India has every reason to hope for a positive outcome in the ongoing talks at Lausanne, Switzerland between Iran and the major powers to resolve their longstanding nuclear dispute. Although the negotiators have missed the self-set deadline of March 31, they are said to be closer than ever before to concluding a broad set of understandings on limiting Iran’s ability to manufacture nuclear weapons, in return for the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran mounted over the last decade and more.
US President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, deserve strong support from New Delhi for their persistence with the negotiations amid strong political opposition in both countries. The agreement is an important step towards ending the prolonged confrontation between Iran and the West and it could transform the geopolitics of the Middle East, opening up considerable diplomatic space for India.
While Iran had loomed large in India’s considerations on energy security, Afghanistan and the engagement with Central Asia, the escalating conflict between America and Iran severely constrained Delhi’s freedom of action beyond India’s northwestern frontiers. As the US ends its combat role in Afghanistan, strategic cooperation with Iran has become absolutely critical for securing India’s interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The further decline in oil prices that is likely to follow the agreement will be a huge financial boon for India, which imports most of its hydrocarbons. Some are speculating that oil could hit as low as $20 a barrel once the West eases sanctions on Iran’s petroleum sector and Tehran ramps up production in the coming months and years.
Above all, the nuclear deal between Iran and the US is a vindication of Delhi’s diplomatic pragmatism that unfolded since India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998. While three successive prime ministers — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — sought an accommodation with the global nuclear order, ideologues on the left and right in Delhi denounced India’s atomic engagement with America.
A series of Indian votes at the International Atomic Energy Agency a decade ago, in favour of the international community and against Iran, came under extra fire. Many in Delhi demanded that India stand by Iran rather than secure an end to its own nuclear isolation.
Delhi would have looked utterly stupid today if it had abandoned the civil nuclear initiative with the US in the name of “third-world solidarity”. That Tehran, despite its many problems with America, would eventually make a deal of its own with Washington was recognised by realists in Delhi’s foreign policy establishment.
In assessing the prospective nuclear deal between Iran and the US, it will be quite easy to get lost in the debate over technical issues that will dominate the international discourse. To be sure, there are many technical questions relating to a range of issues — including the future of Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing programmes, the extent of permissible research and development for peaceful purposes, the rigour of international inspections and the pace of removing sanctions. These questions have been at the heart of the talks between Washington and Tehran since they announced an interim nuclear agreement at the end of 2013, under which Iran suspended its enrichment programme and the US eased some sanctions. Many of these will need to be sorted out before the final agreement is worked out by June 30 this year.
Yet, the motivations for the negotiations and the consequences arising from the nuclear deal are deeply political. Although both the US and Iran have insisted that the talks are limited to the nuclear issue, their goal is to seek a normalisation of bilateral relations.
Delhi should also not be taken in by the veneer of multilateralism that surrounds the talks in Lausanne. Although the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) are conducting the talks with Iran, this is really about hard bilateral bargaining between Washington and Tehran. In the last few months, some major powers like France have been complaining that Washington and Tehran tend to present decisions already taken at the bilateral level for approval in the multilateral context.
Although there is strong support from the public opinion in both countries for resolving the nuclear dispute and rebuilding bilateral ties, there is powerful political resistance in Washington and Tehran to a nuclear accommodation. In Washington, the Republicans, friends of Israel, supporters of the conservative Arab states and the non-proliferation purists will oppose any deal with Iran. Similarly, in Tehran, those chanting “death to America” for more than three decades will find it difficult to stomach the prospect of a positive engagement with the US. Yet, there has been a convergence of interests between Washington and Tehran over the last decade — for example, in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq. Today, they are on the same side in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. But many contentions between the two remain. And some of those will survive a nuclear deal.
Progress on the nuclear issue and improved ties with Iran will significantly expand America’s options in the Greater Middle East. After two debilitating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is trying to develop a more realistic American approach to the region. For Iran as a nation, the extended confrontation with America has been very costly. Any political détente between the two will set the stage for a comprehensive reordering of the regional balance of power.
For its part, Delhi must gear up to deal with a region that has not got high-level Indian political attention in recent years. As it looks forward to new opportunities in Iran, Delhi must also reach out to its Arab neighbours, some of whom are deeply concerned about the consequences of a US-Iran rapprochement. To secure its massive political and economic stakes in the Middle East, Delhi needs to take a fresh strategic look at the region, discard many of its outdated political assumptions and initiate a sustained political engagement with all the major actors.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.