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#4388, 14 April 2014

Nuke Street

Iran Nuclear Deal: Regional Shadows
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & the IAEA

There are indications of further substantive progress in P5 plus Germany’s negotiations with Iran in the latest round in Vienna. Iran has shown readiness and given plans to change the design of the Arak research reactor to drastically reduce plutonium in its spent fuel. While Iran has no reprocessing plant and the Arak reactor is still under construction, the plutonium production risk has been one of the main sticking points about Iran’s nuclear programme. The comprehensive agreement which the negotiators hope to achieve by July 2014 looks distant still. It will need considerable hard work and has 50-60 per cent chance of happening by the deadline; going by the comments of the Chinese and Russian negotiators after the latest round.  

Iran’s stance as revealed in statements by the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif remains consistent with its line since November 2013, that it will take steps to reduce the enrichment level, output and stocks at both locations alongside agreed improvement in transparency and access required for IAEA’s close monitoring. While the Iranian part of the deal is focused on its nuclear programme the other side, particularly the US academics, congressmen and the Israelis have shown differing views of what should constitute an acceptable agreement to reward Iran with lifting of sanctions. On the one hand, despite the heightened tensions about Ukraine, Russian negotiators seem to show that there is no impact on their (constructive) role in the P5-plus-one process. On the other, there is a rising domestic chorus in the US putting pressure on its negotiators about the full range of demands from Iran in these negotiations.

In recent weeks, more and more concern has come up front that mere nuclear concessions by Iran should not earn it the desired sanctions relief. The regional impact of Iran’s role and policies has loomed large in recent weeks as evident in commentaries about the visit of President Obama to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East shuttle diplomacy of Kerry, the role of Hizbullah and the situation in Syria since the failure of Geneva II.

An article in the Washington Post co-authored by Gen Petraeus on 10 April about these negotiations with Iran goes to the extent of putting the clock back on the entire contour of the Iran imbroglio over the past two decades. Petraeus and his co-author stress that “a successful nuclear deal with Iran could result in the United States and its partners in the Middle East facing a better-resourced and, in some respects, more dangerous adversary”. This, they argue, is ‘because sanctions relief would bolster Tehran’s capability to train, finance and equip its terrorist proxies’ and therefore ‘sanctions related to terrorism should remain in place’ and should even be enhanced. Another very exhaustive paper by well known US non-proliferation scholar, Robert Einhorn, spells out the strict requirements of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran – while stating at the outset that he does not at all address the sanctions relief part of the bargain. Israel’s position on the accords since November 2013 has been of stout negation of anything good in this process since it would only relax the hold of tight sanctions on Iran and remove its isolation – and with no sight of reliable nuclear guarantees.

Ironically, if such arguments receive greater credence, they would reinforce Iran’s innate fears from the very beginning that the whole nuclear issue has been raked up with ulterior regional aims. This line was probably felt in Tehran particularly starkly in 2002-03 in the context of a similar case against Iraq. Hence perhaps the concessions that Iran was offering in its talks with the European-3 (Germany, France and UK) in October 2003. The whole point of the relaxation of the situation after Rouhani’s election in 2013 and subsequent back channel progress between the US and Iran was to reach a breakthrough with a limited focus on Iran’s nuclear programme and sanctions relief. Iran is on record stating that the deal will be dead if sanctions persist.

In a worsening situation, if these talks founder, Iran’s regional concerns too might come to the fore and pull back its leadership from the statesmanship demonstrated over the past year. The reports about Saudi Arabia’s mounting unease with prospects of Iran emerging from the cold and speculations about Riyadh’s drastic review of its strategic posture are significant. Mutual apprehension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and suspicions about the likely Saudi nuclear outsourcing to Pakistan are likely to enormously complicate the situation. Iran-Pakistan strains have been skillfully managed so far despite provocations arising out of sectarian strife in the region, the reported role of Pakistani regular or retired troops in Bahrain, and recent stories about Pakistani jihadis having joined the opposition in Syria.

Sartaj Aziz has hinted at Pakistan’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and going by past history of Pakistan’s deft and uncanny ways in this regard, it might be difficult to rule such stuff out in the unfolding scenario of leverages and diplomacy. Is nuclear-armed Pakistan thus again on the threshold of a big role post the US exit from Afghanistan, with its human resources deployed in Syria and who knows where else, and go-between diplomacy elsewhere? Are the straws in the wind about the likely relaxation of US (and NSG) strictures on nuclear Pakistan integral to any larger pattern, overlooking the terrorism angle? 

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