Friday, June 26, 2015

The narrowing Persian gulf | Ashok K. Mehta

Just days before a final nuclear deal deadline on June 30, Iranian officials in Tehran — where I was attending a conference — were excited that their moral stance renouncing nuclear weapons capability would now be appreciated. With portraits of the Ayatollahs, Khamenei and Khomeini, towering over him, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, declared that Iran would not “hand over its secrets” to others under any additional protocol or any other treaty. Mr. Rouhani who completed two years as President in mid-June, added that while sanctions had had their effect, they had not succeeded in making Iran surrender. He vowed to have the sanctions removed by the UN Security Council.
The Defence Minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan, insisted that the nuclear deal would not be signed at any price but with “dignity and power”. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, said that Iran would not provide access to military sites and that nuclear fuel would be produced in Iran.
Stances to audiences

It is clear that assurances are being given by Iranian leaders to the country that the contents of the final deal would not be a sell out but have the best national interests in mind. While hardliners have been asked to keep quiet, a fiat has been issued not to publicly discuss the pros and cons of the nuclear deal. An air of optimism can be gauged from the hard bargaining with visiting foreign delegations who are now queuing up for contracts in anticipation of the sanctions being lifted.
The Iranian Ambassador to India, Gholamreza Ansari, recently said in New Delhi that Iran had not gone for negotiations due to sanctions. “We have always been ready for talks in 2003 and 2010 and are committed to the Non Proliferation Treaty,” was his line.
Earlier this month in New York at the 2015 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, had said: “The United States and our P5plus One partners have come together with Iran around the series of parameters that if finalised and implemented will close off all of Iran’s possible pathways to the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon and give the international community the confidence that it needs to know that Iran’s nuclear programme is indeed exclusively peaceful.”
Yet, despite the air of confidence, one has to look at the ground realities and see how protracted sanctions and a freezing of assets have damaged the Iranian economy. Oil exports have halved since 2012. Coupled with a decline in oil prices and a high cost of production of oil when compared with Saudi Arabia, the GDP has contracted from $568 billion to $406 billion. The GDP growth rate, which was negative, has picked up and is now between 1 and 2 per cent. Inflation has declined from 35 per cent to 25 per cent. According to the Tehran Times, India dropped crude imports to zero in March 2015, for the first time in a decade, and under pressure from the United States as a push for the Interim Framework Agreement of April 2, 2015 at Lausanne. Sanctions have worked in slowing but not halting Iran’s nuclear capability.
Sticking points

According to the Iranians, the three sticking points are still: timings of sanction relief; access and verification of compliance and a mechanism for restoring sanctions in the event of a breach. Additional points and issues are the number of centrifuges to be kept at Fordow, an invulnerable military facility and the site of Iran’s second pilot enrichment plant, and the amount of uranium permitted for enrichment for research and development. There are also differences within P5+1, and between Russia and China and other P5 members. The P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China, facilitated by the European Union) has been engaged in serious and substantive negotiations with Iran with the goal of reaching a verifiable diplomatic resolution that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. For example, Russia and China do not favour an automatic, snap-back mechanism for non-compliance. However, the mother of all differences is within the U.S.: between the Republican Party-dominated U.S. Congress and U.S. President Barack Obama. This has been influenced by the position taken by the staunch U.S. ally and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The U.S. does not want and will not let Iran have the nuclear bomb while Israel insists that it should not even have the capability to make one. But for the present, Israel’s stand does not count. What the eventual nuclear deal will achieve if all conditions are met is that Iran’s capability to make a bomb will be extended from the current 2-3 months to 12 months. The deal is in arresting Iran’s enrichment capability so as to fix Iran’s breakout time to 12 months.
Hurdles to cross

Assuming that the Iranians accept the condition for their recessed nuclear capabilities for civilian use, with a window open for reverting to the bomb path at some cost, and further that they agree to play by the rules of the game, there still is the hurdle of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 passed by the U.S. Congress. This is heavily influenced by the Zionist lobby and Republicans who control Congress. There is a chance they may block the deal. In addition to all this, Mr. Obama is concerned with his political legacy. He knows that a Democrat President, Jimmy Carter lost Iran; he wants to be the Democrat who brought it back on board.
It is reasonable to predict that other members of P5+1 may simply use the U.S. Congressional attempt to block the nuclear deal with Iran as a pretext to enter into independent agreements with Iran to lift sanctions. This may even dissuade the U.S. Congress from doing so. It has consistently baulked at a rapprochement with Iran. In 2003, Tehran was close to a deal with the Europeans but the U.S. Congress spiked it. Iran could have been capped with 1,000 centrifuges against the present 19,000 centrifuges. In 2010, the Brazil-Turkey plan of taking away Iran’s uranium for enrichment in France or Germany was also stymied by the U.S. Congress.
Michael Krepon, the co-founder/senior associate of the Stimson Center, Washington, has said that the deal will weaken global norms for non-proliferation but U.S. Congress killing a deal that constrains Iran will only lead to worse consequences for proliferation. A rejection by the U.S. Congress will lead to an expulsion of inspectors, increase enrichment and possible air strikes.
Impact on West Asia

If the deal breaks up and Iran returns to its nuclear weapons programme, it will have a cascading effect on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The spread of enrichment plans without safeguards in West Asia will spell doom for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. With the Islamic State crawling around, it also poses a major risk for nuclear terrorism. Until last year, Saudi Arabia was cocksure that Pakistan would lend a couple of nuclear bombs to it. The former Saudi Arabian chief of intelligence, Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud, recently said in South Korea: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have too.” After events in Yemen, Islamabad may not be in a mood to oblige.
There are avid votaries of the military option in Israel and the U.S. But they are divided over the feasibility of unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel’s former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan says the military option is unviable and catastrophic, while the former Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, says the military option is on the table. As a regular visitor to Israel, I know discretion in Tel Aviv is increasingly becoming the better part of valour. Incredible as it may sound, at one time, the thinking in the U.S. was that living with a nuclear Iran was better than a military option to denuclearise it. It planned to cap Tehran’s nuclear capability after its tests — no weaponisation, no deployment.
In 2003, U.S. President George Bush had a super majority of 771 votes in both Houses for the invasion of Iraq. Mr. Obama does not want to forward the nuclear deal in the works in Geneva to the U.S. Congress. He wants to use his presidential powers to ratify it; 59 per cent of Americans are for the deal. If it sails through, it would mark the triumph of diplomacy over the use of military belligerence. It will not just be a nuclear deal but will have wider implications for the world in the form of a more normal relationship between the U.S. and Iran after nearly four and a half decades of hostility. India will also be a beneficiary.
The grapevine in Tehran was that the nuclear deal may miss the June 30 deadline but will be stitched up in an extra week or two after settling the outstanding sticking points. We have to wait and watch. 

(Gen. Ashok K. Mehta is the convener of an India-Pakistan and India-Afghanistan Track II process.) 

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