Monday, January 18, 2016

Daily Times Editorial Jan 18, 2016

Mediatory role Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif embark on an attempted mediatory mission to Saudi Arabia (today) and Iran (Tuesday) to help defuse tensions between the two countries that have escalated to virtual breaking point in recent days. To recap, Saudi Arabia's execution of Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi regime Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr earlier this month infuriated Iran and Shias throughout the region. The execution was seen as a deliberate and cruel provocation as al-Nimr was considered a critic advocating peaceful struggle within Saudi Arabia for the rights of the Shia minority. It was also interpreted widely as Riyadh's riposte for the incremental rehabilitation of Iran from international pariah status to a full member of the global community. This turnaround has been made possible by the agreement between Iran and the world powers to halt its nuclear programme and restrict future nuclear activities to peaceful purposes under international supervision and monitoring. First and foremost, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is going to issue a clean chit to Tehran's adherence to the terms of the nuclear agreement. This will be followed by international sanctions imposed on Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons being lifted, freeing Iran to return to international economic engagement. Although the sanctions have taken a toll of the 80 million populace of Iran and western multinational companies are gearing up to exploit the pent up demand of the deprived Iranian market, the most dramatic impact is likely to be felt in the international oil market. Tehran is naturally anxious to re-enter the global oil market as soon as possible and ship as much oil as possible, despite the supply glut that has driven the price of oil below 30 dollars a barrel. Surplus oil being pumped is around 1.5 million barrels a day. If Tehran's intent to increase its exports by 500,000 barrels a day within weeks and another 500,000 barrels a day within a year is realised, the fate of international oil prices is clear. Already, the lowest price of oil in decades points to the market's anticipation of the glut increasing due to Tehran's return to the market. The present level of oversupply has exhausted global storage space. Despite this, OPEC's inability to arrive at a consensus cut back of production has left the market a victim of the anarchy accompanying every producer's unwillingness to take the long view and agree production cuts that would help stabilise falling oil prices. For countries like Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies, a cut back would threaten their ability to maintain the lifestyle of their peoples, based on the riches derived from a single product economy. However, the present course too could arrive at the same destination because of the downward spiral of oil prices. Instability and chaos therefore loom over the horizon for these monarchies whose dependence on largesse for their people to retain their grip on power could unravel. The mission the prime minister and COAS have embarked upon seems difficult (some would say impossible) but necessary. Pakistan has of late (the Yemen intervention request) and particularly in this instance of Saudi Arabia's concerted drive to get Pakistan and its military capabilities aligned against Iran, adopted exemplary neutrality. This is in the broader interests of the protagonists, the region and the world. More particularly, it is in Pakistan's own interest to steer clear of a manifestly sectarian regional quagmire that would have blowback effects at home. Pakistan cannot allow the opening provided by Iranian international rehabilitation and the lifting of sanctions to go abegging. The gas pipeline from Iran stands completed up to the border on the Iranian side. The lifting of sanctions will allow its completion on our side and the flow of critically needed gas to begin. In addition, given Pakistan's long contiguous border with Iran, the potential for trade enhancement, road and rail linkages and mutual investment remains to be explored. Pakistan has rightly kept its nose out of the sectarian stink in the region fuelled by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ambitions. Now if it can offer the olive branch to both Riyadh and Tehran and persuade them to pull back from the brink of a very dangerous and potentially inflammatory confrontation, it will earn plaudits near and far and make a signal contribution to peace and stability in the region. We can only wish our leadership the best of luck in a plucky but difficult endeavour.

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