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Dawn Editorial 10 January 2020

Iran-US climbdown

AFTER several days of high drama in the Middle East following America’s assassination of Iranian Gen Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last week, where at one point it seemed the region was poised on the brink of another disastrous war, the temperature came down several notches on Wednesday.
The day had started with a bang, quite literally, as news broke of Iranian missile strikes targeting two American bases in Iraq. It seemed the moment many had feared was here.
However, later in the day Donald Trump — whose rash decision had ignited this latest episode — spoke to the cameras, declaring that “all is well”. It may have been an anticlimax, but a welcome one, and the international community heaved a sigh of relief.
Read: Trump tones down war rhetoric, announces more ‘punishing sanctions’ on Iran
Iranian media reported “80 American terrorists” had been killed in the strikes; Trump claimed “all of our soldiers are safe”.
Regardless of the true picture on the ground, it was clear that both sides had made their public statements and backed down, for now.
The Trump administration has, till date, been big on bravado and light on solid strategic policy, with the US president’s Twitter statesmanship confounding allies and foes alike.
However, in this case perhaps wiser members of the administration have prevailed on their boss that a full-blown war with Iran is not in America’s interest.
Though there is no match where technological advantage and firepower between the American and Iranian militaries are concerned, with the former having a clear edge, Trump’s generals know that Tehran can cause major havoc to US interests in the Mideast.
The Iranians have said previously that American bases in the region are within their reach, and a brief preview of this was witnessed in the Iraq strikes.Moreover, there are also signs that America’s Gulf Arab allies are genuinely panicked that if the situation escalates, Tehran’s missiles could rain down on US bases on their territory.
On the other hand, the Iranian establishment must also have realised that while it needed to take public action to avenge Soleimani’s death, total war against America would be inadvisable considering Tehran’s feeble economic position and relative weakness compared to the US military machine. Therefore, both sides have managed to save face and avert a bloody showdown.
From here on, the international community will need to play a greater role to de-escalate the situation between Washington and Tehran. If the US continues to advocate for regime change in Iran and tighten an already suffocating sanctions regime against the country, it is highly unlikely the Islamic Republic will soften its tone. Moreover, Tehran should reconsider leaving the nuclear accord; and it should keep the doors of dialogue open, as in the arena of international relations situations can and do change very quickly. The danger of conflict has receded, but by no means is the situation in the Mideast back to normal.


Piped gas

IT is perhaps one of this country’s most cherished dreams, to pipe gas from its west where it is available in abundance, and transit it onward to the east where it is in deficit. Iran and Turkmenistan have surplus supplies of natural gas, while India has always been reliant on imports to meet its requirements. If somehow Pakistan could be the transit country and collect fees accordingly, a significant bonanza may be possible. In later years as Pakistan’s own gas deficit grew once the country’s largest fields went into decline, the impetus behind the dream of piped gas increased accordingly. But geopolitics was always the stumbling bloc. Iran for years has been behind an ever tightening curtain of sanctions which makes it difficult to advance the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, even when India was willing to participate in it. And any pipeline from Turkmenistan would have to transit through Afghanistan, raising serious security risks. As a result, finding financial support for both projects was always a challenge, and even when that financial support was available as in the case of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India — or Tapi — gas pipeline, locating dependable partners in each of the countries as well as a stable security environment was always going to be a massive undertaking.
To these uncertainties, we now add pricing as another source of instability in the equation that underlies this dream. Piped gas has an advantage over imported LNG since it should be cheaper, and far more reliable as a source of supply once the pipeline infrastructure is laid down. But the government has now decided to renegotiate the price with Turkmenistan, prompting India to do the same. This is the big issue with piped gas: there is no market based pricing for it as there is for LNG. Since the pipeline only connects a small number of buyers with one supplier, the price has to be negotiated between them. And because the project has a long gestation period, and the countries involved have a weak commitment to the project, regular pricing disputes are likely to mar the outlook. For the moment, the Turkmen authorities seem to be willing to make another price review and will be sending a team to Islamabad shortly. But it would be a good idea to not activate this option too often since it reduces the credibility of Pakistan as a buyer.


Turtle trafficking

ON Wednesday, the Sindh Wildlife Department rescued 54 Indian soft-shelled turtles from poachers in Larkana after a two-month search. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the freshwater turtle is listed as a threatened species, and is subject to international trade controls. The rare snout-nosed reptile is only found in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and it is essential to the river ecosystems of the areas it inhabits. Pakistan hosts eight species of freshwater turtles and five marine turtles — all are protected under the wildlife conservation laws. Tragically, despite being one of the most ancient animals on earth, their numbers are fast dwindling due to rampant illegal trade; harmful fishing practices and misconceptions; water scarcity, mismanagement and pollution; and the steady loss of habitat. The proliferation of the internet has not helped matters, with exotic pet store owners and independent sellers trading endangered species on countless social media sites, websites, and even the dark web. Many species of turtles make for popular pets both within the country and internationally. Their shells and body parts are also smuggled for medicinal purposes, while their meat is considered a delicacy in several Asian countries.
In 2018, a wildlife trade monitoring network published its findings on the unbridled trafficking in the internationally protected black spotted turtle — found along the Indus River in Sindh and Punjab — through transit trade routes in Southeast Asia to Hong Kong and China. It revealed that a total of 10,321 alive black spotted turtles were seized in 53 operations between 2014 and 2016. This highlighted an alarming increase in the illicit trade of the unique, freshwater animal when compared to past records: between 2008 and 2014, a total of 2,171 turtles were rescued in 26 seizures. To combat the illegal wildlife trade, greater transnational cooperation is required, along with stricter enforcement of laws. Alongside, local communities must be given more stake in the conservation process, and steps taken to combat poverty and encourage alternative means of livelihood.


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