The May 8 decision by US President Donald Trump to unilaterally pull out from the carefully arrived at P5 + 1 nuclear agreement with Iran has led to a flurry of diplomatic activity. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is currently on a whistle-stop tour of Beijing, Moscow and Brussels to consult with the other members of the July 2015 multilateral agreement. The Zarif objective is to seek firm commitments from the P4 plus Germany, so that the deal is salvaged to an extent, but this may prove to be more difficult than currently perceived. The techno-commercial web of globalisation and the over-arching trans-Atlantic strategic relationship does not give the EU states the kind of autonomy they seek to move out of the US orbit.
The Iran nuclear deal has a ponderous acronym — JCPA (Joint Cooperative Plan of Action) and was patiently put together under the leadership of the then US President Barack Obama, with the active participation of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. The core of the agreement was to ensure that Iran would roll back its covert nuclear weapon programme under a stringent global inspection regime and in return, the US led global economic and trade sanctions on Tehran would be progressively lifted.
However, the Pavlovian determination of President Trump — to gut every major policy initiative of his predecessor — had made it clear that the July 2015 deal was short-lived as far as the US was concerned and there was ample signalling to this effect over the last 16 months of the tumultuous Trump tenure.
The Zaraf visit to solicit support for the deal points to an anomalous politico-diplomatic situation, where for the short term it is the US that may be isolated over Iran, while the major EU nations appear to be more aligned with Russia (and China) over a tangled nuclear proliferation issue. This is a development of considerable strategic import, nascent though, with complex and corrosive implications for the prudent and equitable management of the emerging international (dis)order and the regional nuclear domain in particular.
The EU distancing itself from the US, in relation to West Asia, is not a new phenomenon and over the last 15 years there have been sharp divergences over the US-led war against Iraq, with France and Germany opposing the Washington Beltway but in a limited manner. What is new about the current Iran imbroglio is that it brings the EU nations (including UK) closer to the Moscow position, which in turn corresponds with the view from Beijing and this is a very anomalous politico-diplomatic development.
Major power relations are being churned in the most unexpected manner after the assumption of office by President Trump and it is pertinent to recall that whether in relation to trade (trans Pacific partnership) or climate change — the US has opted for petulant isolation and this is an unhappy augury for the global order.
Two major long-term security challenges that the post 9/11 global community has been grappling with, albeit in a less than effective manner, are nuclear proliferation and the rise of radical Islamic terror, now symbolised by the IS (Islamic state) and its variants. Iran and North Korea, both accused of supporting terrorism, reflect this complexity in two parts of Asia and the manner in which the major powers and the regional stakeholders are trying to deal with them.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal will have an impact on the US-North Korea summit, scheduled for mid-June in Singapore. If the ultimate objective is to prevail upon both the nations to roll back their nuclear weapons programme and denuclearise in a verifiable and irrevocable manner, the current US policy could be counter-productive.
Tehran has warned that if pushed to the wall, it will re-commence its enrichment programme on an ‘industrial’ scale, in which case the incentive for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to respond in a muscular manner will increase. The unilateral Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities of Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007) are illustrative of the escalation potential inherent in the Iran issue.
If there is no consensus about going back to the negotiating table so that a better ‘deal’ could be arrived at, three exigencies present themselves. One that Iran also walks out of the deal, thereby strengthening the hardliners within the country, leading to greater domestic discord for the internal socio-economic conditions that are stoking unrest; two — Iran pursues the nuclear weapon with renewed vigour and determination so that it becomes a North Korea; three — this Iranian decision provokes Israel and the regional Sunni faction to pull the trigger and bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, eliciting an Iranian military response — thereby plunging the region into war.
Concurrently, the various groups in West Asia that have been using radical Islamic ideologies and the terrorism option to advance their political objectives — be it the Hamas, the Hezbollah or the IS/al-Qaida will be emboldened by the regional turmoil and intensify their activities. Cumulatively, this cocktail will have adverse implications for global energy stability and security.
India is not a major player in the Iran issue but it will be a directly affected party by the turbulence that will ensue, if there is no swift resolution of the current impasse. An inflexible US sitting outside the global tent and an Iran forced to adopt a defiant nuclear posture are both bad news for regional stability and the global order.
Will the informal Putin-Modi summit on May 21 offer an opportunity for India and Russia to consult bilaterally and render the situation more malleable? India has a comfort level with the US, Iran and Israel that is distinctive and Delhi could be a quiet sherpa to enable the P5 plus 1 to come back on track.
The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.Views are personal.