IRAN’S STRATEGIC BREAKOUT
0 comments | by Munir Akram
THE agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme announced in Vienna on July 14 marks a watershed in world politics. Iran made major concessions to secure the deal, agreeing: not to produce highly enriched uranium; remove two-thirds of its centrifuges; not to use its advanced centrifuges; give up 98pc of its existing enriched uranium stockpile (for 15 years); modify the Arak heavy water reactor to block production of weapons-grade plutonium and not build other heavy water reactors for 15 years; put its entire nuclear fuel cycle under full-time IAEA inspections, provide managed access to ‘suspicious’ locations and as required to, clarify past nuclear activities.
If implemented, the agreement will, as President Obama asserted, close all avenues for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons for at least 15 years.
However, the agreement would fulfil three major Iranian objectives. One, recognise its ‘right’ under the NPT to nuclear enrichment. Apart from pride, this will give Iran the capability to develop nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so in future. Two, lift economic, trade and financial sanctions almost immediately and arms and missile embargoes within a few years. Iran will get access to billions in frozen assets; be able to enlarge oil exports up to one million barrels per day quickly and to trade freely; and receive major inflows of investment and technology, especially in the oil and gas sector.
As the country emerges from isolation, an opportunity presents itself to create a regional security structure.
Three, restore its status as a ‘normal’ state, free to pursue its legitimate national interests, with ‘respectful’ if not yet close relations with the major powers.
All the major powers have economic interests to promote in Iran and see its cooperation as indispensable in stabilising the Middle East. This agreement will obviously be an important part of Obama’s legacy. He will defend it vigorously. He rightly believes that the agreement is the best, perhaps only, option for the US and its allies to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, at least in the near term, since a resort to force would be disastrous not only for the Iranians but for the entire region and the global security order.
Obama’s gamble is that the agreement will open the way for the US to cooperate with Iran on a host of regional issues: joint operations against the self-styled Islamic State (IS); a political settlement in Syria; stabilisation of Afghanistan and Yemen; moderating Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel; even assistance in easing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Iranian foreign minister has made quiet references to such possible cooperation. The US has so far publicly disavowed such broader plans. But, de facto collaboration is already under way in fighting IS in Iraq and could be extended to the other aforementioned issues.
The implementation of this ‘win-win’ agreement could yet be scuppered by the US Congress. The Republicans, prodded by Israeli hardliners, want to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities, not just constrain them. They desperately want to deny Obama a major foreign policy achievement. They have a majority in both the Senate and the House. The Israeli lobby could persuade even some Democrats to oppose the deal.
President Obama has threatened to veto any legislation which seeks to block the deal. His opponents are unlikely to be able to mobilise a two-thirds majority in the Senate and the House to override an Obama veto, should he be obliged to exercise it. Moreover, the agreement has been already approved in a binding Security Council resolution. If the US Congress pushes through legislation to prevent US implementation of the Vienna agreement, it would unravel the deal but also the UN sanctions regime. Iran would be free of most international sanctions and free to pursue its nuclear programme.
Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement is visceral but cynical. There is little danger that Iran would ever have the capability or intention to ‘wipe out’ Israel, given Israel’s own undeclared (and unquestioned) nuclear weapons arsenal. The real rub is that a US-Iranian normalisation will reduce American reliance on its Israeli ally in the Middle East. Global attention could turn to negotiating a fair settlement with the Palestinians, and the US could even come around to supporting the idea of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
The concerns of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners are more genuine. Iran has been ‘allowed’ to possess enrichment capabilities unlikely to ever be offered to them. An Iran liberated from sanctions could consolidate its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, acquire a larger role in Afghanistan and Central Asia and escalate its interventions on behalf of Shia minorities in GCC countries. Most importantly, the GCC members are concerned at the prospect of a collaborative relationship between their major patron — the US — and their principal regional rival. The Obama administration is making intense efforts to assuage both Israel and its GCC friends.
Riyadh has sought to demonstrate its ‘independence’ from the US, through its actions in Yemen and the overture to Russia. In the final analysis, however, the Saudis and the GCC have limited options to replace the security umbrella provided by the US. They will need to adjust to the new strategic configuration in the region.
The agreement has major implications, most positive, some negative, for Pakistan. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline can now become a reality. Pakistani enterprises can trade openly with Iran, importing oil and exporting rice and food products. The two countries can cooperate in stabilising Afghanistan. But an unshackled Iran will be more assertive in demanding action to control Jundullah and other Sunni extremist groups crossing into Sistan-Baluchistan from Pakistan. Without the American opposition, India will intensify its relations with Iran, including building a route to Central Asia through Chabahar, possibly as a counter to the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan is an integral part of the Gulf’s power relationships. It will need to carefully manage its relations with a more assertive Iran and an anxious Saudi Arabia.
As Iran emerges from isolation, an opportunity presents itself to create a regional security structure that connects the GCC with the members of the former CENTO and RCD — Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Iraq. Such a broad platform could be useful to address mutual differences and promote shared objectives. It could also provide the structure for cooperation with and among the major powers to promote regional security and stability.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2015