Regional perspective

N-deal with Iran could mean cheaper oil for India, new trade routes to Central Asia

If all goes well, the agreement reached in Lausanne could enhance stability across Western and Southern Asia.

The breakthrough on the contentious nuclear issue arrived at between Iran and the US-led P5 plus 1 nations announced in Lausanne on Thursday  has the potential to bring about a tectonic shift in the regional strategic framework, as well as long-term implications on a global scale. The return of Iran to the global polity as a normal state has specific relevance for India in a range of geo-political, economic, energy,  trade and connectivity issues.

However some caveats are in order before reaching for the champagne. The deal has been arrived at in Lausanne is an understanding that Iran will  accept certain strict conditions over how it uses its nuclear resources. This is aimed at ensuring that it will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons. In return, the US-led interlocutors will gradually lift the sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran for almost four decades, ending the ostracism it has faced since November 1979.

The negotiators have until June 30 to reach a comprehensive agreement and there are many banana peels that have to be avoided by both US President Barrak Obama and the Iranian leadership.  Resistance to the Lausanne breakthrough has already been voiced  in both Washington and  Tehran. While Iranian hardliners accuse their Foreign Minister Javad Zarif  of having conceded too much in return for too little, the hostility in the US is even more intense. In fact, in early March, 47 Republican members of the US Senate took the unprecedented step of warning Iran in an open  letter  that they would oppose any deal reached in Switzerland.

A work in progress

As a consequence, the Lausanne agreement is still a work in progress and the world will have to wait till end June to hail it as a substantive breakthrough. Yet this modus vivendi has the potential to bring about a major shift in West Asia and the tangled politics of the Islamic world that have pitted  Saudi Arabia and  its Sunni brethren against  the ayatollah-led Shia Iran,  whose influence is visible in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For India, the resolution of the Iranian nuclear nettle will be cause for some satisfaction. Though India was not a principal player in the current talks, Delhi had consistently maintained that it supported Tehran’s right to have access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy as mandated in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state.  Iran had signed the treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1968 and had ratified the treaty in 1970.

Consequently, a positive outcome on June 30 will have multiple relevance  for India. The most immediate will be the return to normal trading  rhythms with Iran and the impact on India’s oil situation will be beneficial. The very fact that there would be an accommodation between the US-European Union combine  and Iran has depressed oil prices, though the increase in Iran’s domestic oil production and export is still some months away.

Afghanistan fall-out

The more significant geo-political strand is the possibility that Iran will gradually become a stakeholder and participant in the re-construction of a  very turbulent Afghanistan.  The US withdrawal from the region  and the conviction that Pakistan will emerge as  the only actively engaged  neighbour of  Kabul will now have to contend with Iran’s normal  profile as an interested neighbour of  Afghanistan. Hence, Pakistan will have to re-calibrate its strategic-depth policy.  For India,  reviving the  stalled connectivity options  leading to  Afghanistan and Central Asia both by land and through the sea-route will not be hostage to the intransigence of the Pakistan military.

The greater effect of Iran’s admittance into the regional comity is the impact it will have on the geo-political turbulence in the Islamic world, manifest in the radical ideologies and  violence associated with the Islamic State, the al-Qaida and the Sunni-Shia tensions that have scarred the extended West Asian region.  Yemen and Syria are testimony to the damage that has been cynically supported through the proxy powers.

India has a deep stake in the stability of this extended West Asian region, which is critical to its energy security, as also the safety of its almost six million expatriate workers who provide invaluable foreign exchange remittances. The need for a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is imperative and if  the Modi government  can rise to the occasion, Delhi could be a quiet facilitator in this regard.

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