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April 16, 2015 8:36 am

US-Iranian Nuclear Deal in the Asian Pivot: It’s Complicated

avatar by Dinesh Sharma

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he arrives at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, for a day of meetings about Iran's nuclear program. Photo: U.S. State Department.

At the onset of the atomic age, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” As Iran and potentially the whole of the Middle East may enter the nuclear age, we are reminded of his ominous warning.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told a Senate hearing recently, the Iranian deal will certainly lead to greater proliferation, making Iran the lynchpin in the Middle East and Central Asia, with its influence spreading into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At this turning point in history, Iran must embrace a peaceful civil nuclear program and make peace with Israel if it plans to join the emerging global civilization. Iran could possibly become another North Korea, a dangerous outcome. Or, it could follow the South Asian model of détente and help advance America’s Asian pivot.

When President Obama was in India in January 2015, he was able to iron out the details of the civil nuclear deal with India, the so-called liability clause, opening up the possibilities of India’s energy independence. India is part and parcel of the Asian rebalancing that the US has been trying to achieve.

It took India several decades to arrive at this juncture through several US administrations – Clinton, Bush, and Obama — and a historical change of government in India from the Congress Party to the Modi government.

India has been trying to wean-off Iranian oil while sanctions have been in place, a sign of India’s alignment with P5+1 member states, especially the US. The Iranian nuclear deal to be hammered out by the end of June, however, will be a much tougher sell in the US Congress.

The disputes about what is in the US-Iranian deal arose as soon as the official statement was released by the White House. When, how, and under what conditions would the sanctions be lifted, immediately or through a phased release? How will the IAEA track Iran’s covert activities, through intrusive spot observations or controlled weekly and monthly access?

If the deal gets blocked, American diplomacy will take a hit, as President Obama said. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to break down the wall of distrust between DC and Tehran that has existed for more than three decades, as I have argued in my book, The Global Obama, would be stymied. It will be a huge loss for both Obama and Kerry’s legacy. If the Iranian regime stays closed to the outside world, it might also adversely impact the Asian pivot and the US will remain mired in the Middle East.

Unlike Iran, India has been a close ally of the state of Israel despite the history of non-alignment. India and Israel have been defense and technology partners. With Israel calling the framework agreement with Iran “a threat to its survival”, which way India will lean – towards Iran or Israel – remains to be seen?

While Iran and India share historical and civilizational ties, these old ties will be trumped by the new geopolitical realities. India’s growing relationship with the US and the thirst for nuclear energy mandates it follow the lead of P5+1, especially, if it aspires to join the Security Council.

Ironically, India and Israel both never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Although Iran did sign the NPT many years ago (1968), it has been in violation of the treaty several times. The realities of the Middle East and North Africa today are very different than those of South Asia twenty years ago when India and Pakistan secretly tested the bomb.

Iran may have to remain in a tight holding pattern vis-à-vis the West for many decades to come if we are to see a peaceful Middle East in our lifetimes. Thus, India, China and other nuclear states in Asia must continue to call for the ‘peaceful development’ of the Iranian nuclear program.

According to WPS Sidhu at the Brookings Institute in India, “India will welcome the resolution of the nuclear file on Iran and will try to walk the tightrope in trying to strengthen relations with both Iran and Israel.”

The other nuclear power in South Asia, namely Pakistan, whose scientist A. Q. Khan provided the original impetus for the nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic of Iran, is watching these events closely. Pakistan also never signed the NPT, and not surprisingly, has never recognized the State of Israel.

Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, where he was exiled during Musharraf’s reign, have not been well received by the Iranian regime. Yet, Pakistan relies on Iranian natural gas supplies and has not taken an openly hostile anti-Iranian position on the nuclear deal. If Pakistan were to take a pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian position, consistent with the Israeli position, Iran will lean towards India and Afghanistan in the region.

Whatever the ultimate, nuanced details of the nuclear deal, it will have ripple effects throughout Central and South Asia. It will lead to increased trading of nuclear secrets overtly and covertly; South Asia, which became a nuclear zone several decades ago, will become even more dangerous. PM Netanyahu’s nightmarish dream of the Middle East and North Africa turning into a nuclear landmine, where state and non-state actors are tripping over each other, may not be far-fetched. Tensions between Shia and Sunni factions, and their terrorist outfits, will grow and spill over into South Asia through various proxy wars.

Iran must attempt to follow the South Asian model of détente and take India’s lead into the 21st century by developing a peaceful civil nuclear program as a deterrence to war. This might lead to the free flow of Iranian oil and push forward America’s Asian pivot. If the deal fails, the Israeli-Iranian dynamic will head into a bleak and uncertain existential future, driving the Iranian nuclear program further underground.

Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, NY. He is the editor of “The Global Obama: Crossroads of Leadership in the 21st Century,” published by Routledge Press. His previous book, “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,” was rated as the Top Ten Black History Book for 2012.

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