Iran Deal Could Redraw Entire Middle East Power Map

The West's accord with Iran was not just about a nuclear threat. The U.S. has bigger plans to recalibrate the region's balance of power among Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and beyond.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Marcelo Cantelmi


The United States and Iran have taken a colossal step whereby two seething enemies of 35 years — recently turned into uneasy, circumstantial allies — will change the balance of power across the Middle East. The scope of the recent accord goes well beyond the rhetoric about Iran's nuclear threat, which motivated the talks, and is the result of changes in the Middle East strategic agenda. It is not about Iran changing or becoming more friendly, but about a historic coincidence of interests created by this changing agenda.

International politics are about setting priorities, as the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once remarked. Iran needed to break the isolation that has strangled its economy, and which grew worse during the eight-year presidency of the ultranationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The sanctions have crushed Iran's economy and undermined the huge wealth that could have otherwise been obtained from its oil and gas resources. In 2013, Iranian GDP shrank 5%, while unemployment rose above 30%. A U.S. Congressional study indicates that the Iranian economy is 20% smaller today than it would be without sanctions.

This is the situation that led to the election in 2013 of moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani: The economic crisis explains the political change. The new president immediately set a new course from his predecessor and opened the doors to dialogue with the West.

The recent accord pulverizes the Iranian nuclear program. It will provide the United States and its allies a negotiating ploy to defend it before the UN Security Council and allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have vigorously opposed talks for the possible scenario they open in their area of influence.

As sanctions are lifted Tehran will receive the economic impact of foreign investment, which explains the celebrations on the streets of Tehran on April 2. Iranians are deeply pragmatic when it comes to seeking agreements, and their needs to develop economically have in this case coincided with Western desire to pacify the Middle East as far as possible.

Iran will henceforth become an inevitable power in the region. It has the knowledge and power to relieve the United States of the weight of its lengthy war in Afghanistan, where the two states share an enemy in the Taliban. Iran's backyard also extends the other way, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and further afield now in Yemen. There, with the war they have launched against pro-Iranian Houthis, the Saudis are showing how inflexible they are prepared to be.

Iran's very evident political and strategic value was a key part of President Barack Obama"s calculations on the need to turn Tehran from enemy into partner. Israel's fury at the talks, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally denounced in a speech to the U.S. Congress, is not for the nuclear threat to Israel alone, but a reaction to changes happening on the ground. The United States wants, against the interests of Riyadh and Tel Aviv, a greater balance among the regional powers — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Iran and Egypt.

It is a risky bet, at least until the balance mechanism is in place and working, especially in a zone where a new fire breaks out just as one is being put out. If there is significant détente between Washington and Tehran, this could prompt questions about why Israel will not move toward the U.S. position favoring a Palestinian state. The future may also look much more complicated for the various Arab monarchies that have been ruled with an iron fist for decades. The United States is not about to deprive them of its support, but certainly, the conditions of its support may soon change.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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