Impact of Iran-US deal on South Asia

Published: December 4, 2013

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The rise in sectarian strife in Pakistan is extremely agitating. People are generally unable to figure out the forces behind the bloodshed. It is popular to hold foreign elements responsible for such mayhem. Not only is this assumption incorrect, it tends to blind people towards the fact that we may actually see more of this violence in the coming months. Notwithstanding many other reasons, the possibility of a regional Cold War heating up must not be ignored. We may soon find out that the continued presence of proxy warriors can prove more costly than we imagine.

The recent Iran-US peace deal is indeed a good development as far as removing the cause of instability in the larger Asian region is concerned. South Asia and the Middle East that have long suffered due to more than a decade of war cannot withstand another protracted warfare between Washington and Tehran. However, the peace deal recently negotiated is being looked upon with suspicion by a lot of regional actors, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf States. By renouncing its ambition to develop nuclear weapons, Iran has gained strategic advantage such as creating room for economic and social development without which it could not survive or create a space for itself in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. An economically potent Iran can prove more significant than simply a nuclear-armed Iran. Furthermore, the release of financial resources and peace with the US is likely to create space for Iran to play a political role in the region. Thus, the consequent legitimisation of Iran’s role in the area is something which is likely to make both Israel and some of the Arab states highly nervous.

The nervousness of the Arab world could mean that these states could begin to look at other options or cultivate alternatives to balance out Iran. In any case, the Arab states are getting increasingly nervous with the idea of being abandoned by the US. The manner in which Hosni Mubarak was abandoned by Washington or the fact that the US and the Western world at large will have reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil reserves may result in various uncomfortable scenarios. One situation, which is likely to have disastrous consequences for South Asia in particular, pertains to the Arab engagement with the various non-state actors, particularly those that offer to propagate a religious ideology deemed friendly by the Arab world.

Reportedly, the number of Saudis engaged in the Syrian conflict has increased. These non-state actors may not limit themselves just to Syria but will also find their way into South Asia, especially if they find hosting agents in the form of proxies that seem to be planning to expand their options in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the US pullout from Kabul in 2014. Although there appears to be some form of tacit agreement between the US and Pakistan to eliminate some proxies, it is still not clear if what we are looking at is a consensus on complete elimination of all kinds of violent non-state actors. The continuation of any strategic engagement in South Asia between the state and non-state actors will encourage an environment which will attract a lot of frustrated elements from the Arab world. Indeed, traction towards jihad does echo through higher educational institutions of some of the Arab states.

But allowing such elements to drift into South Asia would be tantamount to adding fuel to fire. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a journalist claiming to work with a Turkish channel on the issue of Iran-Pakistan relations. More then provocative, his argument suggested a bias which he wanted me to adopt in examining Pakistan’s relations with its south-western neighbour. He insisted on having access to evidence, which he, of course, did not share or elaborate, indicating Tehran’s support to groups inside Pakistan. After some conversation it became clear that what was considered as evidence was basically informal information regarding enhanced financial capacity of individuals or some groups. There was a pattern in this suspicion as it was similar to what was expressed by some ‘strategic thinkers’ on observing the growing size of cakes cut by Hazaras in Balochistan.

The Iran-Saudi Cold War never bode well for South Asia and its continuation will be even more disastrous. Though the sectarian ideological rift has spread, it is still not a popular agenda, at least not as popular as some other causes. For instance, the sectarian violence on its own is still not a proverbial ‘crowd-pulling’ agenda or something that would help raise funds and human resources. An issue like Kashmir, water or India continues to be more attractive. This is the case because the desire for peace has not materialised into something concrete and policymakers have been unable to generate a positive propaganda such as the impact of economic cooperation and similar issues. Under the circumstances, we can continue to have a condition where violent extremist NGOs will continue to use the India factor to draw resources to be diverted towards other issues such as sectarian violence. Many analysts tend to make separate categories for groups that engage in sectarian violence versus those that use Kashmir as a core agenda or others that fight in Afghanistan. Such categories only apply as far as marketing a particular organisation is concerned. Militant organisations that fight in India have fought in Afghanistan as well and subscribe to a sectarian agenda too. These lines will sadly get fuzzy in the coming months or years.

