When Iran enters the global mainstream

An Iranian entry into the international mainstream is an opportunity of altogether different proportions.

There is now a good chance that Iran will conclude a nuclear deal with its international interlocutors comprising the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. The parties seek a grand compromise that will keep Iran more than a year away from developing a nuclear weapon (by imposing restraints and inspections on its nuclear installations) in return for a gradual loosening of international economic sanctions. This does not satisfy hardliners on any side, but is nevertheless the best compromise that can be achieved without a war that few can afford and fewer have the appetite for.

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From the time the Obama administration initiated a road map towards detente with Iran, the US’s incumbent allies in the region have not only opposed it, but are actively countering it. They are taking a another stab at international Sunni solidarity (the Saudi king received both the Turkish president and the Pakistani prime minister recently), are supporting anti-Iran militants and have engaged in nuclear signalling. The Saudi nuclear bomb is very likely just one short flight away across the Arabian Sea, made and stored in Pakistan. Israel, Iran’s other adversary, has had its own bomb for years.

A multilateral nuclear deterrence relationship is emerging in West Asia, but few analysts understand how this will work as most of our experience and literature has revolved around two-sided conflicts. Since there are deeply dogmatic aspects to the conflicts between West Asian adversaries, it is likely that a lot of blood will continue to be spilt under the nuclear threshold.

If and when a deal is signed, the United States will expect Iran to become more of a partner in addressing the many bloody conflicts in the region: Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan. Indeed many of these conflicts remain intractable because for three decades, Washington refused to engage Tehran out of, what appears to us in New Delhi, largely dogma. To what extent Iran will play along depends on its domestic and international politics. Even so, we can expect to see Iranian jigsaw pieces falling into many places of many puzzles. It will worry the Saudis, Pakistanis and Sunni radical formations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but come as reasonably good news for most others.

China’s strategy involves playing both sides (all three sides, counting Israel) of the divide, aimed at securing its fuel supplies and to some extent, keeping the United States tied down there. It purchases hydrocarbons from both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has supplied them with military equipment. Beijing has been in favour of an Iranian nuclear deal because that is even more advantageous than the status quo. Where its trade with Iran is currently hampered the need to barter and find ways around the sanctions regime, bilateral economic ties can surge if Iran is released from the straitjacket. In the event of a deal, Beijing will have to continue its balancing act even if it sometimes has to walk the tightrope. Given the size and scope of the Chinese economy and the capacity of its foreign policy establishment, Beijing will manage this.

Pakistan, however, will be caught in a bind as three of its principal financial benefactors do not see eye to eye on Iran. Should Pakistan side with the Saudis and create trouble for Iran? Should it side with China and try opening up trade and gas pipeline routes? Or should it side with the United States in suppressing the largely Sunni Islamist militant groups operating in the region? Pakistani and Iranian interests coincide over the Baloch insurgency, but differ over the Afghan. The Pakistani establishment is adept at playing all sides simultaneously, but this one is more difficult as it involves conflicting interests of its most important sponsors.

What about India? Well, New Delhi starts off with the disadvantage of being an outsider in the negotiations. It was a colossal failure of imagination and initiative on the part of the previous government that it did not even attempt to bring the United States and Iran together. I say this with some despair, as I was among the few to publicly argue that it is in India’s interests to lubricate a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. Even K Subrahmanyam’s advocacy was of no avail. China took the opportunity instead. In fact, the former Chinese ambassador to Iran used exactly the same word – “lubricate” – to characterise his country’s role in the negotiations.

The good news is that even so, Iran will feel the need to engage India, if only to balance Chinese influence over its economy (which is already beginning to be resented). To avail of this new chance, New Delhi will have to see beyond the traditional lens of regional and national security.

If we see Iran only as a provider of natural gas and a potential partner in Afghanistan, we will miss the plot. An Iranian entry into the international mainstream is an opportunity of altogether different proportions. Iran is a trading partner, a market, a source of investment, innovation, talent and ideas. It is also a gateway to Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey. New Delhi ought to be making plans for a Persian Corridor. The diplomacy to achieve this will rely as much on geoeconomics as on geopolitics, and the Modi government must put a team together to explore this entirely new dimension.

This piece was first published in Business Standard on March 5th, 2015.

Photo: dynamosquito