking the high road, “The US has to rehabilitate its addiction to sanctions [and] bullying or (the) entire world will unite — beyond verbal condemnations — to force it to,” he warned, “We’ve stood with neighbors before, and will again now.” Zarif has a solid American university education (BA, MA and PhD in International Relations), is well versed in the civil service, is an experienced academic and savvy diplomat (including at the UN). During the negotiations leading up to the Iran nuclear deal [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], he cultivated close relations with his US counterpart.
The Turkish lira’s plunge last week has been rated one of the most serious economic crises that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced since coming to power in 2003 in the wake of a financial crisis that brought the national economy to near meltdown. According to experts, the plunge in the lira which began in May now looks certain to push the economy into recession and it may well trigger a banking crisis. The currency turbulence coincides with the most bitter dispute with the US since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Erdogan’s response till date has neither been serious nor adequate.
He told the Turks: “If you have dollars, euros or gold under your pillows, go to banks to exchange them for Turkish lira. It is a national fight.” According to “Oxford Economics”/BBC, what has gone wrong is that there has been a confidence crisis in Turkey. The economy finds itself in a world of rising interest rates, a strong dollar — and is unprepared. In such an
environment, it is one of the most vulnerable emerging markets. Additionally, and “on top of that you have a political set-up which is unconducive to proper economic management.”
The fact is that Trump and his administration have made ‘America great again’ by maneuvering the country into a corner or worse still into the role of the world’s pariah — something unheard of in the annals of American history — but still supported by 85 percent of Republicans! And 50 percent of respondents in a representative CNN survey were of the opinion that Trump’s xenophobic, racist and misogynic outbursts, his diatribe against the free and independent press [‘the enemy of the people’] and his total ignorance of US national security interests — to name only a few — would not hamper the Republicans in this year’s mid-term Congressional elections in November, or even his own re-elections chances in 2020!
Trump had announced last Friday that he was doubling steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey as part of an ongoing dispute over the detention of an American pastor and other issues. The bilateral tensions have fuelled a run on the Turkish lira, which dropped 16 percent to a record low last week, with Trump tweeting gleefully that the Turkish currency was sliding “rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar!” Trump has verily ‘elevated’ himself to an international bully, and, at the same time, is slowly but certainly, transforming America into a rogue state! Will he be stopped at the mid-term elections — when and if — the Democratic Party wins a majority in the House of Representatives, and possibly a majority in the Senate, the upper chamber?
The situation in the region has become murkier after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told visiting North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho that the United States cannot be trusted as it is unreliable, and all around the world it does not meet any of its obligations. Furthermore, “In the current situation, friendly countries should develop their relations and cooperation in (the) international community.”
Iran’s domestic situation is also precarious and it is unclear how the leadership will react. According to TIME magazine, the US is bracing for cyber attacks Iran could launch in retaliation for the re-imposition of sanctions. Sometime back, it carried out ‘war games’ near the Strait of Hormuz, demonstrating its capacity to block this strategic sea lane connecting to the Indian Ocean. However, if the Strait was actually blocked, it would be an unnecessary provocation in peace time, and would invite sure retaliation [by Israel/Saudi Arabia/US ?]. It would also not sit well with the European Union and the UK. Only last week, the foreign ministers of Germany, the UK and France had categorically stated that the Iran nuclear deal remained “crucial” to global security. They also unveiled a “blocking statute” which was
intended to protect European companies doing business with Iran despite the new US sanctions.
The writer can be reached at: email@example.com
United States/Iran: Trump Indulges His ‘Sanctions Mania’
BY SHASHI MALLA