The South Asian region does not benefit from engaging in the Saudi-Iran Cold War. From Pakistan’s perspective, it has to take a clear position with both Tehran and Riyadh, but particularly the Arab states, to delink itself from such conflict. More important, it must look critically at delinking its proxies from foreign governments and intelligence agencies, especially from the Arab world. This is not a game which can be played and won. In fact, the continued presence of proxies will encourage violence which South Asia or adjoining regions can ill-afford.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • Toticalling
    Dec 4, 2013 - 10:48PM

    The author says: People are generally unable to figure out the forces behind the bloodshed.
    But not all. Conservatives blame other powers and liberals know that speed towards insanity has increased and fanatics getting the upper hand. tolerance will increase only we allow deviations from the normal path. There is no straight line, only different routes. As long as all the routes end up in one destination, nobody is wrong. I think that is what Krishamurthy said nearly a hundred years ago..


  • nadeem
    Dec 4, 2013 - 10:56PM

    Sane argument. Only problem is how will Nawaz Sharif – assuming that he is running foreign policy – tell his Saudi benefactors that he will not let Pakistani soil be used for proxy wars. Pakistan it seems suffers no matter what. The US-USSR proxy war in Afghanistan brought untold misery for us (partly because the dictator at the time decided to take a head-on plunge into the war). And now the Saudi-Iran proxy war is going to eat at our foundations for who knows how long. Our leadership – both military and civil – is responsible for this mess.


  • Nope
    Dec 4, 2013 - 11:44PM

    I think only affected countries will be Afghanistan and Pakistan , other countries of south asia have nothing to do with Arab , because they are not arabs. But These above 2 countries are Arabs.


  • It Is (still) Economy Stupid
    Dec 4, 2013 - 11:44PM

    “We may soon find out that the continued presence of proxy warriors can prove more costly than we imagine.” So in nutshell you are acknowledging that Pakistan is getting bled with thousand cuts. Was it not this policy meant for India only? Is it not what comes around goes around?

    The Iran deal is a game changer or think outside the box solution. MNS is already talking about fourth war with India to divert the attention. MNS said he would like to see his dream of liberating Kashmir in his lifetime come true. After hearing this MMS unpacked his bags and said my dream of visiting my ancestral village will not true in my lifetime.


  • Ali T
    Dec 5, 2013 - 12:35AM

    maam, nothing will happened just wait for six month…


  • Mirza
    Dec 5, 2013 - 12:54AM

    Your last para is clear and concise but who is listening/reading? We have to get out from the middle of the bigger conflicts and pay attention to our economy. Without improving our economy we would remain a bottomless bucket that no country wants to be friends with. We cannot be both beggar and chooser in the global politics. While we have wasted most of our resources on million man army and hundreds of nuclear weapons the other countries have made tremendous progress and are way ahead in every walk of life. Compare Karachi and Lahore with any major Arab city and it would tell the whole story. Let us stop importing wars from other countries.


  • Zalmai
    Dec 5, 2013 - 1:24AM

    @ Nope

    Afghanistan is not an Arab country. Afghans hate Arabs and their proxies and they are not confused about their identity.


  • Muhammad
    Dec 5, 2013 - 2:36AM

    You’re such an idiot. Pakistan and Afghanistan are not Arabs. Is Iran Arab? Indonesia? Bangladesh? If you tell an Arab that Pakistan and Afghanistan are Arab countries, they will laugh at you.


  • Kumail
    Dec 5, 2013 - 5:14AM

    Joke: Pakistan is a sovereign country!


  • phonix
    Dec 5, 2013 - 5:25AM

    But if you tell a Pakistani that his origin is not Arab, he may become very angry.


  • Np
    Dec 5, 2013 - 8:24AM

    US-USSR proxy war brought you CEATO and CENTO pacts that ou voluntarily entered into in return for billions of dollars of free weapons and billions of dollars of grants. Neither the olden period under Ayub nor the high growth under Zia would have been possible without Pakistan willingly participating in those proxy wars.


  • Udaya Bose
    Dec 5, 2013 - 8:36AM

    Pakistan’s destiny is inextricably linked to South Asia. Trying to reinvent itself as a Middle-Eastern culture and sustaining hostility towards India is a sure recipe for disaster. But 65 years of self-delusion is difficult to overcome.


  • Mushriq
    Dec 5, 2013 - 8:37AM

    That is true only for Panjabi Pakistani, Sindhi, Baloch and Pakhtuns have realized that they are not descendant of Arabs.


  • manzoor
    Dec 5, 2013 - 11:26AM

    Saudi is more responsible for the current wave of sectarian war in the South Asia. This war wont stop until Saudi and Iran sit together and sort out the issues.


