This week, West Asia has taken a small step away from the nuclear noose. The nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 — puts some breathing space between Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the prospect of a West Asian nuclear arms race which would have locked it into lethal competition with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet, it is important to understand that this is just a reprieve. Iran and the P5+1 now have signed an interim agreement, which will expire in six months unless both sides negotiate a comprehensive deal. In those six months, Iran must halt enriching uranium above 5 per cent, freeze its stockpile of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium, and neutralise the uranium already enriched to 20 per cent — the kind that can, with relative ease, be further enriched to a grade that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran must also halt activities at the Arak reactor, which can potentially produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and permit escalated inspection activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily inspections of all facilities. In return, the P5+1 will free up some $6 billion of Iran’s frozen foreign assets and ease insurance-related restrictions that have crippled the country’s oil exports. Additionally, the United States Congress has to agree not to impose any new sanctions on Iran. This interim agreement is the result of months of painstaking secret diplomacy and one both Iranian and American negotiators can be satisfied with. However, there is very hard work ahead.
The challenges ahead are indeed huge. The international regime that was intended to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons has steadily frayed over the decades, as ever more states have sought the ultimate insurance against what they see as existential threats. Experts are divided on the risks proliferation poses: some argue the possession of nuclear weapons raises the risks of war to unacceptable levels, forcing states to behave responsibly; others that the dangers are simply unacceptable. As for India, it is critically important that the next step is taken — the conclusion of a comprehensive deal. Energy-deficient India needs Iran’s gas and oil. It also needs oil and gas from other major states in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. India simply cannot afford geo-strategic volatility in the region, let alone a nuclear-weapons race. The energy-rich states of West Asia form part of India’s near-neighbourhood. It is clear that New Delhi has real stakes in making sure Iran and the P5+1 succeed — and must exercise all the influence it can, to that end.