Millennium Post

Post-sanctions, Iran stands unhindered

The nuclear deal with Iran was a milestone, of course. But the lifting of sanctions has freed Tehran to sign contracts left, right and centre. A thousand such contracts were signed on Sunday alone.

There was an impression that New Delhi would be ahead of others in the queue boosting economic ties with Tehran. But alongside all the goodwill in Tehran is also a growing scepticism about India’s ability to meet deadlines.

Negotiations for building the Chabahar port at the Persian Gulf was signed in 2003. The cabinet approved $85 million for the first phase. But nothing has moved, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the Ufa summit for swift clearance.

Iran’s National Railways signed a deal in 2013 for 250,000 tonnes of rolling stock. The first phase of the transaction should have been completed by now. But Tehran does not know what the last minute hitch is.

New Delhi must speed up its process of implementation. A new and vibrant Iran with the world knocking at its doors will go elsewhere. The attractiveness of Iran cannot be overstated against the rest of bleak and dismal, war-ravaged West Asia. Iran’s clout is already in play in the evolution of the Syrian script towards the Geneva process.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are trying to shepherd all parties to the Syrian conflict in the direction of Geneva. Notwithstanding their determination to set into motion the Geneva process between Damascus and the Syrian opposition, ground realities inside Syria continue to alarm.

Even according to the United Nations, 440,000 civilians, elderly and the very young are either besieged by rebels or government forces in the country.

This is not all. International Red Cross in Syria confirmed to me over the telephone other forbidding data: nearly four million people cannot be accessed at all. Either roads are not motorable or gun wielding men and occasional snipers keep aid workers at bay.

High-pressure diplomacy by the US and Russia is trying to douse the flames but the conflicts continue on two planes - the battlefield and the media. A series of tactical battles are raging across Syria.

These are little proxy wars. At his crowded press conference at New Delhi’s Leela hotel, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was quite firm: only Syrians will be allowed to attend the Geneva conference on Syria’s future. 

“Those fighting inside are actually proxies of outside powers. Since these powers are financing the groups, they will determine the stands of the various delegations.” Muallem shrugged his shoulders. “That is the reality - we can’t help it.”

Riyadh is in difficulties trying to put together its preferred delegation. It is because, in common parlance, these would be nominees are “terrorists”. The definition of “terrorists” has been contested in the Syrian context. King Abdullah of Jordan was tasked by an earlier conference to identify terrorist groups. He threw up his hands in despair because one country’s terrorists were another’s freedom fighters.

Saudis are in a tizzy on another count: the entire leadership of Jaysh al-Islam, the group they had diligently nurtured, was wiped out in one rocket strike three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Damascus has also scored a string of battle victories.

History will measure Secretary of State John Kerry so much more favourably compared to his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. He has invested everything in a series of diplomatic successes - Cuba, Iran, and now possibly Syria. Moscow too has not had a Foreign Minister of Sergei Lavrov’s stature - at least not since Andrei Gromyko.

Look at the determination of the two competing statesmen. Riyadh and Ankara would like their proxies in Syria to be in control of more area to be able to play a better hand at Geneva. Towards this end, they would like the conflict to drag on. 

This dilly-dallying had the potential of delaying the January 25 deadline set for the inauguration of the Geneva process. With lightning speed, the Kerry-Lavrov duet turned up in Zurich to plot the journey forward.

Kerry then flew to Davos to announce the scheme. Initially, the meeting in Geneva of the Syrian parties will be “proximity talks”. Representatives of the government and the opposition will separately meet the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who will shuttle between rooms.

“You are not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table, staring at each other or shouting at each other,” Kerry explained. “You are going to have to build some process here.” The idea of this Unity Transitional government was “proposed by the Iranians”.

At this particular moment in history, the script is evolving favourably for Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and the Syrian regime. But four million people in Syria remain in peril because of the unpredictability of what a country like Saudi Arabia might do in desperation. Saudis have support even within an incoherent Western camp. Remember, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that there were 70,000 “moderate fighters” in Syria.

Really? Moderates with guns?      

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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