02.01.2020 Author: James ONeill

The Re-Emergence of Iran as a Symptom of Greater Regional Changes

Mideast Iran

Iran has a long and proud history. It is one of the world’s oldest civilisations. Today it is one of the world’s largest nations with over 83 million people as of October 2019. As such it is the world’s 20th largest nation ranked by population. In recent decades it has endured a series of political challenges, not the least of which have been foreign interference.

In 1953 the secular government of President Mossadegh was overthrown in a CIA organised coup, the truth of which was only admitted by the CIA in August 2013. It was not their first, and far from last, coup.

Following Mossadegh’s over through the Iranian people endured the pro-western regime of the Shah. He in turn was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979. It is probably fair to say that the long-standing, and still extant, hostility of the United States towards Iran dates from the events of 1979.

The other major factor influencing the attitude of the United States toward Iran is the unrelenting hostility of Israel. It is one of the ironies of modern Middle East history that the largest accuser of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program has been the state of Israel. Ironic because Israel is the only known nuclear weapons power in the Middle East, refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or allow independent inspection of its nuclear facilities. Israel also has an appalling record, not limited to its multiple invasions of neighbours (and prolonged occupation), its defiance of international law and multiple United Nations General assembly resolutions over its continued occupation of Syrian territory captured in the 1967 war, and not least the treatment of its own Palestinian citizens.

Israel bitterly opposed the 2015 nuclear deal signed by the so-called “5+1” (i.e. the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union which is actually 7+ 1.) The then United States President Barack Obama described the agreement as “an historic understanding.”

So much for fine words and good intentions. The new United States president Donald Trump wasted no time in announcing his disagreement with the nuclear deal. The United States formally withdrew from the agreement in May 2018. The only nation that agreed with this action was Israel. The United States then re-imposed sanctions upon Iran. That these sanctions have no status in international law does not trouble the Americans. It is yet further evidence of the truth of Russian President Putin’s remark that “the Americans are not agreement capable.”

One consequence will be that other nations, of which the North Koreans are the current outstanding example, have no incentive whatsoever to enter into a nuclear agreement with the Americans. In a word, their signature on anything cannot be trusted.

The new American sanctions have undoubtably caused considerable hardship to the Iranians. The ability to withstand the pressure has not been assisted by the attitude of the Europeans. Despite also being signatories to the 2015 deal, their attitude to resuming normal relations with Iran has been, at best, equivocal.

Their caution in this regard is not without some basis. Apart from a cavalier disregard for adhering to international treaties, the United States has also shown a resolve to punish its European “allies” for having the temerity to persist in some, albeit equivocal and halfhearted, relationship with Iran.

Fortunately, Iran is not without options. Burned by its experience with the bad faith and equivocations of the United States and its Western European allies, the Iranians have actively sought trading options elsewhere. One of the most important of these initiatives was becoming an observer status member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2005. Iran’s then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed Iran’s desire to become a full member as early as the Shanghai summit in June 2006.

China was reluctant to take that step, primarily because of the United Nations sanctions then in force that China has been a party to imposing through its membership of the United Nations Security Council.

In 2015 that barrier was removed. The Chinese President Xi Jin Ping visited Tehran in January 2016. On that visit Xi announced China’s support for Iran to become a full member of the SCO. That support in principle has yet to materialise into specific measures, but the significance should not be underestimated.

The SCO currently has eight full member states, accounting for approximately 40% of the world’s population following the accession of India and Pakistan in 2017. There are other regional states that have expressed an interest in acquiring full membership, one of particular interest being Afghanistan.

There are a further six states categorised as dialogue partners including, again of geo-political significance, Turkey. In 2015 Egypt and Syria applied for observer status and others, including Ukraine and Saudi Arabia have applied either for observer status or for full membership.

The SCO is an example of the huge changes occurring for nations which might broadly be considered as “Eurasian”, yet whose activities, particularly in economic and geopolitical cooperation, are almost entirely absent from reportage by the western media.

There are other regional developments involving Iran. It is a key component of the Indian inspired North South Transportation Corridor (NTSC) which links India to Russia via Iran and Azerbaijan. Other countries in the region have expressed an interest in becoming linked to this system. Again however, United States sanctions are being applied in yet another attempt to thwart any development that might benefit Iran and Russia.

Some countries will undoubtably succumb to the illegal United States pressure, but the trend is unmistakable. Two more recent developments reinforce this point. In November 2019 Iran signed an agreement with Russia and Kazakhstan, the latter also a huge country with several international borders, including China. Russia and Kazakhstan signed the agreement with Iran as members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with whom Iran also signed an agreement in October 2019.

Although Iran is unlikely to become a member of the EAEU the signed agreements are significant on a number of levels, not least as representing the growing closer of Eurasian countries that are putting national and regional interests ahead of any form of adherence to United States sanctions that are clearly motivated by the latter’s desire to remain a force in the Eurasian region. Those days are rapidly drawing to a close.

The other development with huge ramifications is the joint four day naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean involving, for the first time, China, Russia and Iran. These exercises took place from 27 to 30 December 2019. In this writer’s view they represent the clearest expression yet by Russia and China that the United States (or its Israeli ally) will not be permitted to attack Iran.

This exercise follows an incident earlier in 2019 when the Iranians shot down a United States spy plane in their territorial waters. Trump’s initial reaction was to announce a retaliatory attack on Iran. He was dissuaded from doing so by telephone calls from both Putin and Xi. Although little noted at the time, that incident marked a radical shift in the region. It demonstrated the willingness of Russia and China to support Iran. Equally significantly it established that unilateral United States military action in the region had reached the end of its era.

This development of the re-emergence of Iran as a significant partner of the two great Eastern powers is a development that is to be welcomed. It symbolises further evidence of the realignment of world power back to the east. Given the history of the past 300 years that is a realignment that is to be welcomed.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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