  • Sonya
    Dec 5, 2013 - 12:54PM
  • Dec 5, 2013 - 1:25PM

    I think only affected countries will be Afghanistan and Pakistan , other countries of south asia have nothing to do with Arab , because they are not arabs. But These above 2 countries are Arabs.


    what about Bangladesh? They are Arabs too.


  • Aamir
    Dec 5, 2013 - 1:41PM

    A comprehensive article and plausible conclusion. in short, be watchful of Arabs Govts.


  • V. C. Bhutani
    Dec 5, 2013 - 4:40PM

    Several of the comments above are written without due regard for ethnic and historical facts. We should understand that Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries are not Arabs. Since its birth Pakistan has been reinventing itself as a Middle Eastern rather than a South Asian country in complete defiance of ethnic reality. It will not do to deny facts. Pakistan is and shall remain a South Asian country but of course people of Pakistan are free to think of themselves as descended from Arabs. It is a moot point whether Arabs, especially those of Saudi Arabia, shall be prepared to regard Pakistanis as Arabs. That’s a matter that Pakistanis and Arabs will sort out between themselves. At the same time, there are factors like history, ethnicity, culture, and economy that will bind Pakistan with South Asia. Pakistan can have understanding and agreements with Saudi Arabia on any matter under the sun: that’s for Pakistan to decide and figure out. It may be expected that some non-South Asian countries may be prepared to finance and encourage proxy wars in South Asia. This is where South Asian countries need to remain vigilant. V. C. Bhutani, Delhi, 5 Dec 2013, 1710 IST


  • MS
    Dec 5, 2013 - 5:17PM

    I think what the Turkish journalist was telling you holds some truth, would you show me a Iranian lady whose name is Ayesha? Kindly read the news article below and if Iranians are able to spend this much money on such affairs, imagine how much more resources they have on the disposal.


  • David_Smith
    Dec 5, 2013 - 8:26PM

    If things go well, and it’s a big if, given the “hawks” in both the US and Iran, a nuclear deal with Iran will be good for South Asia. With lifting of some US sanctions, Iran can move to improving its economy and engaging the world. This should benefit both India and Pakistan. Also it might encourage Iran to moderate its support to the Hezbollah. Syria remains complicated but it appears the Assad regime will survive; and if there is an agreement with Iran, west’s support to those fighting Assad will vanish. The Saudis will have to accept that one of the consequences of the “creation” of the second largest Shia state by the US after it invaded Iraq, was to achieve some kind of balance in the Middle East and lessen US dependence on Saudi Arabia.
    India and its private sector would benefit from stronger economic ties with Iran. Pakistan’s position is more delicate given its relations with Saudi Arabia, but there is nothing to prevent it from not taking a either/or relationship with the two countries.


  • Kafir
    Dec 5, 2013 - 8:49PM

    @Rajeev Nidumolu
    Good Analysis.
    Great time for India to strongly bolster ties with Iran.


  • Dec 5, 2013 - 9:07PM

    Was that reporter Turkish or Pakistani?

    You’re right that there’s a pattern in this suspicion, shared by our own ‘strategic thinkers’, if not throughout society, and sadly which was against our own patriotic minority victims, rather than their majority supremacist extremist tormentors, who we apparently continue to favour. Its based on sectarian bias which is a lot more common than we like to admit.

    Its even telling how we allow extremist NGOs a free hand in funding yet demonize progressive NGOs as foreign conspirators. Shows where our paranoid priorities lie. And the narrative is just sad how we’ve accepted that we show an appetite and utilize certain types of extremist militants as a state policy, while also stupidly ignoring the violent backlash. Its psychopathic.

    Hard to delink ourselves with the Saudis when we reportedly got nukes ready to deliver on their orders. Though we have tried to resist on some matters such as on Syria, perhaps taking a cue from the Egyptian army, we’re still drawn in. Can only hope that Pak can show some resolve and put aside its prejudices against its neighbours and the slave mentality to religious nuts from the Gulf.


  • Dec 6, 2013 - 7:54PM

    @Ali T: Man, you must be a PTI worker!


  • islooboy
    Dec 7, 2013 - 2:27PM

    liberals are nowhere to be seen on the political landscape they only shout and scream on the internetRecommend

  • islooboy
    Dec 7, 2013 - 2:30PM

    @Udaya Bose:
    not really it depends where you are do you honestly think makranis have anything common witha bhayeaRecommend

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