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#4197, 28 November 2013
Iran Nuclear Deal: Regional Implications
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS
Email: subachandran@ipcs.org

None would have expected until few months ago that the US and Iran would come together and agree on a tentative draft that too on the enrichment issue. But that is what had actually happened in Geneva few days before when the P5 plus 1 countries and Iran agreed and issued a “Joint Plan of Action”. Truly amazing development in the international relations, given the animosity especially between Iran and the US, and the fact that there were hardly any diplomatic relations between the two countries since 1979. Undoubtedly a coup!

Both the Presidents – Rouhani and Obama have to be congratulated what they have agreed so far, given the domestic compulsions and oppositions. But the hard reality is, the real challenge starts only now. Will they be able to sell the deal to their respective domestic constituencies? For the last ten years in particular, Iran has been talking in terms of uranium enrichment as their sovereign right and national pride. Will Rouhani be able to sell the deal to his people?

On the other side, the US led by the nuclear Ayatollahs have been baying for Iranian blood; they would agree nothing less than complete stopping of nuclear enrichment by Teheran. They would demand strict verification. The Bush administrations have been talking about axis of evil and rogue states referring to Iran. A section within the US Congress sincerely believe that Iran has agreed to temporarily suspend the enrichment (for six months according to the deal), mainly due to economic sanctions. So their argument is why should Obama enter into an agreement with Teheran when the sanctions are working? It would not be easier for Obama to get the necessary approval from the US Congress.

Domestic issues apart, what the deal signifies is the remarkable impact that it is likely to have on Iran-US relations, and the subsequent fallout on regional security in the Middle East/West Asia. Until now, the American interests in the Middle East were primarily routed and influenced by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both these countries have uncomfortable relations with Iran, as all these three countries have been vying for regional supremacy.

Relations between Israel and Iran have never been cordial, especially since the revolution in 1979. It is obvious that Israel would protest against the nuclear deal with Iran. It has been widely accepted that Israel has been developing nuclear weapons, or possess them, or at least have the nuclear umbrella provided by the US.  Israel is totally against Iran developing nuclear weapons and has always been willing to go to any extent including physically targeting the nuclear infrastructure of Iran.

For Saudi Arabia, there has always been a Cold War vis-a-vis Iran for supremacy in the Islamic World. The Shia-Sunni divide and the search for supremacy by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively has been well known. It is no coincidence that there have been few news reports during the recent weeks that Pakistan has shared, or likely to share its nuclear arsenal with Saudi Arabia, in case if Iran succeed to get nuclear weapons.

Besides Saudi Arabi and Israel, Iran-Pakistan relations have not been too cordial. Though there has been positive developments in the recent years, including the agreement to build Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, the process has been slow. More importantly, the Shia-Sunni divide within Pakistan, and the sectarian violence against the Shia community has always been an issue in the bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan.

Finally, Iran-Taliban relations have never been cordial. There is a substantial shia community in Afghanistan, and when Taliban was in power, it butchered the Hazara community and even killed few diplomats belonging to the Iranian embassy in Herat.

How will the nuclear deal with Iran impact on the above four sets of relations vis-a-vis Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan?

For Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular, the nuclear deal is not about whether Iran will able to cap its programme or succeed in enriching further. The crucial issue for both these countries will be how the US will pivot to the region after the nuclear deal with Iran. As of now American engagement in the Middle East is favouring Israel and Saudi Arabia and is against Iran. To a large extent, this deal signifies the American re-entry into the region, after what happened in Iraq. To a large extent, the US shifted its attention towards China and its policies aiming at the American pivot in Asia Pacific and Rebalancing are a part of White House prioritizing Beijing as the main contender.

With the nuclear deal, the US has successfully re-entered into the Middle East. But this time through Iran! This is likely to shape multiple issues within the region.

Four issues in particular will demand immediate attention – a positive deal vis-a-vis Palestine. It is less likely now that the Palestinians will get a positive response from Israel. Visibly upset over the deal with Iran, calling it as a “historic mistake” one is not sure how Israel is likely to respond to American pressure on Palestine. Perhaps, unfortunately Palestine would become the collateral. One has to wait and see how Israel is likely to respond to the deal within the region, and in the US Congress through its lobby.

Second issue will be Syria. Iran has been accused of playing a spoiler role.  Will the US be able to succeed in pressurizing Teheran to play a positive role in Syria? While nuclear enrichment is a major issue, the deal is likely to open multiple fronts for the US, especially on regional issues in terms of what strategies Teheran would likely to pursue. Iran will be placed under an international scrutiny on the regional issues, though the deal is primarily on nuclear enrichment and lifting of economic sanctions.

Third issue is related to Iran-Saudi Arabia-US triangle. How is Saudi Arabia likely to respond, as the relations between Washington and Teheran improve? The regime in Saudi Arabia had a tacit support in Washington and used the same to its advantage. After the deal, will the bilateral Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia become hot? What strategies are these two countries likely to pursue in terms of spreading their ideology?

Finally, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deal is no good news for the Taliban and Islamabad. Until now, Islamabad was sure of the NATO supply lines crossing through Khyber, and used it to blackmail the US. With 2014 withdrawal nearing, the nuclear deal with Iran has opened up another crucial option for the NATO troops.

We do not know how it would turn out. But as the Chinese say: May you live in interesting times!

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

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