Iran Nuclear Deal: American Re-Entry into the Middle East?

28 Nov, 2013    ·   4196

Prof Chintamani Mahapatra analyses the winners and losers of the deal

What does the Iran nuclear deal mean for American policy towards Tehran and the rest of the Middle East?
Iran Nuclear Deal: Winners and Losers
The Geneva Agreement, signalling an American-Iranian détente, has created winners and losers. Currently, the Obama administration can claim diplomatic victory in compelling Iran to negotiate an agreement that would make its nuclear installations open to intrusive verification, limit its uranium enrichment and even halt a reactor that could produce plutonium. There is little doubt that the severe and comprehensive sanctions led by the US achieved its goal. The large reduction in Iran’s energy exports, rapidly falling value of its currency, difficulty of conducting trade due to banking restriction,s and high inflation accompanied by rising unemployment induced Iran to end its nuclear defiance and offer transparency in its nuclear activities. 
It was a big diplomatic gain for President Obama in the backdrop of his inability to play a leadership role in handling the Syrian issue, which made Russian President Vladimir Putin look like a great world statesman. However, Obama’s triumph on this issue seems to be Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s nightmare.
Israel left no stone unturned to prevent a Western deal with Iran. When the Obama administration appeared determined to make compromises, the Israeli lobby in Washington became hyperactive in the corridors of the US Congress. Tel Aviv sought to neutralise Obama’s initiatives by trying to get Canada and France to act tough.
What the US realised was that sanctions had not been effective in bringing Tehran to its knees. Iran continued to build its conventional military capability, refused to refrain from supporting the Assad regime in Syria, continued to fund the Hamas and Hezbollah forces, and even set up front companies to manage international trade to some extent. There was no alternative but to accept Iran’s legitimate right to pursue a civilian nuclear programme. 
Ironically, Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf were on the same page with Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue and Syrian chemical weapons issue. Riyadh, like Tel Aviv, expressed anger, disappointment and later frustration over the emerging Washington-Tehran détente. 
There appears to be considerable apprehension among Israeli and Arab strategic analysts that Iran’s success in retaining its nuclear programme, returning to its normal energy trading activities, and détente with the US will make Iran a powerful regional heavyweight. 
The happier group of winners in this diplomatic ballgame, however, consists of countries that have an energy stake in Iran, including India. While the US seems to be on its way to acquire energy independence, the rest of the world would continue to seek a peaceful Persian Gulf and a stable energy market.  
Similarities with Indo-US Nuclear Deal?
The nuclear deal between the US and Iran concluded in Geneva is markedly different from the Indo-US nuclear deal. First of all, the US deal with India was a solely bilateral one, while Iran had to negotiate with six countries. 
Secondly, Iran has agreed to verifiably undertake a civilian nuclear programme and refrain from activities that may enable it to make nuclear weapons. India, on the other hand, managed to retain its nuclear weapons and concurrently resume nuclear trade with other countries to pursue civilian nuclear activities.  
Thirdly, the US Congress overwhelmingly supported the US administration to promote civilian nuclear cooperation with India, while the Republican leadership has condemned President Obama’s overtures towards Iran. He has been criticised as a modern-day Neville Chamberlain, and the Geneva agreement has been described as worse than the Munich agreement.
Finally, Washington struck deal with New Delhi years after India conducted a series of nuclear tests and became a de facto nuclear weapons power. The 123 agreement was the final culmination of the end of American nuclear sanctions against India. In the case of Iran, the nuclear deal was made to prevent Iran’s emergence as a nuclear weapons power. Unlike India, Iran yielded to the US-led sanctions regime.
However, there are certain similarities between the two nuclear deals as far as their regional implications are concerned. China and Pakistan unfavourably reacted to the Indo-US nuclear deal, and Israel and Saudi Arabia are opposed to or critical of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Secondly, as in the case of India, Iran-US relations may soon witness a paradigm shift. Once nuclear differences are over, bilateral relations between the two countries are likely to move into an optimistic trajectory. The establishment of a ‘strategic partnership’ between Washington and Tehran may result from a successful final agreement, and may be expected in about a year’s time.  
Thirdly, expansion of US-Indian relations since the signing of the 123 agreement has altered the geopolitical map of the Indo-Pacific region. Most likely, the geopolitical map of the Middle East will be redrawn after an agreement is in place, one that would allow Iran to generate electricity from nuclear power but verifiably prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.