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Why the Iran nuclear deal will be useful for India

April 10, 2015 14:47 IST

'If the Iran nuke deal holds, Iran becomes a gateway to Afghanistan, and a better one than Pakistan because the route is not so mountainous. Correspondingly, I imagine Pakistan's value to the US will fall,' says Rajeev Srinivasan.

Nuclear talks in Paris

The nuclear agreement, whose framework was agreed to between Iran and a group of major powers on April 2nd, is generally positive for India. With the caveat that this is only a framework, and the actual agreement is only expected to be completed by June 30, it appears to be a landmark agreement in terms of bringing Iran back from its outcaste status.

It is also important for US President Barack Obama, because it may be the biggest foreign policy success of his presidency.

In many ways, India would have benefited from being an insider player, considering Iran is in India's backyard. As it happened, it was a group known as the P5+1, viz the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, who thrashed out the deal.

It shows, yet again, the real value of the exclusive P5 club, which is why the current incumbents are loath to expand it. It could be argued that Japan, Germany, India and Brazil all have a bigger claim to be in it than Britain or France, but it underlies India's folly in declining Taiwan's (Asian?) seat when it was offered. Now India is on the sidelines in any major strategic negotiation, unbecoming of its size and ambitions.

India had a vested interest in becoming match-maker even between the Americans and the Iranians, but we missed that opportunity.

First, India was one of the few countries that had reasonably cordial relations with both.

Second, a major reason for American tolerance of Pakistani perfidy in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion has been logistics: Pakistan is the best conduit for US equipment, other than Iran. A US-Iranian thaw would reduce Pakistan's strategic importance to the Americans, and thus their willingness to give it lots of goodies.

In fact, that very scenario is now unfolding. If the Iran nuke deal holds, Iran becomes a gateway to Afghanistan, and a better one than Pakistan because the route is not so mountainous (and much better than the long and arduous and politically complicated Central Asian route).

Correspondingly, I imagine Pakistan's value to the US will fall. (That would be the logical conclusion, but there are many 'friends of Pakistan' in the US State Department: witness the recent $1 billion sale including 1,000 anti-tank Hellfire missiles and Viper attack helicopters. Since the Taliban don't have tanks, clearly the Hellfire missiles are intended to be used only against Indian forces.)

The Americans have habitually used Pakistan and then abandoned it. We might be seeing the beginnings of yet another such cycle. For, the larger geostrategic picture in the Middle East is that suddenly, one of the major powers, Iran, has been boosted. This hurts the prospects of the other regional powers, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt. And since Pakistan is a client State of the Saudis, a diminishing of Saudi Arabia's strategic importance is reflected on Pakistan too.

The Iranians also have good reason to be suspicious of Pakistan's intentions. For instance, they are unlikely to view with equanimity the prospect of common neighbour Afghanistan becoming a Pakistani vassal (the new Afghan president Mohanmmed Ghani is friendly with them), as the Pakistanis seek 'strategic depth'.

Iran is nervous anyway about unrest in Balochistan spilling over into its own Baloch-majority province next door, and perhaps wary of Pakistani intent in general, partly because of the Shia-Sunni divide, and partly because of competition with Saudi Arabia.

A reduction of Pakistan's value to the US is useful for India (although sugar daddy and all-weather friend China may take up the slack). Distress sales of Iranian oil and gas (which India, as one of the few buyers ignoring the sanctions, had been buying in rupees) were good for India, although the Iranians had been bargaining quite hard, and are no pushovers.

The general fall in oil prices based on the arrival of Iranian oil in the open market, will be beneficial to India, however.

The prevention of an arms race in the Middle East is also a positive for India. It is certain that if Iran weaponised (especially after it reneged on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), Saudi Arabia would call in Pakistan's bomb which it probably financed; and Turkey and Egypt may want their own bombs too.

Of course, Israel, which believes this deal is a 'grave, existential threat' would have accelerated its own, unacknowledged, nuclear weapons programme.

Having said all this, is the nuclear deal going to come through? It remains to be seen, for several reasons. The first is strong domestic opposition in both Iran and the US. The second is the temptation to cheat, because the terms ipso facto seem to require substantial concessions by Iran. The third is the temporary nature of many of the restrictions which may not satisfy Western hawks.

A helpful article in the Atlantic monthy, The Iran Nuclear deal, by the numbers (external link gives a quick graphical view of the terms envisaged under the framework. To be noticed are a few pertinent details: One in particular, that the 'breakout time' is now up to one year, as opposed to three months.

That is, the Iranians will take a year to build a nuclear bomb under the new regime, as opposed to the current three months. That doesn't quite seem such a deterrent: If there is no agreement by June, and Iran walks away, all they have lost is a few months, and they can go back to the status quo ante and build a bomb in a year.

On the other hand, some of the terms seem quite strict, especially the reduction in the new generation centrifuges that do the bulk of the enrichment: From 1,000 to none; and the old generation down by 2/3rds from 18,000 to 6,000. The stockpiles of enriched uranium are dramatically reduced, and their enrichment level also lowered below weapons-grade.

The nuclear facilities at Fordow will become a research lab, and the Arak reactor will be dismantled and its core replaced with one that cannot generate plutonium. And then there will be intrusive inspections in the entire fuel cycle. There will be no reprocessing of spent fuel in Iran: It will be exported.

These cannot be attractive to Iranians, as it would appear that the nuclear programme which they struggled for so long is being 'capped, rolled back and eliminated'. On the other hand, many of the restrictions are for a finite period, say 10 or 15 years – which may be the face-saver.

Thus, it is by no means certain that this nuclear deal will become a reality, but overall, it is a useful move as far as India is concerned.

ALSO READ: Virendra Kapoor: Iran's last chance to shed the pariah tag

Image: An Iranian reporter speaks on his mobile phone before statements from representatives from Iran, the European Union, and others attending the nuclear talks in France, April 2, 2015. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/Reuters

Rajeev Srinivasan