Iran: holding the key to stability?

The prospects of a breakthrough in relations between Iran and the Western world led by the United States has far-reaching implications for Indian foreign policy, especially in its oil-rich western neighbourhood. Iran has long been a reliable supplier of crude oil and a major market for refined Petroleum Products from India. Moreover, Indian companies had concluded long-term contracts for exploration of natural gas in Iran. While there were mixed views on obtaining natural gas by a pipeline from Iran through Pakistan, India has also been examining the feasibility of an undersea Iran-India oil pipeline. Tightening financial and banking sanctions against Iran by the US and its NATO partners have severely constricted the possibilities and expanding energy cooperation with Iran. While India has joined others who have insisted that Iran should abide by its commitments under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, it has also held that Iran has the right to enrich uranium to be used for peaceful purposes.

American policies on clandestine nuclear enrichment have been remarkably inconsistent. The country responsible for triggering the proliferation of centrifuge-based uranium enrichment technology was the Netherlands. It was the Dutch who carelessly granted A Q Khan access to sensitive design documents on centrifuge enrichment technology, when he worked at the Holland-based Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory, a sub-contractor of the ‘Ultra Centrifuge Nederland’. Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has revealed that after Khan’s activities came to light, he was prepared to arrest Khan in Holland, but was prevented from doing so in 1975 and 1986 by the CIA. It is well-known that the Reagan Administration had tacitly assured Pakistan that it would look the other way at Pakistani efforts to build the bomb. If President Reagan looked the other way at Pakistani proliferation, President Clinton winked at Chinese proliferation involving the transfer of more modern centrifuges, nuclear weapons designs and ring magnets, apart from unsafeguarded plutonium facilities, to Pakistan.

The A Q Khan-Iranian nexus goes back to the days of General Zia ul Haq, when the Iranians received the know-how for uranium enrichment from Khan. Iran is now known to possess an estimated 19000 centrifuges, predominantly at its enrichment facilities in Natanz. It has an old plutonium reactor used for medical isotopes, which it says is to be replaced by a larger reactor together with reprocessing facilities, being built at Arak. Given the clandestine nature of its nuclear programme, its activist role in the Islamic world and its virulent anti-Semitism, Iran’s nuclear programme has invited international attention. This has resulted in seven UN Security Council Resolutions since 2006, which called on Iran to halt enrichment and even led to freezing of assets of persons linked to its nuclear and missile programmes.

There have also been cyber attacks (Stuxnet) by the Americans and the killing of some of Iran’s key scientists, believed by the Iranians to have been engineered by the Israelis. While Iran’s nuclear programme enjoys widespread domestic support, what has really hurt the Iranians are the crippling economic sanctions the country has faced from the US and its European allies. These sanctions have led to a shrinking of its oil exports and spiralling inflation. They have been crucial factors compelling Iran to seek a negotiated end to sanctions, without giving up its inherent right to enrich uranium that it enjoys under the NPT.

Crucially, the US can now afford to review its policies in the Middle East. American dependence on oil imports from the Persian Gulf has ended, its oil production will exceed that of Saudi Arabia in the next five years and the US is set to become a significant exporter of natural gas.

These developments are taking place at a time when virtually the entire Islamic world is being torn apart by Shia-Sunni tensions and Arab-Persian rivalries. The emergence of Saudi backing for al-Qaeda-linked Salafi extremists in Iraq and Syria is not exactly comforting for the international community, as the Americans prepare to pull out of Afghanistan. While the Obama Administration may make soothing noises to placate ruffled feathers in Riyadh and Jerusalem, rapprochement with Iran does widen its options in the Muslim World, at a time when the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Sharif proclaims that Shia-Sunni tensions are ‘the most serious threat not only to the region but to the world at large’. But, it would be unrealistic to expect that negotiations between the P5 and Germany on the one hand, and the Iranians on the other will produce any immediate end to the Iranian nuclear impasse. The Israelis and Saudis, who wield immense clout in the Republican right wing, the US Congress and in many European capitals, will spare no effort to secure support for conditions that the Iranians would not agree to.

The Iranians are hard bargainers and will not unilaterally give any concessions, unless they are matched by a corresponding and simultaneous lifting of economic sanctions. Having already concluded an agreement with the IAEA, granting the IAEA access to its uranium mine and heavy water plant, Iran is unlikely to formally agree to yield to demands to stop construction of its new plutonium reactor. More importantly, given the continuing gridlock in Washington between the Obama Administration and a Republican dominated Senate, the Obama Administration will not find it easy to secure Congressional approval for easing sanctions on Iran, especially in the face of Israeli and Saudi opposition. It is not going to be easy for Iran and the US to end over three decades of mutual hostility and suspicion.

The prospect of ending sanctions against Iran has now led to discussions to explore the possibilities of an undersea pipeline between India and Iran. The Russians now have substantial experience in building such pipelines and could serve as an important partner in building an Iran-India undersea pipeline. Iran quite evidently realises that a cash-strapped Pakistan, with a traditionally pro-Saudi Prime Minister in Mr Nawaz Sharif, will just not be in a position to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline, which was to be extended to India. Moreover, even President Rouhani did not have very complimentary things to say about the Taliban in Afghanistan when he spoke at the UN General Assembly. Further, during a recent visit to Tehran, President Karzai has laid the grounds for concluding a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty with Iran. Like India, Iran has serious concerns about any possibility of a Pakistan-backed Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan.

There is uncertainty within Afghanistan and in its neighbourhood about the scenario that will emerge after the US ends all combat operations in Afghanistan in December 2014. While he Pakistan military establishment has long-term links with the Taliban, which are expected to continue, the present political establishment in Pakistan, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition leader Imran Khan, is also known to favour close links with the Afghan Taliban. There is little optimism about any prospects of genuine reconciliation between the government in Kabul and the Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar, which has no respect for the Afghan constitution. India and the Afghan government are cooperating cialis closely with Iran for upgrading facilities in the Iranian Port of Chahbahar to get secure access to Afghanistan through a highway that India has built linking Herat in Afghanistan to the Iranian border. Iran, in many ways, holds the key to stability in Afghanistan, as NATO forces depart.
— G Parthasarathy