Iran and Middle East in the Nuclear Age
US-Iranian nuclear deal in the Asian pivot: It’s complicated.
Posted Apr 22, 2015
“We knew the world would not be the same … Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture … Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” said Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and the physicist in charge of the Manhattan Project. As Iran and potentially the whole of the Middle East may enter the nuclear age, we are reminded of his ominous warning.
As the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Senate hearing recently, the Iranian deal will certainly lead to greater proliferation, making Iran the lynchpin in the Middle East and Central Asia, with influence spreading into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At this turning point in history, Iran has no choice but to embrace a peaceful civil nuclear program and make peace with Israel if it plans to join the emerging global civilization. Iran could possibly become another North Korea, a dangerous outcome. Or, it could follow the South Asian model of détente and help advance America’s Asian pivot. Facing limited options, US-Iranian negotiations with P5+1 (including China, EU, France, Germany, UK and US) were extended. A preliminary agreement framework was released on Thursday, April 2, final deal to be finalized by June.
When President Obama was in India in January 2015, he was able to iron out the details of the civil nuclear deal with India, the so-called liability clause, opening up the possibilities of India’s energy independence. India is part and parcel of the Asian rebalancing that US has been trying to achieve.
It took India several decades to arrive at this juncture through several US administrations—Clinton, Bush and Obama—and a historical change of government in India from the Congress Party to the Modi government.
India has been trying to wean-off the Iranian oil while sanctions have been in place, a sign of India’s alignment with P5+1 member states, especially, the US. The nuclear deal to be hammered out by the end of June, however, will be a much tougher sell in the US Congress.
The disputes about what is in the US-Iranian deal arose as soon as the official statement was released by the White House on Thursday. When, how and under what conditions would the sanctions be lifted, immediately or through a phased release? How will IAEA track Iran’s covert activities, through intrusive spot observations or controlled weekly and monthly access? Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said on Saturday, April 4, that Tehran would be able to return to its nuclear activities if the West withdraws from the pact.
If the deal gets blocked, American diplomacy will take a hit, as President Obama said. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to break down the wall of distrust between DC and Tehran that has existed for more than three decades, as I have argued in my book, The Global Obama, would be stymied. It will be a huge loss for both Obama and Kerry’s legacy. If the Iranian regime stays closed to the outside world, it might also adversely impact the Asian pivot and US will remain mired in the Middle East.
Unlike Iran, India has been a close ally of the state of Israel despite the history of non-alignment. India and Israel have been defense and technology partners. With Israel calling the framework agreement with Iran “a threat to its survival”, which way will India lean—towards Iran or Israel—remains to be seen?
While Iran and India share historical and civilizational ties, these old ties will be trumped by the new geopolitical realities. India’s growing relationship with the US and the thirst for nuclear energy mandates it follow the lead of P5+1, especially, if it aspires to join the Security Council.
Ironically, India and Israel never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India developed a peaceful nuclear program as a rogue nuclear state through the 1980s and 90s, against protestations of the West. Here, India may not have been a bad model for Iran to follow, but moving forward Iran’s covert program may pose a greater danger if hidden from the light of day.
Although, Iran did sign the NPT many years ago (1968), it has been in violation of the treaty several times. The realities of Middle East and North Africa today are very different than that of South Asia twenty years ago when India and Pakistan secretly tested the bomb.
Iran may have to remain in a tight holding pattern vis-à-vis the West for many decades to come if we are to see a peaceful Middle East in our lifetimes. Thus, India, China and other nuclear states in Asia must continue to call for the ‘peaceful development’ of the Iranian nuclear program.
According to WPS Sidhu at the Brookings Institute in India, “India will welcome the resolution of the nuclear file on Iran and will try to walk the tightrope in trying to strengthen relations with both Iran and Israel.”
The other nuclear power in South Asia, namely Pakistan, whose scientist A. Q. Khan provided the original impetus for the nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic of Iran, is watching these events closely. Pakistan also never signed the NPT, and not surprisingly, has never recognized the state of Israel.
Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, where he was exiled during Musharraf’s reign, have not been well received by the Iranian regime. Yet, Pakistan relies on the Iranian natural gas supplies and has not taken an openly hostile anti-Iranian position on the nuclear deal. If Pakistan were to take a pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian position, consistent with the Israeli position, Iran will lean towards India and Afghanistan in the region.
Whatever the ultimate, nuanced details of the nuclear deal, it will have ripple effects throughout Central and South Asia. It will lead to increased trading of nuclear secrets overtly and covertly; South Asia, which became a nuclear zone several decades ago, will become even more dangerous. PM Netanyahu’s nightmarish dream of Middle East and North Africa turning into a nuclear landmine, where state and non-state actors are tripping over each other, may not be far-fetched. Tensions between Shia and Sunni factions, and their terrorist outfits, will grow and spill over into South Asia through various proxy wars.
When the US Congress eventually passes the US-Iranian nuclear deal, as the former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said, it will be because “the president gets the substance right—if the suspension of sanctions is not front loaded, and there is transparency and intrusive inspections—he will have a legacy of which he can be justifiably proud.” These are ‘Big Ifs’ to overcome over the objections of Israel and the conservative Republicans.
Iran must attempt to follow the South Asian model of détente and take India’s lead into the 21st century by developing a peaceful civil nuclear program as a deterrence to war. This might lead to the free flow of Iranian oil and push forward America’s Asian pivot. If the deal fails, Israeli-Iranian relationship will head into a bleak and uncertain existential future, driving the Iranian nuclear program further underground.