Jan 17, 2022
The ongoing negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal, hold great geopolitical significance for the South-West Asian region including India. The (re)negotiations began in April 2021, but going by the manner the talks are progressing there is unlikely to be a deal anytime soon. The election of the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as the Iranian president and the inglorious withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan have further complicated the negotiations on a potential deal.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has signaled its regional rivals such as Iran, China and Russia, that the American ability to pressurize Tehran to agree to a deal stands drastically diminished. Secondly, Washington’s own interests in the region are far fewer today than they used to be say a decade ago. The American energy self-sufficiency has further limited its interests and presence in the region. Third, United States’ geopolitical focus has shifted to the South China Sea from West Asia.
Four, these factors coincide with the election of hardline Iranian leader Raisi as the country’s president. Unlike his predecessor he is neither keen on a deal nor does he lack the complete backing of the Supreme Leader of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Put differently, the ability of the (somewhat) domestically weak American president (given his lack of numbers in the Congress) to put pressure on a domestically strong Iranian president is limited as compared to the situation when the Obama administration was negotiating the original deal with the Iranians or when the Trump administration walked out of that deal.
Iran realizes that the West and the US are somewhat weaker coming into these negotiations than they were earlier. So Tehran has maintained that in order to conclude the JCPOA negotiations, sanctions removed as part of the original deal and thereafter should be withdrawn, and the Americans must guarantee that they won’t walk out of the deal again. Tehran is also unwilling to link the nuclear deal with its missile programme and its regional involvement which the US considers destabilizing.
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Western negotiators have found it difficult to accept these Iranian demands given the difficulties faced by President Biden domestically and the pressure from Israel. After the heavy criticism it faced for the withdrawal from Kabul, the Biden administration is not ready for a deal that would be interpreted by the Republicans and/or Israel as giving in to the Iranian hardliners. This is notwithstanding the fact that the current situation was solely the doing of his predecessor Donald Trump who had unilaterally withdrawn from the deal.
Whether or not Biden is able to close the deal with Iran, he has more to lose in the end: if he is able to close a deal, the republicans (as well as Israel) will accuse him of giving into the Iranian demands; on the other hand, if he is unable to reach a deal with Tehran, his detractors will call him out on his inability to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons (considering that Biden is unlikely to choose a military option vis-à-vis Iran). In that sense, then, President Biden is negotiating from a position of weakness.
The situation, on the other hand, is advantageous to the Iranians. Over the years they have devised ways and means of varying degrees of sophistication to dodge the American economic sanctions with the help of Russians and the Chinese. While the sanctions have had a huge impact on the Iranian economy, they have not debilitated the country or the regime’s control.
Over the years, Tehran has developed robust relations with powers opposed to the US. And of late, even its traditional rivals in the region have recognized the need to reach out to Tehran rather than isolating it. For instance, Tehran’s traditional rivals in the region Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have started developing relations with Iran. Smaller powers of the region such as Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are also seeking to reset their relations with Tehran. In short, the geopolitics of the region has begun to change in Iran’s favor.
Then there is China which has agreed to invest $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years. Not only is China’s support of great strategic value for Tehran enabling it to stand up to the West and the US, the more china’s influence increases in the west Asian region, we are likely to witness a more conciliatory regional attitude towards Iran. If the nuclear deal materializes in the end, the Iranians would have extracted iron-clad guarantees from the west that it would be respected by all. Such a deal would of course help the Iranian economy immensely. If however there is no deal, Iran is likely to get closer to nuclear weapon capability. It has already enriched its Uranium up to 63% purity, far above what the JCPOA allowed it to do. Once Tehran has nuclear weapons or is close to developing them, it would be harder for anyone to use a military option against the country. In short, therefore, deal or no deal, Iran is engaging in the nuclear negotiations from a very strong position.
From New Delhi’s perspective, the revival of the Iran nuclear deal would serve its national interests in the region. To begin with, the absence of a deal would witness an anti-American gang up by Iran, Russia and China which would not only hurt the American interests in the region but those of India as well given its own close ties with the US.
Secondly, New Delhi has been carefully cultivating several strategic partnerships in the West Asian region which will get more complicated if indeed the nuclear deal is not agreed to. At the moment, for instance, New Delhi has been balancing its relations with the US and Iran, GCC states and Iran, Israel and Iran, among others. Therefore, if the Iran nuclear deal 2.0 doesn’t fructify and, as a result, the US attempts to isolate Iran, it could potentially complicate India’s geopolitical calculations in the region. More significantly, if the parties fail to arrive at a deal, there’s will be temptations, especially in Israel, to use military options against Iran which would further complicate India’s interests in West Asia. Finally, the revival of the deal will bring about a thaw between Washington and Tehran which will help India’s outreach to Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran.
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Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the honorary director of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research. New Delhi. He is the author of Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics (Oxford University Press, 2019), and Line of Control: Traveling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies (Penguin Viking 2018)
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