Winds of change in West Asia

There has been no dearth of hyperbole on the >nuclear agreement signed last week in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany — along with the European Union). U.S. President Barack Obama was the most restrained when he said that the deal “offers an opportunity to move in a new direction”; Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called it a good agreement when he announce(d) “to our people that our prayers have come true”. On July 20, the Agreement was submitted to the U.S. Congress for a mandatory 60-day review. U.S. Speaker John Boehner slammed it as “a bad deal” that “paves the way for a nuclear Iran” and “vowed to do everything possible to scuttle it” even as Mr. Obama warned that he would veto a negative decision by Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, described it as “a most dangerous irresponsible step”, while a group of 60 former secretaries, national security advisers,

Rakesh Sood
military generals and ambassadors, led by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former secretary of defence William Perry issued a statement welcoming it as “a landmark agreement unprecedented in its importance...” Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “the world heaved a sigh of relief” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it “a hugely important success”.

Behind the diverse reactions

Closer home, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed outrage at “a bad mistake of historic proportions”; Saudi Arabia was publicly resigned to it , urging “strict inspections” and “harsh and determined responses” if Iran made deviations, though in private it was more critical calling it “an extremely dangerous development”. Syrian President Bashar Assad called it “a great victory”, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt C¸avus¸og˘lu said “it would contribute to the regional economy”. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi described it as “a catalyst for regional stability”.

In New Delhi, the spokesperson “welcomed the successful conclusion of negotiations” while waiting “to see the text of the Agreement”, cautious words, even as the Ministry of External Affairs prepares to expand relations with Israel while exploiting the opening that a removal of sanctions on Iran offers.

Clearly, it is not the dense 100+ pages of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and its Annexures that have provoked such diverse reactions but the political ramifications for the region that generate uncertainty all around.

Nuclear dimension

The nuclear dimension of the agreement is relatively straightforward. Two years ago, Iran was perceived to be just a few months away from acquiring enough highly enriched uranium to produce a bomb. A covert cyber operation, widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli effort, using the worm, ‘Stuxnet’, damaged a number of centrifuges in 2009-10 but the programme has rebounded since then. There was no certainty that a U.S.-backed military strike would succeed in taking out Iran’s entire nuclear capability. Collective economic sanctions had worked up to a point because these were intended to give diplomacy a chance. The U.S. was convinced that under the circumstances, negotiations were the only way forward. Iran had to step back from the nuclear threshold, from a lead time of months to a year plus. Further, it had to accept intrusive inspections to give out the reassurance that it was not cheating. The U.S. needed to be certain that sanctions could snap back into place in case Iran tried a breakout. It was not an ideal solution but the best under the circumstances.

While Iran could still sustain the sanctions and survive, sanctions relief was necessary for higher growth. Equally important for Iran was the narrative that it was within its rights as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to build an enrichment capability for peaceful purposes. Iran could accept more intrusive verification provided this right was conceded. That meant retaining the capability while accepting constraints on exercising it for a period of time, which could be negotiated. A deal would also bolster Iran’s standing regionally.

For India, it is a positive development... This opening offers opportunities for the Indian corporate sector though it will have to compete with Western and Turkish enterprises.

Under the JCPOA, the number of centrifuges has been reduced by more than two thirds and enrichment will be restricted to a single facility at Natanz. The remaining centrifuges will be mothballed and the Fordow enrichment facility will be converted into a nuclear, physics, technology, research centre where no fissile material can be introduced. From its existing stockpile of nearly 10 MT of partially enriched uranium, Iran will retain only 300 kg of uranium enriched to a level of 3.6 per cent; the rest will be shipped out. The Arak heavy water reactor will be redesigned and Iran will not undertake any reprocessing activity. While the duration of the agreement is 10 years, the International Atomic Energy Agency verification provisions will remain in effect for an additional five years. Restrictions on designing and the production of new centrifuges will remain in force for 20 years while monitoring of uranium mining and milling will continue for 25 years and verification covers the supply chain of nuclear related components. While defence related sites like Parchin have been kept out of the nuclear related facilities, there is a provision for seeking inspections if treaty violating activity is suspected. In case of a dispute, a 24-day time frame is provided for adjudication by a joint commission to be set up under the JCPOA. Nuclear-related imports are permitted but will be channelled through a designated procurement channel.

