External Affairs

The Iran Nuclear Deal Changes the Regional Game But Is Good News for India

The lifting of economic sanctions against Tehran will be useful in our energy quest and the pursuit of connectivity to Central Asia

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at Vienna on July 13, 2015.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at Vienna on July 13, 2015. Credit: US Government Photo

The agreement finalised on Tuesday by Iran and the P5+1 commits Tehran to serious constraints on its nuclear energy programme while the United States and its European allies have agreed to lift domestic and international sanctions related to Iranian non-compliance with UN demands that it abandon its more ambitious atomic plans.

There is no question that the Vienna agreement is the best deal available. Successive US administrations have sought to roll back the Iranian nuclear programme through sanctions and, finally, through dialogue. The agreement has its critics in the United States, and in the Middle East, but the alternative to this deal is no deal. No deal would would leave Iran frustrated – and free to pursue the weapons programme that the US intelligence community says has been in deep freeze since 2004.

Tuesday’s agreement has some of the most stringent and rigorous safeguards and inspection provisions that the world has ever seen. It is also clear that on every one of the issues left open after the interim Lausanne agreement in April, Iran has made significant concessions. The arms embargo against it continues for five years and the missile sanctions for eight years.

Whatever the critics may say, this agreement should be welcomed. I would expect it to be implemented by both the United Staes and Iran for the same reasons that led them to talk to each other for several months and finally reach an understanding.

Going beyond the nuclear question, the agreement buys the United States at least 15 years of time to accomplish two important goals in the Middle East.

The first of these is to reshape the geopolitical balance that has been destroyed in Iran’s favour by the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, which took Iraq out of the equation, and also by state collapse in several Sunni Arab states. The second is to create a regional security order or structure that puts in place deterrence – for the eventuality that Iran and others in the region seek to acquire nuclear weapons after the agreement runs out. Indeed, nuclear weapons are a fact of life in the Middle East — whether it is Israel’s arsenal or Saudi Arabia’s bomb in the Pakistani bank.

Washington now has an interest in President Hassan Rouhani’s survival and in strengthening his role in Iranian politics. Regime change is no more a credible goal of US policy in Iran. Equally, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei can no longer rely purely on the external threat from the ‘Great Satan’ to maintain his power and must rely more on balancing domestic factions. If the US wishes to restrain the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), it will need to engage the Supreme Leader – who has an interest in balancing their power while keeping them available as a threat.

There is much loose talk in Washington of the need to now ‘restrain’ Iranian behaviour in the region, largely to reassure American allies. If indeed the US is looking to restrain the behaviour of Iran, it may well be barking up the wrong tree. I can think of three, possibly four, American allies in the region who have done more to support and export terrorism than Iran — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar and Turkey. Actual Iranian behaviour has been restrained in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Central Asia, Bahrain and the Gulf, for the simple reason that the Shia are a minority in most places and minorities have good reason to be on their best behaviour, unlike majorities. Iraq proves that proposition.

Net net, Iran’s position in the Levant is today worse than it was five years ago: her friendly regime in Syria is no longer fully in control; the belt of Syrian anarchy has cut her off from Lebanon, where her influence has declined and Hizbollah is increasingly acquiring the characteristics of a state, reaching covert understandings with Israel; the slow rise of the Kurds to de facto  independence hurts Iran as much as anyone else. It can actually be argued that the chaos in Syria engineered by Turkey and friends – which, under King Salman, includes a more relaxed Saudi attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood and a working relationship with Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria – serves the purpose of Iran’s enemies, which is to bleed her and drain her resources. There seems to be little reason for Iran’s adversaries to change this situation or their behaviour.

Iran will try and charm the West, using the threat of the ‘Islamic State’ as the glue, but the West is tempted to fight ISIS to the last Al Qaeda or Al-Nusra member, letting the Iranians fight their own battle against ISIS. The Iranians have long tried to make the nuclear negotiation about a regional condominium between Washington and Tehran. However, the US has every reason to play both sides – Saudi Arabia/Turkey against Iran – rather than falling in with one or the other.

As for our interests, I think India should concentrate on access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and oil. Even if we are at the back of the queue, Iran’s return will lower oil prices all round and help us. For India, the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran will be useful in our energy quest and our pursuit of connectivity to Central Asia – the hitherto elusive ‘North-South corridor’. On its part, Iran, which was obsessed with the West, can now play a larger role in Afghanistan. This too ought to be helpful for India

The game has changed in the Middle East in interesting ways. The goal now should be to enable and encourage Iran to be a factor of stability in her neighbourhood — Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Gulf.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from January 2010 to May 2014

Featured image: Bunting’s Map of Asia as Pegasus