|Follow us on:|
I imagine myself walking down to the Beirut train station, boarding the 4pm bullet train that will steam off toward Damascus, heading across the great plains to the east to Baghdad. In a day we’ll be in Iran and then at Mashad there is a choice: one could go south through Pakistan to Delhi, or one would take the longer journey to Beijing via Samarkand. This would be the Great Asian Express that links one end of the massive continent to the other.
But it is impossible. War in Syria stops the train before it has even begun. Instability in Iraq intimates that the tracks would be blown up before they can be laid down. Iran is far more stable, which is why it has begun to build a train line that would link Turkey to Turkmenistan through northern Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are unable to create a modus vivendi that would welcome such a train, or indeed an oil and gas pipeline that might run parallel to it, bringing Iranian fuel to the consumers of the subcontinent. Central Asia oscillates between long periods of calm and bursts of dangerous violence.A train itinerary such as the one I described sounds like a dream history – impossible even. But it is not so out of our time. The Trans-Asian Railway comes out from the 1960s, a historical artefact, a project of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific that was finally brought to the stage of an inter-governmental memorandum of understanding in 2006. This Iron Silk Road is to run from Singapore to Istanbul. The project has no timetable. Parts of it are already present, and parts of it are in the maddening future. But some of it will form part of the China-Iran rail link which is expected to go into production within a decade, and will form part of the Istanbul to Tehran route that is also already in production. Not so far that regional future.
Regionalism rests on the mantle of geography. Attempts to isolate a country for ideological reasons do not always work. The West, since 2003 at least, has attempted to isolate Iran but it cannot do so – Afghanistan, under US occupation, buys half its oil from Iran. It cannot do otherwise. Any other source would be ridiculously overpriced. The US embargo of Iran had to be violated despite the fact that it was US money in Afghan hands that was buying the Iranian oil.
Pressure from the US and the desire of the Indian political and economic elites for a close link with the US befuddled India’s Iran policy between 2003 and 2013. India is the second largest importer, after China, of Iranian oil. In the halls of the Non-Aligned Movement, India is a country that is greatly respected.
Through a nuclear deal – as I detail in my new report on India’s Iran policy, the US was able to push India to vote against Iran twice at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meetings in exchange for being brought out of the nuclear winter itself. As the sanctions regime on Iran tightened, India found it hard to buy oil from Iran and coldness between the countries set in as a result of India’s seeming eagerness to toe the US line. But beneath the surface of the IAEA votes and the statements against the buying of Iranian oil, linkages deepened – on oil buying certainly but also on the trade in pharmaceuticals and wheat as well as on the Indo-Iranian construction of a port in south-eastern Iran (at Chabahar). The sanctions regime had certainly throttled Iran, but it could not sunder fully the imperatives of regional trade.
On Sunday, November 24, the P5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) + 1 (Germany) signed a deal with Iran to end the siege on the latter. The P5+1 promised to ease the sanctions regime in exchange for Iran’s disavowal of a nuclear weapon.
India welcomed the deal, suggesting that it was along the grain not only of Indian policy but also of the BRICS declaration from 2013 (“We believe there is no alternative to a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue. We recognize Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its international obligations, and support resolution of the issues involved through political and diplomatic means and dialogue,” was the wording of the eThekwini Declaration).India’s oil firms promised to hastily transfer arrears held in Indian banks for oil purchased during the previous years (now totalling $5.3 billion), and to increase orders for Iranian oil. The latter would be facilitated by the end to the pressure on insurance firms who then refused to underwrite oil tankers coming out of Iran.
India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh met with Iran’s Deputy Prime Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour on Monday, November 25, and agreed that there is “considerable untapped potential to develop economic cooperation between the two countries particularly in the area of energy and transit.” India and Iran have already been at work building the Chabahar port, and India is building a 900 km train track to link the port to the Hajigak region in Afghanistan. Dreams of oil and gas pipelines and train lines remained suspended over the gathering like a huge exclamation mark.
What these developments indicate is that the time of US primacy is now over and the time of multipolar regionalism is at hand. From 1991 to the present, the US had attempted to forge strong bilateral ties with its chosen allies and sought to knit those allies into a planetary security web of military bases and inter-operatable armed forces; this was the hub and spoke system that James Baker had written about in 1992. That system meant that regional ties had to be sacrificed for the close linkages to the United States. Latin America, through the Bolivarian dynamic, was the first region to exit from the US strategy and create its own regional architecture (for political, economic and social linkages). An over-extended US military presence in Asia and the collapse of the finance-led economic model in 2008 weakened the US considerably.
The example of Latin America gave confidence for the new India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) formation, the antecedent of the BRICS bloc. With the quiet emergence of the BRICS bloc in the context of a weaker West, it was inevitable that the siege of Iran would have to be lifted. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Li uncharacteristically told the Chinese media that his country played a crucial role in concluding the deal. Pressure from Russia and China on the European Union pushed them to bring a wayward France in line. No longer can an imperial foreign policy dominate international policy without challenge. That is the lesson of the Iranian deal.