A crisis-hit Iran at the crossroads

Iran, the hardest-hit among the West Asian countries in the global pandemic, is on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus that causes the causes coronavirus disease, COVID-19. With nearly 900 deaths and over 14,000 cases of infection, its health-care system is reeling under the combined effect of the pandemic and American sanctions.

The new challenge for Iran comes about two months after the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander General Qassem Soleimani, in January. In end-January, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and had vowed to support armed Palestinian groups.

Also read: Analysis | The importance of Qasem Soleimani

Mr. Khamenei had said in November 2019 that Iran’s main strategy was to inure itself from the effect of sanctions and to emerge resilient. The masses thronging the streets some weeks ago may have receded out of fear of both the coronavirus and the wrath of the regime, but there is a possibility of social unrest resurfacing if the government’s response to the spread of the virus is ineffective and shortages are exacerbated. Iran has already approached the International Monetary Fund for $5-billion in emergency funding to combat the pandemic.

The U.S. Treasury had announced in end-February that it was lifting some sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to facilitate humanitarian trade such as the import of testing kits for COVID-19. Clearly, Iran thinks this is inadequate.

Nuclear policy

May 8, 2020 will mark the second anniversary of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the “Iran Nuclear Deal”. Following the U.S.’s decision to jettison the deal, Iran had announced that it would resume its nuclear activities but had agreed to respect the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and enhanced monitoring as part of its obligations under the additional protocol.

The JCPOA limited Iran to enrich uranium only up to a 3.67% concentration and its stockpile to 300 kg of UF6 (corresponding to 202.8 kg of U-235), and further capped its centrifuges to no more than 5,060, besides a complete cessation of enrichment at the underground Fordow facility. It also limited Iran’s heavy water stockpile to 130 tonnes. However, since July 2019, Iran has lifted all restrictions on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water. It has been enriching uranium to 4.5%, beyond the limit of 3.67%. Moreover, it has removed all caps on centrifuges and recommenced enrichment at the Fordow facility. As of February 19, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile totalled 1,020.9 kg, compared to 372.3 kg noted in the IAEA’s report of November 3. In a second report issued on March 3, the IAEA has identified three sites in Iran where the country possibly stored undeclared nuclear material or was conducting nuclear-related activities. The IAEA has sought access to the suspect sites and has also sent questionnaires to Iran but has received no response.

The United Kingdom, France and Germany had invoked the JCPOA Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) as early as in January this year. With the next Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) set to take place in New York from April 27 to May 22, 2020, Iran’s threat to abandon the NPT if the European Union takes the matter to the UN Security Council (UNSC) may yet only be bluster, but the failure of the DRM process would certainly put Iran on a collision course with the UNSC. A sympathetic China, which holds the rotational presidency of the UNSC for March, should diminish that prospect, albeit only temporarily. As things stand, the terms of UNSC Resolution 2231, which had removed UN sanctions against Iran in the wake of the JCPOA, are reversible and the sanctions can be easily restored. That eventuality would prove disastrous, compounding Iran’s current woes.

While recognising that cocking a snook at the NPT in the run-up to the NPT RevCon and the U.S. presidential elections will invite retribution, Iran may use the global preoccupation with the pandemic to seek a whittling down of sanctions and to continue its nuclear programme. In the event that the NPT RevCon is postponed due to the prevailing uncertainty, Iran may yet secure some more breathing time.

Ties with China

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to implement its “maximum pressure policy”. China remains the only major country that continues to defy U.S. sanctions and buy oil from Iran, apart from a small quantum that goes to Syria.

The sale of oil to China, however, does little to replenish Iran’s coffers. China is eschewing payments in order to avoid triggering more sanctions against Chinese entities. According to reports, Iran uses the credit to service its debt to China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) for the development of Iran’s super-giant Azadegan and Yadavaran oil fields.

When seen in the context of the trilateral naval exercise between China, Iran and Russia in the Strait of Hormuz in the end of December 2019 codenamed “Marine Security Belt”, these developments suggest a further consolidation of Sino-Iran ties in a region of great importance to India. Over time, this could expand into a “Quad” involving China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan in the Indian Ocean and the northern Arabian Sea, with broader implications for India as well as the “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific.

The first round of Iran’s parliamentary elections in February showed that the hardliners are firmly ensconced. The fundamental underpinnings of Iran’s foreign policy are likely to remain unchanged. Yet, the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the region creates fresh possibilities for cooperation between Iran and its neighbours, if regional tensions are relegated to the back-burner. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation framework, indeed, sets a laudable example. Much though will depend on Iran’s willingness to rein in its regional ambitions and desist from interference in the domestic affairs of others.

Sujan R. Chinoy, a former Ambassador of India, is currently the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 12:27:06 AM |

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