Monday, 30th October 2017

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Reduced to an outsider

Where India stands as Iran and Afghanistan negotiate for peace

By Krishnan Srinivasan
  • Published 7.08.15

In July this year, agreements between the European Union and a defaulting Greece, and Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations security council plus Germany were concluded on consecutive days, resolving for the time being two long-drawn-out international conflicts. The last time that both Greece and Iran were bracketed together in the headlines was 2,500 years ago, concluding the 50-year wars between the Persian Achaemenid Empire and the Greek city-states.

Negotiations between Iran and the six powers began in 2006, and agreement on Iran's nuclear programme caps a dozen years of on-off dialogue. Before this began in earnest, Iran was advancing its nuclear programme despite claims that it did not seek weaponization, moving closer towards a 'threshold state', and the period it would need to prepare a weapon before the international community could respond was decreasing. Sanctions were hurting Iran, but not stopping its nuclear progress. Innumerable deadlines were missed as negotiators sought to build on a 2013 interim deal struck after the election of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a promise to end his country's international isolation.

Many countries have nuclear programmes, and at least eight possess nuclear weapons. Attention was focused on Iran because it concealed a clandestine uranium enrichment programme for 18 years in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. As a result, the security council passed six resolutions requiring Iran to stop enriching uranium, a process that can produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Sanctions on Iran involve a complex mix of UN and unilateral embargoes; asset freezes, ban on the supply of heavy weaponry and nuclear-related technology, on arms exports, travel, trading in precious metals, crude oil exports and banking transactions. The sanctions have led to a fall in value of the Iranian currency and rising inflation, which has hit ordinary Iranians hard.

The successful outcome involved several historical 'firsts'. It was the first time a Middle East problem had been settled without a bloody war; the first time the EU had been involved in international peacemaking outside the continent - the youngest person in the room was the Italian chairperson, Federica Mogherini, the EU's top diplomat. It is the first time the US had stuck to its course despite strident opposition from its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia; and astonishingly, the American foreign minister negotiated for 18 straight days in one location.

In essence, the agreement places two-thirds of Iran's installed centrifuges under international supervision; removes 98 per cent of its enriched uranium; secures Iran's acceptance that sanctions would be restored in the event of violations, and accords the International Atomic Energy Agency access where and when necessary. IAEA would assess possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme by the end of 2015, and sanctions relief would be gradual, with an embargo on arms remaining for five years and on missiles for eight years. Iran will not be able to make a bomb in less than a year even if it so decided, but exercises its right to a peaceful nuclear industry. Iran is accepting a level of inspection greater than any country not defeated in war, and time-limited constraints on nuclear activity and research for a significant period. But there is unease about the formula, which curbs Iran's nuclear activity but leaves the infrastructure intact. The restrictions end after a decade although the verification regime does not.

The agreement has been welcomed in Iran with Rouhani saying "after 12 years, world powers had finally recognized the nuclear activities of Iran... implementation of the deal would gradually eliminate distrust". There are some dissidents but the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say. He backed the negotiating team and provided them some flexibility while adopting a hard line towards the West. This dual approach will continue.

In the United States of America, five of President Obama's former advisors have expressed concern that the deal lacked sufficient safeguards to deter Iran, but more than 100 former ambassadors have praised the president on a "landmark agreement". Hardliners in the West would prefer the restrictions to last indefinitely. Misgivings in Congress might not be able to muster enough votes to override a presidential veto, which Obama has promised to exercise, and American polls show public support for the deal.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and some Gulf rulers initially wanted a total elimination of Iran's nuclear programme and a halt to all uranium enrichment, and warned that the deal could trigger a nuclear arms race. Obama will try to sugar the pill with upgraded weapons shipments. Apart from the dissenters, there are questions about what happens after the agreement expires, when presumably Iran will be able to resume its nuclear research backed by a much stronger economy. How will the inspection and verification regime work in practice? Will the so-called "managed access" for inspectors to military sites be sufficient? If there are suspicious Iranian activities, how easily could sanctions be re-imposed given the growing strains between Russia and the West?

This is only the start of an economic, technical and political process rather than a single action and it will take time for Iran to integrate with rest of the world economy, for which it must enact reforms at home to maximize the benefits of emerging from relative isolation. Considering the explosive situation in the Arab peninsula, even if an Iran crisis is deferred for some 10 to 15 years, any postponement might seem preferable to the dire alternatives.

The agreement narrowly relates to Iran's nuclear programme, and judging by the Ayatollah's reactions, Iran's view of the US as the 'Great Satan' will not change. There is no opening of embassies in Washington and Tehran, and no predicated coordination on the fight against the Islamic State, or on solutions in Syria, Yemen or Palestine. And the accord is not likely to lead to a different, more rhetorically moderate, Iran, let alone reduce Iran's growing influence in the region.

Unlike the rest of the world, the Indian reaction, probably influenced by Israel, has been tepid, despite the economic prospects that the agreement opens for India in access to energy and Central Asia. Friendship with Iran would also help India to be a factor in Afghanistan where a potentially crucial development is being fashioned. President Ashraf Ghani, conscious that his 350,000 usually poorly-equipped and poorly motivated forces can hardly take the fight to the Taliban, who have made significant territorial gains, is pressing forward a peace agenda, although he inherited a process which went nowhere despite the release of dozens of Taliban prisoners.

The first round in July at Murree of what Pakistan has called 'exploratory talks' between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul is the closest that the Afghans have come to forging a negotiated settlement. The presence of officials from the US, China and the UN at Murree, together with the unusual publicity given to the meeting by Kabul and Islamabad, suggests some traction in this process. The next round is planned for Doha as early as August. Previously, the Taliban insisted on talking only to the Americans who held the real authority in Afghanistan, but the IS threat is growing, and they are obliged to hasten a settlement to ensure their hold against the onrush of a rival militant group. The Taliban are not monolithic but faction-ridden - some are opposed to any talks until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, others are uncomfortable with Pakistan in the lead role, others again prefer to escalate violence to extract better terms.

Pakistan is believed to hold the keys to peace in Afghanistan, and Ashraf Ghani - unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai - has shown his readiness to trust Pakistan. In the short run, Pakistan has a motive to support peace in Afghanistan in order to encourage Chinese funding to develop its faltering economy. Its army has long been accused of using the Taliban as proxies to control Afghanistan and counter Indian influence there. The army is dominant, and military thinking may continue to prevail in regional policies. So Pakistan will support the peace talks as long as Ashraf Ghani maintains his pro-Pakistan attitude. Islamabad will also be anxious to neutralize anti-Pakistani elements in Afghanistan and to reduce their urge to use the Pakistani Taliban, who have sanctuaries on the Afghan side against targets in Pakistan. India has been reduced to the position of an outsider in these unfolding events in Iran and Afghanistan, and will become even more of one if both sets of negotiations succeed in their objectives.

The author is a former foreign secretary