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7 February 2017 Editorial



Perilous U-turn on Iran

A set of new sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States over a missile test has taken ties between the two countries, which saw incremental improvement over a couple of years, back to the pre-Obama era. Bilateral relations were particularly hostile during the presidency of George W. Bush, who had threatened military action over Iran’s nuclear programme. Barack Obama took a different line, moored in political realism. He reached out to the Iranians and finally clinched the nuclear deal last year, a far-sighted diplomatic solution to a complex international crisis. The U.S. and other world powers took years to find a common ground with Iran, which prevented the country from acquiring nuclear weapons in return for removal of international sanctions. The deal, viscerally opposed by Israel, allowed Iran to mend ties with European countries, boost its oil production and trade with other countries, thereby minimising the pain its people had suffered due to economic sanctions. The U.S. and Iran cooperated on the battleground in Iraq against the Islamic State. And domestically, it strengthened the hands of Iranian moderates. This progress stands threatened by President Donald Trump’s hostility towards Iran.

Mr. Trump may not repeal the nuclear deal as it is a multilateral agreement. But by putting immigration curbs on Iranian citizens, imposing new sanctions on Iran and branding the country the “greatest state sponsor of terrorism”, the Trump administration has clearly announced that détente is dead and the policy of containment back. If Mr. Obama’s Iran policy was defined by pragmatism, Mr. Trump appears determined to pursue the agenda of restoring the bipolar balance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the U.S.’s strongest allies in West Asia. This could prove dangerous. Iran, unlike the Iraq of 2003, is a strong regional power whose influence runs from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen. Any meaningful effort to stabilise West Asia calls for Iran’s cooperation, not hostility. Second, the primary reason for destabilisation in West Asia is the ongoing cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Targeting Iran by siding with the Saudis would only prompt Tehran to step up its activities in other countries through the “Shia corridor”. Finally, the world, including the U.S., needs Iran’s cooperation to fight the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq, where Iranian-controlled Shia militias played a key role in liberating cities. If Mr. Trump ignores these realities, he runs the risk of making West Asia even more chaotic than it is.







Backroom to the front-stage

Evidently, V.K. Sasikala couldn’t bear to wait any longer. After the death of Jayalalithaa in December, Ms. Sasikala, known for her backroom manoeuvres, first stage-managed her election as the AIADMK general secretary, and now as the Legislature Party leader. Without ever having run for public office, she is at this point no more than a ceremonial step away from becoming the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. An elaborate and orchestrated drama was enacted of party functionaries entreating her to take on these responsibilities, a play in which the outgoing Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam was just another advancing pawn set up for being moved off the board en passant. While her election as party general secretary in December was an internal party affair meant to keep the different sections together, her election as the leader of the AIADMK Legislature Party raises issues of political propriety. Ms. Sasikala faces some cases, including the disproportionate assets case in which the Supreme Court is expected to deliver its verdict next week after a long delay. For her to stake a claim to head the government at this juncture is ill-advised and inappropriate. If anything, this appears to be a move undertaken in the mistaken hope that a sitting Chief Minister might enjoy greater judicial leniency with the court than an ordinary citizen would.

The issue is not about the relative abilities of Mr. Panneerselvam or Ms. Sasikala. Although he did show signs of administrative efficiency in the last couple of months, his previous record as head of government was below par. On the two occasions he stood in for Jayalalithaa, after her disqualification in 2001 and her conviction in 2014, Mr. Panneerselvam slowed down the administration to almost a standstill. It was as if he wanted to make his predecessor’s record as Chief Minister shine in comparison. Nevertheless, he is far more acceptable as chief minister than Ms. Sasikala, who is not regarded as the natural successor to Jayalalithaa by a large section of the public, and the AIADMK rank and file. Ms. Sasikala should have displayed the virtues of patience, and waited for the courts to clear her before making this move. It would also have been better had she sought the people’s mandate in a by-election before thinking of the chief ministerial chair. In doing what she did, Ms. Sasikala has lent the impression of overthrowing Mr. Panneerselvam through a dash of court intrigue. It is no surprise that there are many who voted for the AIADMK and Jayalalithaa less than a year ago who feel cheated by the turn of events. By awkwardly forcing her way to the top, Ms. Sasikala risks weakening the party and inviting popular resistance.

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