Picking up the pieces after Donald Trump’s jolt to Iran
It is time for the international community to think of how it can prevent the hardline sections in Iran from having a greater say in the country’s future
Last week, US President Donald Trump announced America’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The other signatories to the deal—the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China—have stated their intention of staying in the deal. If the JCPOA unravels, it will have consequences for the entire world, including India. Iran is India’s third largest oil supplier and serves as India’s link to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Trump had three main problems with JCPOA: a) The deal does not have binding restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme; b) many of the restrictions have sunset clauses; and c) the deal does nothing to prevent Iranian sponsorship of terrorism in its region.
On 30 April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had brought to light Iranian nuclear weapons development archives. Netanyahu’s revelations were meant to trigger the US’ exit from the JCPOA. But, ironically, those documents could have been used, as Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution has suggested, to plug JCPOA’s gaps. If the archives contain solid proof of Iranian plans to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, it would have given teeth to Trump’s efforts to contain Iran’s ballistic missile development effort. But, for that, Trump had to sincerely abide by the JCPOA until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had established the links between Iran’s extant ballistic missiles programme and its previous plans to develop nuclear weapons. On the contrary, Trump has been running a long, prejudiced campaign against the JCPOA and has given more than an impression that he just needed an excuse to exit the deal.
Other participants of the JCPOA believe that the terms of the sunset clauses could have been extended in negotiations with Iran. But that would have also been possible only if the deal was adhered to by all parties. Trump and other JCPOA opponents argue that lifting sanctions incentivised Iran to step up terrorist and destabilizing activities in West Asia. They may not be entirely wrong but the quest for a perfect deal can equally be a credible path to an Iran with a nuclear bomb.
What will happen now? It depends on how effective the reimposed sanctions on Iran will be. If Europe, along with Russia and China, refuses to play ball with the US, the sanctions regime will be ineffective. In that case, Iran will not suffer much and the US will not have much leverage—other than threat of military action—to stop the Iranian bomb. Alternatively, the US can perforce make the sanctions effective by threatening secondary sanctions against countries doing business with Iran. European businesses and banks cannot even contemplate being shut out of the US. China too knows from previous experience of dealing with both Iran and North Korea that American sanctions can indeed bite. Already reeling under sanctions imposed by the West, Russia will not have much to offer Iran.
Even if the sanctions are effective, it does not necessarily mean that Iran will come back to the table willing to accept harsher restrictions. Under siege, Iran may instead decide to go down the path of acquiring the nuclear bomb. Seeing how North Korea’s acquisition of the nuclear bomb has increased its bargaining power may just act as a motivator.
The Trump administration may be secretly hoping that sanctions will lead to a regime collapse in Iran. This is an idea fraught with danger. A regime collapse risks a more hardline section in Iran gaining power. The new rulers may choose to double down on the nuclear weapons programme and expand regional influence. After studying other examples of nuclear proliferation, including that of North Korea, Nicholas Miller and Vipin Narang conclude: “Policies that depend on hoping for the regime to fail or fall are misguided in a world where impoverished dictators can indigenously master nuclear technology.” And then there are other speculative theories—that Trump will either order a military strike himself or allow Israel to go ahead with one to wipe out Iran’s nuclear facilities if they are put back in operation.
What will be the impact on India? Given India’s dependence on Iran for oil and connectivity, as mentioned earlier, it is easy to overstate the implications of JCPOA’s death, if that occurs. India has many other oil suppliers ready to move in if imports from Iran get disrupted. Reimposition of sanctions may even make Iran offer oil on favourable terms to India. In any case, the Indian system has gone through this before—in the run-up to JCPOA negotiations.
The setback on Chabahar—India’s entry to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia—is a bigger concern. But connectivity through Chabahar was not flourishing anyway. Fear of impending sanctions had mostly kept private firms away. Therefore, when it comes to choosing between Iran and the US, like European powers, India too knows well which side to pick.
JCPOA may have had its flaws but a better deal seems far away at the moment. Trump has decided what he has. There is no point lamenting now. It is time for the international community to think of how to limit the damage: preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, and, more importantly, not allowing the hardline sections in the country to have a greater say in its future.
What will be the impact of the American exit from JCPOA on India? Tell us at email@example.com
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