A responsible IRAN is good news for ASIA
After 18 months of gruelling negotiations and several missed deadlines, Iran and the P-5+1 (the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany) reached a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme at Lausanne in Switzerland, which is a potential game-changer in the West Asia-North Africa region. The framework deal, to be fleshed out by June 30, has huge geopolitical significance and implications for the world, including India. It must be heartily welcomed.
Under it, Iran will curtail its nuclear activities pretty drastically to assure the world that it’s not about to make a bomb. It will do this under extremely intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The US, European Union and UN will in turn lift harsh economic sanctions, which forced Iran to cut its oil production by two-thirds, impoverished its people and sent its currency plummeting by 40 per cent.
If the agreement does get finalised, it will end the West’s 12-years-long nuclear standoff with Iran, rule out military attacks and greatly reduce the likelihood of nuclear proliferation in the region. With a nuclear Iran becoming improbable, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt would have much incentive to acquire a nuclear capability. Optimistically, 36 years after the Iranian Revolution, this could pave the way for détente and conciliation between the US and Iran.
The Lausanne deal is only a framework or statement of intent. Under it, Iran will reduce its installed centrifuges (which enrich the fissile component of natural uranium to make it usable as fuel in a reactor or bomb) from 19,000 to 6,000 at Natanz for 10 years. A second centrifuge facility at Fordow, considered impregnable to conventional air-strikes, will cease enrichment and become a research centre. Iran will for the next 15 years limit enrichment to 3.67 per cent (90 per cent is needed for a bomb) and prune its stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg.
The heavy-water reactor at Arak would be redesigned and its core, containing weapons-grade plutonium, would be removed and destroyed. Iran’s nuclear supply-chain, from mining to R&D and production units, would be brought under IAEA inspections for 25 years.
The Lausanne deal happened partly because the US shifted its stance from demanding that Iran stop enrichment altogether, to ensuring that it’s slowed down. Although Iran hasn’t given up its “sovereign” nuclear options, it has a conceded a lot, mainly because the sanctions hurt it badly.
Yet, it’s by no means certain that the deal will be finalised by June 30. Almost half the US Senate, which must ratify it, opposes it. So does Israel under its re-elected fanatically hardline leader Binyamin Netanayahu, who recently addressed the US Congress in an unprecedentedly confrontationist move vis-a-vis President Obama and declared that a deal with Iran would not block, but “pave the way” to Tehran fulfilling its nuclear ambitions.
Iran’s hardliners might conceivably want to sabotage the agreement with “the Great Satan”. But now that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander has supported it, this seems unlikely. President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, and a known moderate who wants improved relations with the US and EU, seems as strongly in favour of the agreement as foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who signed it in Lausanne.
Going by his April 9 speech, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who had issued a fatwa declaring nuclear weapons unIslamic – seems inclined to support the agreement, without assuming it will definitely go through. Polls in Tehran by the pro-government Islamic Republic News Agency say 96 per cent of the public backs the deal.
Iran’s regional adversaries like Saudi Arabia don’t command the clout needed to torpedo the agreement. Saudi Arabia has welcomed it despite its known misgivings about Iran’s nuclear programme – probably in deference to domestic public sentiment.
Yet, the talks to reach final agreement could stumble on one or more of any number of issues that were left undefined or unsettled at Lausanne. Moreover, the two sides have put different spins on what was agreed. It’s not clear, for instance, whether the Arak reactor core will be “destroyed” and “removed” (US), or “will remain” but not be used (Iran), and whether the timeframe for limiting enrichment to 3.67 per cent is 15 years (US), or 10 years (Iran).
They also differ on when the sanctions would be lifted. The US says sanctions relief would kick in only once the conditions set for conducting inspections are verifiably met; Iran says this would happen the very day “a comprehensive agreement” is reached. These are delicate issues: negotiating them will demand diplomacy and a degree of trust which must go beyond the cold calculation that usually underlies arms-control deals between adversaries.
However, the Lausanne negotiations must be seen in a larger perspective. First, the US decided about two years ago that it could drive a deal with Iran while retaining its hegemonic advantage – unlike in the past. In 2003, Britain, France and Germany (EU-3) came close to reaching a deal with Iran. But the US wasn’t part of the negotiations and scuttled the agreement.
In 2010, Turkey and Brazil too worked out an agreement with Iran that was similar to the present deal, but the US would have nothing to do with it. It wanted a monopoly over the process, and would keep even its close EU allies out of it. The US abused its influence in the IAEA through the agency’s pliant chief Yukiya Amano to get it to publish in 2011 a highly biased report which falsely alleged that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device”. This was based on dubious, uncorroborated sources. Alarmist stories were planted about Iran’s “breakout” time (for producing 20 kg of 90-per cent-enriched uranium) being a mere three months.
By early 2013, the Obama administration’s assessment had changed. It opened a back channel to Iran that led to several secret bilateral meetings, effectively edging out the EU-3. The process got strengthened with Rouhani’s election as president in June, and led to a breakthrough interim agreement in November, known as the Geneva Accord or Joint Plan of Action. This paved the way for a dozen rounds of further talks, leading to Lausanne.
Second, the US seems to have recently reached the conclusion that Iran can be a useful source of cooperation, if not a de facto ally, against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. After all, Iran has long played a role supportive of the US in Iraq, where Tehran wields great influence because of its Shia-majority population and could have created trouble, but did not.
Iran is proactively attacking the IS in Iraq and Syria. In the city of Tikrit, Iran has launched a massive offensive against Sunni rebels under the cover of the US-led war on terrorism. The US will sooner or later have to recognise Iran as a major player in the region.
Third, Iran is keen to be seen as a “normal”, stable, responsible state, not the “rogue” state it has been made out to be. It is a rising power in the region. In spite of its hard-line clerical-Islamist regime, it hasn’t behaved like a belligerent power in the recent past – unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or contemporary Saudi Arabia. Iran is what international relations theorist term a “rational actor” and status quo power, which wants regional stability.
Iran has used its nuclear programme, among other things, as a bargaining chip in the entire effort at regional self-assertion. It stretches credulity to claim that an oil- and gas-rich country like Iran needs nuclear power for its energy security or self-sufficiency, or that nuclear power remains relevant as a reliable or safe energy source after Fukushima.
Iran has used the “right” to develop and use nuclear energy, available to all states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was drafted to rationalise nuclear weapons through the figleaf of “Atoms for Peace”. This was proffered as a magic wand to prosperity. The world is paying a colossal price for this monumental deception.
Post-Lausanne US-Iran conciliation would make for a less violent, less unstable, less unbalanced West Asia. This is in the interests of South Asia’s people, who have a stake in a stable Middle East, as the negative example of what’s happening in Yemen so vividly brings out. Our region has a great deal to gain from a prosperous Iran, and in the short run from low oil prices from increased
production by Iran.
India committed a major blunder by voting against Iran in the IAEA – not once but twice, under US “coercion”, thus undermining the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. The present moment gives India a chance to make amends and return to that project. Even more important, it offers India and
Pakistan a joint opportunity to secure Iran’s cooperation in making Afghanistan a stable and flourishing democracy. IPA