Is Iran the problem?

Nuclear Deal

Iran nuclear deal

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is common sense in America, but President Donald Trump governs the country not so much by common sense, but by his gut instincts and prejudices. And so, when he declared that he would trash the nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA — Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) signed by the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany), it was not Iran that got so much into a tizzy, but the European partners of the US.

For the last few weeks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have all visited the White House in pleading Trump not to wreck the deal.

Obviously, the Europeans have good reasons to do so. Firstly, Iran has not violated any of the provisions of the deal. Secondly, the only agency mandated by the United Nations Security Council to endorse the deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has consistently given a clean chit to Iran, till as recently as March 2018.

While the DG, IAEA Yukiya Amano certified that Iran is fully implementing all its obligations under the JCPOA of 2015, he called upon North Korea to abide by the UN Security Council Resolutions and open up its facilities for verification.

While Trump is eagerly seeking out a meeting with a “rogue nuclear weapon state” such as North Korea, his stubborn refusal to abide by an agreement signed by his predecessor with a “non-nuclear weapon state” that agreed to withhold its nuclear programme, smacks of arbitrary and petulant behaviour. As Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times, “this is not an act of foreign policy. This is an act of vandalism.”

Thirdly, this is the best deal that the P5+1 could get out of Iran to keep it reined in from its suspected nuclear ambitions. Fourthly, tearing up the deal now would untether Iran to pursue its nuclear weapons programme and finally, this would tie down Iran to American sanctions forever, which were not lifted even after it signed the deal, this may lead to unpredictable acts of recklessness in an already turbulent region.

Is there a problem with Trump, or is it that he wants to undo all the work done by his predecessor – Barack Obama? His decision to break away from the TPP, NAFTA, the Paris Climate accord and now the Iran deal shows that he has a pathological problem with his predecessor. But then, what about all the countries involved? What about global trade, and the common concerns on climate warming? Does he care? Perhaps not.

Is there something more than irrationality here, a plausible motivation to achieve an unstated goal and is that related to the destruction or degradation of Iranian power — an objective that is sought by both Israel and Saudi Arabia, great allies of President Trump.

Does it have something to do with Jared Kushner’s business interests? Do they coincide with the ambitions of Mohamed bin Salman — the young and reckless Saudi Crown Prince who is struggling with the declining oil revenue?

Having suffered low oil price in the range of $43 to $54 per barrel from 2015 to 2017, specifically during the three-year-long period of a disastrous and unwinnable war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, for which he had to buy billions of dollars worth of arms from the US, Saudi Arabia now wants the oil prices to go back to a reasonable $85 per barrel at least, to fill up the budgetary gap and a possible rise of up to $100 per barrel to put the country on the road to prosperity.

Ratcheting up tension in the Persian Gulf is a sure way of doing that. The oil prices had already climbed up to $70 per barrel on the expectation that Trump would break off from the deal. And the day after Trump’s announcement, it rose up to $77 per barrel.

A sustained upswing in oil prices will crucially depend on whether Trump takes action to prevent Iran from shipping out its oil. This calls for re-imposing all the old sanctions prior to the deal and adding a few more. And that’s exactly what Trump’s announcement indicated.

Initial reaction from Tehran is on expected lines, with President Rouhani stating that Iran would abide by the agreement and wait for the response of the other five signatories — the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China and then decide on its future course of action. He is also reported to have told his nuclear scientists to “commence enrichment of uranium without limit.”

The leaders of EU-3 have decided to meet with Iranian leaders on May 14. If the other five signatories hold on to the accord and work out modes of payments in Euros and Chinese Yuan, the situation within Iran may still be salvaged without much disruption. In fact, if the five countries stand by Iran, the US would be severely isolated.

Implications for India

New Delhi, true to its style, has refused to comment on the situation, though Iran is the third largest supplier of oil to India. Since we continued to import Iranian oil even during the height of sanctions by making payments in non-dollar currencies, and with a barter system of 20% in Indian rupees and 30% for third-country trade of Iran through an Indian bank, India should not have difficulty in adjusting to the new reality.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s affection for both Trump and Netanyahu may complicate his stance. Both of them would certainly expect him to fall in line with their reasoning. How we position ourselves now, will reveal a lot about our foreign policy.

(The writer is visiting Fellow, ORF)

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