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Who will blink first? Hassan Rouhani or Donald Trump? 
Who will blink first? Hassan Rouhani or Donald Trump? 
Write-In

War Clouds Over Iran, But War Is Unlikely

Tensions persist after the Iranian refusal to comply with the limits imposed on its enrichment of uranium, but it is in the interests of both USA and Iran to find a resolution... and quickly

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

The sudden worsening of the United States-Iran situation caused by an Iranian ultimatum that it will not comply with the limits imposed on its enrichment of uranium if the six signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal did not protect Iranian interests and the subsequent tightening of sanctions and reinforcing of the US military presence have brought the US and Iran to the brink of war again.

But it is not clear whether these developments will lead to a regime change in Iran, fresh negotiations in Geneva or war.

The restraint on the part of the US and Iran, encouraged by the other signatories to the agreement, may prevail. If President Trump can engage and entertain the North Korean dictator, who has nuclear weapons deployed against the US, he is not likely to risk a war with Iran, which has not yet made a bomb.

International pressure on Iran’s nuclear program

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) woke up with a nightmare in 2002, when some Iranian dissidents broke the news to the world that Iran was engaged in nuclear activities that went beyond the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The IAEA and the international community have been engaged since then to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle in Iran. Iran has sworn that it has no intention to make bombs, but the large number of inspections done by the IAEA could not establish beyond doubt that Iran’s programme was entirely peaceful.

The nature and the extent of enrichment of uranium undertaken by Iran were such that the suspicion remained that Iran might have other intentions, particularly as Iran was not deficient in energy sources.

As a signatory to the NPT, Iran co-operated with the IAEA to convince the world that its intentions were peaceful, but each inspection brought out questions which were not fully answered.

In exasperation, the IAEA referred the matter to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which imposed some limited sanctions on Iran and these were supplemented by unilateral sanctions by some countries.

When the economic pressure mounted, Iran sought a solution by negotiating with the five permanent UNSC members and Germany. After protracted and hard negotiations, an agreement was signed between Iran and the six countries in 2015, by which Iran agreed to scale down their nuclear activities to a level that would set Iran’s nuclear capability back by about 15 years.

The sanctions were lifted and Iran began to assert itself as a regional power with the possibility of becoming a nuclear weapon power after 15 years.

Trump’s opposition to the Iran deal

President Donald Trump had opposed the Iran nuclear deal as a candidate because the restrictions on Iran were not permanent and he unilaterally withdrew a year ago from the deal and imposed sanctions against Iran, while the other parties to the deal persisted with it and expected Iran to renegotiate it for the sake of the US.

The US not only imposed sanctions against Iran, but also stipulated that those who did business with Iran would not be able to transact any business with the US. Some countries like India were exempted from reducing oil imports from Iran, but subsequently this concession was withdrawn. President Trump also threatened to take military action against Iran if Iran did not cut back nuclear activities.

US-Iran relations were on the brink of war before the deal was signed and now that the deal has virtually disappeared and Iran has threatened not to honour its commitments under the agreement on the occasion of the first anniversary of the US withdrawal, the situation has returned to the possibility of conflict.

Not easy to pick a fight with Iran

A regime change in Iran has been a wish of the US ever since the Ayatollahs established the Islamic Republic.

But Iran is not Libya or Iraq for the US to take it on militarily. Iran has considerable strength and its oil deposits play a role in energy security in the entire region and beyond. It is also the leader of the Shia community around the world.

Iran is also a ruthless fighter, as was demonstrated beyond doubt during the Iran-Iraq war. The Yemen war and the GCC blockade of Qatar are the causes that Iran has espoused. The accusation that Iran is a terrorist state has not been proved, though the Iranians are determined to destroy Israel.

In these circumstances, even a war-mongering administration in the US will think twice before launching a military attack.

The threat of war against Iran is not being voiced by President Trump, but his National Security Adviser, John Bolton. It was Bolton who announced the movement of USS Abraham Lincoln and other warships into the region.

President Trump has turned out to be the least interventionist US President so far. He will certainly engage in sabre-rattling and use economic sanctions to bring Iran to the conference table with the objective of eliminating the possibility of an “Islamic Bomb” in the hands of Teheran.

Trump must be aware of the efforts that went into the nuclear agreement and the united stand the six counties maintained to bring Iran to a reasonable settlement. He is likely to want to salvage certain elements in that agreement to make it more comprehensive and guaranteed.

He will bend Iran to the maximum extent, but he cannot afford to break it. But his policies and the sanctions will create havoc in an already volatile region. Even in the wake of escalating tensions after four tankers were damaged off the cost of the UAE, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in Moscow recently that the US did not seek a war with Iran.

Iranian supreme leader reiterated that Iran would not renegotiate the nuclear deal, but added, “We do not seek a war, nor do they.” The fear is not of a war being declared, but of an accidental flare up as a result of the unprecedented accumulation of weapons in the region.

India’s stand on the Iran question

India has consistently maintained that Iran, as a party to the NPT, should abide by the provisions of the Treaty in its nuclear activities. Enrichment of uranium by itself is not prohibited under the Treaty and Iran had even agreed at one stage that any Plutonium that might be produced would be safely deposited with the IAEA.

India had also voted in favour of the matter being referred to the UN Security Council. But India has recognised the right of Iran to development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Iran has a special place in India’s quest for energy security.

Still, India has agreed to cooperate with the US in the economic blockade of Iran. Even though India will be able to find alternate sources, the kind of terms that India has enjoyed from Iran cannot be equaled.

In the past, US has tried to use India’s influence in Iran to soften Iranian policies. At the same time, the US expects India to enforce the blockade against Iran. India is likely to walk a tightrope in the US-Iranian situation not to hurt our interests with either of them.

Iran reached out to India by sending its Foreign Minister and one of the architects of the nuclear deal, Javad Zarif, to India to consider the situation following the end of the waiver given to India to continue oil imports. On the purchase of oil from Iran, India said that a decision will be taken after the elections, keeping in mind commercial considerations, energy security and economic interests. Zarif indicated that Teheran and New Delhi have devised a special financial system to augment trade and economic cooperation, but India has remained silent on any new arrangements.

It is heartening that both the US and Iran are not considering war as an option, though the positions taken by them are irreconcilable. Iran had agreed to an agreement in 2015 to escape crippling sanctions. On the basis of that logic, a revival of the agreement with additional safeguards will be the best option for the two countries and the world.

(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)

(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)