Confronting Neo-Imperialism
By Shireen M Mazari

Iran seems to be capturing headlines on a number of issues -- but underlying them all is the strong sense of Iranian nationalism and commitment to defending its sovereignty. This has not sat easy with the US and Europe, at a time when there is a resurgence of a neo-imperial mindset within these states.
Take the incident of the British sailors arrested by Iran in its territorial waters. This is not the first time that this has happened. In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were taken into custody by Iran after they had ventured into Iranian territorial waters in the narrow Shatt al-Arab waterway.
To hear the British media and government it would appear as if Iran had done something illegal but the fact is that it is Iran's right to protect its territorial waters especially against threatening vessels which UK naval vessels are, given the military build up in the Persian Gulf and the warlike posturing by the US and its British ally in the coalition of the willing that invaded Iraq. Not for one moment did the British contemplate that their sailors could have strayed or deliberately gone into Iranian waters -- after all the British cannot make such mistakes, despite historical record to the contrary. There is an arrogance that smacks of imperialism in the way the British have been demanding the sailors' release instead of an admission that their men could be in the wrong. As for Iran, are they adopting too uncompromising a posture? Not when one sees how the US is building up its naval strike forces in the Gulf -- and not when one sees the Iran nuclear issue in the UNSC with resolutions imposing sanctions. North Korea, which defied international law and opted out of its NPT commitments, was dealt with in a more conciliatory fashion with dialogue as the preferred option -- through the device of the six-party talks. Why can't a similar model be created for dialogue with Iran, which has not opted out of the NPT and still seeks to deal with the nuclear issue within the IAEA rather than the UNSC's politicized framework? Perhaps because Iran is a Muslim state, and one which has expanded its regional influence to challenge the US and Israel.
In any event, within this milieu, Iran's "hard line" is understandable especially in the context of the British sailors because Iran has experienced an earlier trauma when the US guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down a civilian Iranian airplane on a regular flight to Dubai -- Iran Air Flight 655 -- killing 290 innocent people, including 66 children. At the time, the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters, but such niceties of international law that maintain a semblance of order in a system of sovereign states are hardly a matter of concern for the US, which seems to regard collateral damage in terms of foreign civilian lives as a mere statistic.
In the present scenario relating to the arrested British sailors, what is equally disturbing is the manner in which the EU has also demanded that Iran release the British sailors immediately. Surely, they should first verify the situation because if the Iranian position is correct, then its actions are justifiable. Instead, the EU has adopted a rather imperial tone in the manner in which it addressed the sovereign state of Iran. But then there is a resurgence of imperialism presently and countries like Pakistan and Iran are being targeted.
In the case of Pakistan, we have been told that our market is too small for the EU to sign a Free Trade Agreement, which they are seeking with India, but they are not prepared to give us the exemptions given to states like Bangladesh. So we are in a lose-lose situation on this count. On the political front also, the EU Parliament allowed the founding member of its Friends of India to become the Rapporteur on Kashmir and present a highly biased and in places absurd report on this conflict. Notwithstanding the revelation of Pakistan and the Kashmiris' limited diplomatic-political abilities, the final product from Emma Nicholson could not have been otherwise but that the EU Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee found this acceptable makes one wonder what the EU's intent is towards this region.
However, perhaps the starkest reflection of the rising tide of US-EU neo-imperialism has been the taking over of the ISAF command in Afghanistan by NATO, in 2003. Although we are told ad nauseam that NATO's presence in Afghanistan has UN legitimacy but the record shows otherwise. The UNSC, through Resolution 1386 of December 2001, sanctioned the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF). As stipulated in the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, the progressive expansion of the ISAF mandate was approved through follow-on UNSC resolutions.
So how did NATO get into ISAF? Did the UNSC initiate NATO's involvement or did NATO present a fait accompli to the UN Secretary General. What is available on record is that NATO's Secretary General informed the UN Secretary General, through a letter dated 2 October 2003, that on 11 August 2003 NATO had assumed "strategic command, control and coordination of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)." This was followed by another letter from the NATO SG to the UN SG informing the latter of the North Atlantic Council's agreement on a "longer-term strategy for NATO in its International Assistance Force (ISAF) role in Afghanistan. These communications were forwarded to the UNSC. So effectively NATO presented the UNSC with a fait accompli.
It was in the face of these developments that the UNSC passed Resolution 1510 on 13 October 2003 in which it acknowledged the 6 October NATO SG's letter as well as communication from the Afghan Minister for Foreign Affairs and authorized the expansion of the ISAF mandate. But nowhere is there any reference to NATO's role in Afghanistan. So is NATO really in Afghanistan because of UNSC resolutions or because its members, through their North Atlantic Council decided to get a new foothold in Asia?
Given the continuing European-Atlantic membership of NATO, its operations can only be legitimate in the area of its membership -- and that also require a UNSC authorization -- except in the case of collective self-defense as defined by Article 5 of the NATO Charter. The North Atlantic Council may have decided to expand NATO's vision and operational area but this does not legitimize, internationally, out-of-area operations. That NATO has the military capability while the UN may be lacking this is not the issue here, since one is focusing on the question of international legitimacy. In any case, the UN can be given more teeth if the members are prepared to do so and make effective Articles 43-47 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, including the provisions relating to the creation of a Military Staff Committee.
Meanwhile, effectively we now have Europeans and Atlantic states making decisions relating to the Asian region and this has far reaching consequences for all Asian states in the long run. If this is not neo-imperialism, then what is?
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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