June 05, 2009

Tehran Declaration: Adding a New Dimension to the New Great Game in Central Eurasia

Aurobinda MAHAPATRA (India)

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

The Tehran summit involving three crucial Muslim nations of Central Eurasian region on 24 May 2009 is significant owing to three reasons. First, it shows the emerging clout of Iran among the neighbouring countries Pakistan and Afghanistan with which the US has developed special relationship. Second, Iran’s strong criticism against the foreign troops (an indirect reference to the presence of the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan) might not match well to the policies of the West particularly to the US which has invested heavily in the region. Third, the Tehran declaration signed at the end of the summit called for a trilateral approach amongst the three countries to fight the menace of religious extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking, thus giving rise the possibility of exclusion other powers in solving regional issues.

The holding of the Tehran summit was perhaps due since the beginning of this year. It was on expected lines after the meeting of the leaders of three countries at the sidelines of 10th ECO Summit in March 2009 in Tehran and the meeting of their foreign ministers in April in Kabul. At the Tehran summit, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Asif Ali Zardarai and Hamid Karzai, leaders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively, while emphasising their deep historical, religious, cultural bonds, common heritage and geographical commonalties expressed growing concern arising from the insecurity, terrorism, extremism and drug production and trafficking in the region. The 24-item declaration in its first item aims at establishing a mechanism for holding regular and periodical trilateral consultations on special issues by Senior Officials, Foreign Ministers and the Heads of State/Government of the three countries. The declaration also emphasises on trilateral institution building to establish trilateral economic, industrial, planning commissions and Chambers of Commerce. Item 2 emphasises on the joint commitment to make every effort to tackle the regional issues and address their root causes.

There are fundamental issues which need to be analysed with regard to feasibility of the trilateral approach as envisaged by the declaration. Whether Pakistan and Afghanistan would follow the line of Iran, which perceives the US role in the region as antithetical to their interests, is a matter that needs to be watched in coming days. On the eve of the summit Ahmedinejad was highly critical of the presence of foreign troops in the region. He stated, “Although the presence of foreign forces in our region was under the pretext of establishing security ... it has not been much of a help to the establishment of permanent security and political and economic growth.” On the next day of the summit he challenged the US President for face-to-face debate at the United Nations if he is re-elected next month as Iran’s president.

The US congress, recently under Biden-Lugar Bill, has tripled the civilian aid to Pakistan, and also enhanced the assistance to fight terrorism and fundamentalism. It is a temptation hard to be resisted by Pakistan. The same is the case with Afghanistan. There are tens of thousands of US and NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan. Recently their numbers have increased. In this context it will be interesting to see how far the trilateral platform, if at all it comes to life, succeeds to fight the menace of religious fundamentalism and terrorism without external support. Similar is the case in the context of fighting drug trafficking and smuggling. It is common news that Afghanistan alone is the home to 90 per cent of poppy cultivation in the world. Reportedly on 23 May 2009, just a before a day of summit, one of the largest-ever drugs seizure in Afghanistan was undertaken in a Taliban stronghold and opium-production centre in the south of the country that led to the killing of 60 Taliban militants.

The point that needs emphasis is whether Afghanistan or Pakistan or the combined force have the entire wherewithal to fight the menace of terrorism, fundamentalism and drug trafficking that are so much embedded in their systems? From a broader point of view, it may be asked whether the US and the NATO presence in this region would suffice to counter the growing menace of terrorism and extremism and drug trafficking? Or there needs to be the urgency to tackle these issues by evolving an international approach which will have the acceptability by the countries of the region as well as other regional and international powers? Perhaps the Tehran declaration will goad the international powers to think in these terms.

The nuclear angle might make the balance of relations among the three countries a difficult enterprise. In April 2009 Russia, the US, and other powers such as China, France, UK and Germany stated they invite Iran for deliberation and dialogue to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear tangle. Their joint statement on 8 April 2009 read, “we strongly urge Iran to take advantage of this opportunity to engage seriously with all of us in a spirit of mutual respect.” While the West has expressed concern at Iran’s nuclear programme which might be channelled to build nuclear weapons, Iran has rejected all these charges and argued its nuclear programme is meant for civilian purposes. However, after North Korea’s test of nuclear device on 25 May 2009, the international pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme might increase. The new US administration may use its leverage over Pakistan and Afghanistan in persuading Iran to stop its nuclear programme. In this likely mounting pressure Iran may find it in a fix to balance its relations with these two neighbours.

Iran the fifth largest exporter of oil in the world is no doubt a regional power in Central Eurasia. Its huge resources, its cultural capital, and policy projections have become a mater of concern as well as attraction for other powers. That Iran and Pakistan have not been always in good terms owing to their sectarian differences (Pakistan is Sunni dominated while Iran is Shia dominated), as well as their approaches to international issues, e.g. Pakistan is closer to the US, Iran is not, may make the success of the trilateral framework a difficult proposition though not impossible.

However, the implications of the Tehran declaration for international politics, particularly for the politics of Central Eurasia cannot be overlooked. That Iran has asserted itself as a regional power and that it could attract immediate neighbours despite differences is no way a small achievement. It has shown its increasing clout in the region as well as its increasing acceptability by the neighbours. It is no surprise, hence, the summit took place just after a few weeks Zardari and Karzai attended the Washington summit hosted by Obama. Iran’s rich natural resources, its nuclear programme, its approach to domestic and international issues and its regional clout need to be factored in the geostrategic calculus of the region. The declaration will no doubt affect the policy orientations in the region in coming days and add a new dimension to the new great game in Central Eurasia.

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