Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Iran Nuke Deal

The nuclear deal between Iran and the P-5+1 have obviously received a lot of attention.  The general opinion in India and Asia appears to be favourable to the deal, as the Regional Powers Initiative (RPI) noted.  I am less impressed and I think this has potentially dangerous longer term consequences.  My take was published in Economic Times and is reproduced below.

Iran Nuclear Deal: Short-Term Benefits and Long-Term Consequences

US President Barack Obama has won a much-needed foreign political victory by sealing a temporary nuclear deal with Iran. But while there are some short-term benefits, the long term consequences of this deal are much more hazy and potentially quite dangerous. Equally worrying should be the consequences of the deal for nuclear weapon spreading in the Middle East and the larger political effects on America's friends and allies, especially in the region and in Asia.

The deal itself is a clear victory for Iran because it irreversibly enshrines Tehran's right to enrich uranium. Ever since the secret Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz was revealed in 2002, Western powers led by Washington had been arguing that Iran has to shutter these facilities because they violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory. But Iran argued that uranium enrichment was a peaceful activity and a legitimate right under the NPT.

Right to Uranium

Indeed, the UN Security Council has passed several resolutions in the last 10 years demanding that Iran close its enrichment facilities. Even after the deal was signed, US Secretary of State John Kerry continued to claim that the deal does not recognise any Iranian right to enrich because this was the crux of the problem. But Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed that it did and he is right: the text of the agreement explicitly recognises a "mutually defined enrichment program". Though they might quibble over the level of enrichment, the fact is that the Iranian right to have an enrichment programme is now official, and the various UN Security Council resolutions are now so much waste paper. In essence, Washington cried uncle. There are doubts about how this agreement might pan out after the six-month pause runs out.

The idea is that this pause will give time to complete a more comprehensive agreement that will resolve all outstanding issues regarding Iran's nuclear programme but it is difficult to see how this would work out. In all likelihood, six months from now, we will see either a minor agreement or the pause extended. Iran has not worked this hard this long to sign away its nuclear capability at the negotiating table. This deal is only likely to encourage further proliferation in the region.

The Sunni Gulf states, locked in what they see as a deadly struggle with Shia Iran, will see this as a sell-out. Even before US's capitulation, Saudi Arabian leaders had been explicitly threatening to exercise their own nuclear option. The standing assumption is that they would ask Pakistan for a nuclear deterrent since they bankrolled a good part of Islamabad's nuclear programme. This deal could also increase the tacit strategic cooperation between these states and Israel since Iran is a threat to both.

Unstable Middle East

Israel is also furious and USIsraeli relations are at a low ebb. But an angry Israel could present problems for Obama. Israel's supporters in the US Congress (which includes both Democrats and Republicans) have threatened to pass additional sanctions on Iran that could kill this deal.

Israel could also decide that Obama cannot be trusted and take matters into its own hands and try to militarily eliminate the Iranian nuclear programme. But there is a larger political lesson about partnerships and trust that America's friends from the Mediterranean to the Pacific will note: that small states can be easily sacrificed by great powers at the altar of expediency.

Even if overused, the Munich analogy would not be entirely inappropriate here. If Israel and Saudi Arabia, with as much clout as they can muster in Washington, can be thrown under the bus, what chance would other American allies and partners have? In addition to the prospect of having an unstable, nuclearised Middle East, New Delhi needs to consider these political implications too of American behaviour. Such concerns could lead to longer-term troubles for the US.

Smaller powers in Asia and elsewhere could decide that they cannot depend on a fickle Washington. They could also decide that the only really safe bet is to follow Tehran and build their own nuclear capabilities. For the long term, no deal would have been a better deal than this. 

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