In return, all nuclear related sanctions will be lifted. This will gradually permit nearly $100 billion of blocked funds to be released and, more significantly, permit Iranian banks and financial institutions to resume their international engagement. A number of institutions and individuals will be taken off the sanctions list.

Regional politics

Iran will be able to modernise its oil and gas industry infrastructure which was hard hit by the technology embargoes related to the sanctions regime. Over a period of a year or so, this will also permit Iran to increase its oil and gas export revenues, subject to global demand picking up. Two significant provisions are a lifting of the conventional arms embargo after five years and ending missile sanctions after eight years.

It is not the unambiguous terms of the JCPOA that generate strong emotions but the winds of change blowing across West Asia that the deal portends. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, containing Iran became a shared policy objective for the U.S. and its two regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. With U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the growth of the Islamic State in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the U.S. needed new leverages in the region. U.S. business also perceives a large, untapped market in Iran for everything from automobiles and aircraft to Coca Cola and Apple products. A hostile relationship with Iran was no longer in the U.S.’s interest and Mr. Rouhani’s election provided a good opportunity for this. This shift makes Saudi Arabia nervous which has injected a strong dose of jihadi sectarianism into the regional rivalry to bolster its position in the Sunni-dominated Arab world. During the 1980s, the jihad in Afghanistan spawned al-Qaeda and the Taliban; dabbling with the forces unleashed with the Arab Spring has led to IS and its clones straddling the multiple fault lines in the region. Israel will find it easier to come to terms with the agreement because, in the ultimate analysis, it ensures Israel’s nuclear supremacy in the region for a quarter century. The problem is more complex with Saudi Arabia, which is seeking to maintain regime stability together with its pole position in the Islamic world by using sectarianism.

For the U.S., the unwritten part of the nuclear transaction is its transformative potential for Iran’s domestic politics in bringing about greater democracy, moderating its regional assertiveness and progressive economic integration with the West. The U.S. is relying on Iran’s demographics — a young population which is literate and connected on the Internet, a GDP per capita income level of about $15,000 (in purchasing power parity terms, according to World Bank data 2013), and its aspirations, both individual and societal, for a greater role on the global stage. For Iran, the unwritten part of the deal is that the sanctions relief will give new legitimacy to the Iranian regime, even as it engages with the West. The reality is that just as the Supreme Leader can no longer describe the U.S. as the Great Satan, the U.S. can no longer rely on the “axis of evil” label. That a romance is budding is certain, but the path will not be smooth.

Implications for India

For India, it is a positive development. Before the sanctions regime, Iran accounted for 16.4 per cent of India’s oil imports which came down to 6 per cent. Oil prices are currently down and Iran’s entry into the market enables India to diversify its sources and start building up its strategic reserve. A contract for the development of the ‘Farzad B’ gasfield by ONGC Videsh which was awarded the exploratory rights in 2008 also needs to be tied up. The second major issue is connectivity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. The Chabahar port has long been seen as the gateway but progress on developing the port and the rail-road links to Zahedan on the Iran-Afghanistan border has been slow. In Afghanistan, the 215 kilometre long road from the border town of Zaranj to Delaram was built with Indian help keeping this connectivity in mind. This opening offers opportunities for the Indian corporate sector though it will have to compete with Western and particularly Turkish enterprises. Politically, an integrated Iran is more likely to exercise a stabilising influence in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria.

In the final analysis, the agreement can only be judged against the options available, not vis-à-vis an impractical ideal. On this yardstick, the JCPOA is the best deal possible, for non-proliferation, regional balance and stability, stronger India-Iran relations and, ultimately, for enabling a larger regional presence for India.

(Rakesh Sood, a former Ambassador, was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com )

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 5:11:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/winds-of-change-in-west-asia/article7467262.ece

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