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The Iran Nuclear Deal: An Indian Perspective

Col Rajeev Agarwal is Assistant Director (Admin). Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 06, 2015

    A framework agreement was reached on 2 April 2015 at Lausanne between the P5+1 and Iran. Based on this, a final deal on the Iran nuclear issue is to be negotiated by 30 June 2015. After many missed deadlines and given the fear of reaching a stalemate again, there was jubilation when a joint statement was issued by EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Coming as the statement did after a history of acrimonious relations for over a decade between Iran and the Western world over the nuclear issue, it can most certainly be termed as a major victory. For President Obama, who had put lots at stake on this issue despite major opposition back home as well as from its Israeli, this may well turn out to be his greatest foreign policy achievement.

    As we look forward to the final text in the next few months, it might be worthwhile to take a step back and see how the deal has evolved. The P5+1 talks hit a roadblock even before they commenced in September 2009 when an undisclosed nuclear site was discovered at Fordow near Qom. What followed was a series of international sanctions on one hand and on the other a belligerent Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowing to up the ante by commencing enrichment up to 20 per cent. International sanctions kept tightening the noose around Iran while Tehran kept enriching higher quantities of Uranium. But the focus on Iran was lost when ‘Arab Spring’ protests broke out and engulfed the entire region in 2011. It was only in August 2013 after Hassan Rouhani took over as president that hopes rose again of reconciliation between Iran and the West. Talks commenced with a stated deadline of six months to chalk out a deal. The deadline had to be extended twice due to irreconcilable differences on key issues. While the P5+1 wanted an absolute rollback to the nuclear programme, Iran vehemently insisted upon its right to a peaceful nuclear programme. Also, the issue of rollback of international sanctions – the timing and amount – was bitterly contested.

    Given such seemingly un-negotiable positions, the details outlined in the 2 April framework can easily be termed as a win-win situation for both. While Iran is proudly declaring that it has prevailed upon its right to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme, the P5+1 is feeling vindicated that the stringent measures that they brought to bear upon Iran’s nuclear programme have pushed the theoretical ‘break-out time’ for Iran to develop a nuclear bomb from a ‘few months’ to at least a year. And, with a highly curtailed nuclear programme, a drastically reduced stockpile of enriched Uranium and strict monitoring by the IAEA, there is no way that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear bomb, at least in the coming decade.

    The Iran nuclear deal should not, however, be seen in isolation. There has been a clear realisation in the West, especially in the US, that Iran needs to be brought out of international isolation and into the mainstream. This has much to do with the regional dynamics surrounding Iran. Among these the first is probably Afghanistan. When the drawdown plan was announced in 2012, three things were clear. Firstly, Pakistan would continue to play spoilsport despite all pressures. Secondly, Afghanistan could in no way be expected to stand on its own, at least for the next decade. And thirdly, among the other countries in the region, Iran, with its political and cultural linkages as well as a long common border, was one of the most influential stakeholders which could not only provide alternate access to Afghanistan but also positively affect Afghanistan’s transition.

    Iraq is the next important factor. After the US withdrawal in 2011, Iraq was considered well and truly under the Iranian umbrella. When the sudden onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) broke out in June 2014, the US and the international community were at a loss on how to tackle this menace. Again, it was Iran which not only sent its militia and Basij forces into Iraq to assist the regime safeguard the country’s precious oilfields but also shared critical inputs on the strength and capabilities of the ISIS. There were talks of the US-led coalition supporting Iran in its fight against the ISIS (now called IS) but the sanctions against Iran prevented any arrangement.

    Syria, being torn apart by a civil war since 2011 and is now bearing the brunt of the IS onslaught, is another factor. Iran has staunchly supported the Assad regime while the entire region led by Saudi Arabia was busy supporting, financing and arming the anti-Assad rebels. There have also been suggestions that if Iran were to be on-board, the Central Asian Republics (CAR), some of which share religious and strong cultural linkages with Iran, could be suitably weaned away from Russian influence. With Russia’s attempts in Ukraine threatening regional peace and order in East Europe, this could be a significant step towards thwarting Russian designs in the region.

    Where does India stand on the deal? As was evident from the prompt official statement welcoming the deal, this is something that India has been wanting for a long time. Many of India’s regional aspirations were often found stuck because of the sanctions on Iran. With Pakistan unrelenting in its opposition on regional issues, especially Afghanistan, India found it difficult to deliver and execute its goodwill in Afghanistan. The only alternative has been Iran. And if Iran were to become part of the mainstream, things become easier for India. Also, India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative launched in 2012 could get the desired connectivity options and fillip to boost trade and cooperation with CAR through Iran.

    Energy imports (crude oil and natural gas) are a huge burden on the Indian economy. Sanctions on Iran curtailed imports of energy from that country. This is likely to be reversed when sanctions are lifted. India has signed a contract to develop the Chahbahar port in Iran. The lifting of sanctions on Iran will help in expediting work on this project as well as help in developing the rail-road link from Chahbahar to Afghanistan, a key requirement to ship out iron ore from the Hajigak mines in Afghanistan. Also, the Chahbahar port could add value to India’s strategic needs in the Persian Gulf region.

    The TAPI pipeline, which promises to deliver Turkmen gas to India, is potentially stuck across two obstacles, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Afghanistan can neither fund nor guarantee safe transit due to its fragile internal situation, Pakistan is still unwilling to facilitate this pipeline to India citing technical and security issues. In such a situation, natural gas from Turkmenistan could come directly to Chahbahar port and thereafter taken either through an under-sea pipeline or by containers to India.

    The framework agreement on the Iran nuclear issue has raised hopes for a concrete deal soon. Although there might be some apprehensions in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia and Israel, the P5+1 guarantees and IAEA safeguards could dispel most of these fears in the coming months. India is silently jubilant as the prospective deal opens many a closed door in the region. The next few months would be critical because “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, at least in the case of the Iran nuclear issue.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.