As US sanctions on Iran come into force, the government of Imran Khan is carefully negotiating its position with neighbors and regional powers, each with their favored pipeline plans
by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with The Asia Times by special agreement with the author)
A tweet roared like announcing a blockbuster premiere and sanctions did engulf Iran on time – despite opposition from Russia, China and the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom), who still support the United-Nations endorsed Iran nuclear treaty.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called this an economic war waged by a “bullying power”.
The US has imposed sanctions on Iranian shipping, finance and energy exports, blacklisting 700 people. They target the EU special mechanism to facilitate purchases of Iranian oil, a sort of alternative international payment system, and threats persist about cutting Iran completely off the Swift system (although several Iranian banks are already suspended).
There are also “temporary waivers” related to oil exports granted mostly to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey, plus two Italy and Greece. This means that in the real world, beyond all the bluster, there’s no way to downgrade Iranian oil imports to “zero” without causing a global energy crisis.
The key exemption might as well be Chabahar port in Iran, the cornerstone of India’s own mini-New Silk Road strategy for South Asia and Central Asia, which depends on exports to and across Afghanistan.
In the words of John Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, they seek to achieve a “massive change in the regime’s behavior”.
But is that ever likely to happen? I got a different take on this when I visited a Pakistani courtyard…
Meanwhile, in Islamabad …
It’s a balmy night in an Islamabad courtyard and, punctuated by salutary laughs, a geopolitical carousel develops among some of the sharpest minds in West Asia, Southwest Asia and South Asia. They are Junaid Ahmad from the School of Advanced Studies at the UMT in Lahore, Professor Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, and Tugrul Keskin, a professor of Sociology at Shanghai University.
A Pakistani, an Iranian, a Turk and this global nomad. Inevitably our conversation swirls around the tasty possibilities of an Ankara-Tehran-Islamabad rapprochement.
We have had the privilege of being part of one of the most extraordinary conferences in recent times, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and Emerging World Order,” which could not possibly take place in a paranoid West, but only in Asia, at the relatively young National Defense University (NDU) in frontline state Pakistan.
Not to mention the extra bonus of watching Pakistani generals talk about international relations across the Global South from what is a center-left, genuinely progressive perspective.
The merit for the conference goes to gentleman-scholar Dr Ejaz Akram, professor of Religion and World Politics at the NDU, and a gifted, dedicated team.
Where else to discuss, in the same breath, the unity of Eastern civilizations in a New World Order, as exposed by Prof. Li Xiguang of Tsinghua University and a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Advisory Committee or be rocked by Isa Blumi, professor of Turkish Studies at Stockholm University, totally ripping apart Western silence on the genocidal war inflicted on Yemen by the “Saudi-led coalition?”
But for some of us, the real star of the show was a putative, developing alliance that could turn into a crucial game-changer in Eurasia integration. Hopeful signs are on the cards.
Presidents Erdogan and Rouhani have a very good relationship and are both deciders in the Astana process trying to solve the Syrian tragedy. Whatever the pressure, Turkey won’t cease to buy Iranian oil. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Islamabad last week talking to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Turkey-Pakistan relations are extremely tight.
On a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) level, Pakistan is a full member, Iran will soon become a full member and Ankara is very much interested – and so are powerhouses Russia and China to have them all together inside the club.
Pakistan and China will start trading in yuan, as announced by Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who has just extolled an expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to agriculture and the construction of industrial zones.
At the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Imran Khan defined CPEC as a vital link to the Middle East and Central Asia. CPEC is the flagship project of the New Silk Roads or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Iran is a crucial BRI node as well. Turkey, though, is far from being integrated with Erdogan still studying the chessboard.
Still, an irresistible geopolitical pull – heavily influenced by Washington’s sanctions obsession – would drive Turkey-Iran-Pakistan closer to BRI and trading in their own currencies or in yuan.
Spoiler in the room
Of course, daunting pitfalls abound. Pakistan’s foreign policy is largely shaped by the army, where a significant faction just can’t get enough of “gifts” from the US industrial-military complex.
Imran Khan’s position, on the record, is that Pakistan will defend Saudi Arabia against all enemies – the Pakistanis head the Saudi Islamic Military Alliance and their two militaries are very close. But what if Imran, after visiting China and Saudi Arabia, pulls out a stunner and heads to his neighbor Iran?
Iran and Pakistan need a clear understanding about Wahhabi-indoctrinated fanatics using Pakistani Balochistan to wreak havoc in Iranian Sistan-Balochistan, as Imran and Zarif discussed last week in Islamabad.
On the energy front, a major soap opera that I have been tracking for years, the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, could finally be sorted out, much to the benefit of energy-starved Pakistan. The Iranian stretch was finished long ago while the Pakistani sector has been derailed by relentless pressure from Washington.
And that’s exactly where the ultimate spoiler, the House of Saud, comes in.
Pakistani Finance Minister Asad Umar insists Riyadh “did not ask for anything” in return for a crucial $6 billion aid package that includes selling $3 billion in crude oil on deferred payment. Islamabad badly needed it, as its foreign exchange reserves had dropped to a paltry $7.8 billion last week.
Riyadh not asking for anything in return does not cut it. On the energy front, Riyadh is very much aware that last month Tehran and Moscow signed a preliminary agreement with Islamabad to build a 2,775 km-long offshore natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan.
The Saudi counterpunch was not less than spectacular; renewed investment to finally build the Turkmenistan stretch of another such link: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline and TAPI have been in virtual competition since the days of the Dick Cheney regime.
Turkmenistan, the ultimate idiosyncratic regime, has had enormous trouble – with both Iran and Russia, for different reasons – exporting its natural gas wealth. Ashgabat’s only secure market is China. Riyadh believes that by helping Turkmenistan on TAPI, Pakistan will not become too heavily dependent on the Iranian pipeline or the proposed offshore pipeline.
Yet there’s no guarantee that TAPI will ever be completed. TAPI starts at the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan and goes right through Kandahar province in Afghanistan, which remains largely immune to Kabul’s influence. There’s no way a pipeline can be built there without Taliban acquiescence – and that would mean a negotiating process led by the SCO, which neither Russia nor Iran, for energy market reasons, are fond of.
So the key in all these interlocking intrigues is how Imran Khan will decide to position himself – between Iran and Saudi Arabia – for maximum leverage. Riyadh, for all its faults, still carries enormous weight on all matters Pakistani.
Meanwhile, deep in the Persian Gulf, a fleet of large Iranian oil tankers, actually “floating storage containers” as traders call them, have their geolocation devices turned off and stand ready to deliver oil on demand to any sanctioned, un-sanctioned or soon-to-be-sanctioned nation. And that’s a reality no roaring barrage of tweets is able to change.