The first thing to understand about the 109- page long document, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPA), signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015 is that it marks the end of a long spell of hostility and suspicion between the US and Iran. Though it was Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy chief of European Commission, who stood next to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the centre in the official photo, the real negotiation was between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry who was standing almost at the edge.
It will be useful to understand how the US and Iran, close allies for decades till Mohammed Reza Shah was toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, got estranged. The US under President Carter was no supporter of the Shah who ran a police state. The departure of the Shah did not poison bilateral relations. President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met Iran’s Prime Minister Mehdi Bazarghan on November 1, 1979.
According Robert Gates, the junior note-taker from the US side, later to be Secretary of Defence, Brzezinski told Bazarghan, “We will accept your revolution, we will recognize your government. We will sell you all the weapons that we had contracted to sell the Shah. We can work together in the future.” Bazarghan was pleased and agreed. But, a few moments later, news came over the radio that Carter had decided to offer political asylum to the Shah. Bazarghan asked Brzezinski to “return the Shah”. He refused outright, saying that it was a question of honor and the conversation came to an abrupt end.
The decision to grant asylum to the Shah infuriated Ayatollah Khomeini and his young supporters surrounded the US Embassy and took it over on November 4, 1979. The hostages were released in January 1981 after Carter lost to Reagan. Bazarghan’s government fell three days after his conversation with Brzezinski. Incidentally, Carter took the decision that eventually cost him a second term against the advice of Secretary of State and of the Ambassador in Tehran. In short, it was an unwise decision by Carter that set the two countries on a course of mutual hostility, and not any conflict of interest.
It is not the case that Iran started to make a nuclear bomb and the US has now stopped it. When Iranian President Ahmedinejad in 2005-06 unwisely called for Israel’s destruction, Israel retaliated by spreading the story that Iran was about to make bomb and use it against Israel. Even though the CIA came out in 2007 to say that since 2003 Iran had not done anything to make a bomb, the Israeli propaganda gained ground. The US asked Iran to stop enrichment of uranium; Iran refused and started to build a huge number of centrifuges and rational communication between Iran and the US came to a halt. That interrupted communication has been now restored.
President Obama has said that the agreement will stop Iran from Iran from making a bomb. President Rouhani has stated that Iran was never engaged in making a bomb, and there is no need to stop Iran from making one. Rouhani is right, but Obama had to say what he said.
Under the JCPA, while Iran has to undertake a number of steps such as sending out 98% of its enriched uranium, reducing the number of centrifuges to 1/3rd, subject its facilities to IAEA inspection and a host of other measures, the US and its partners have agreed to lift sanctions against Iran. The sanctions have done enormous harm to Iran’s economy and the value of its currency fell sharply against US$ as US Treasury worked hard to make the rial lose all value.
Shifting equations in Middle East
Israel has vowed to scuttle the deal, primarily through the Republicans in the US Congress. The Congress has 60 days to scrutinize the deal and to endorse or reject it. The Republicans will reject the deal, not because it is a bad one, but because they want to damage Obama’s political legacy. But, as things stand now, Obama can veto the Congress’s rejection and unless the Republicans succeed in winning over some Democrats to have a 2/3rd majority, the Presidential veto prevails. It looks now as though Obama will prevail, but no prediction can be made.
Assuming that the deal will survive the attempts of Israel and its allies in the US Congress, it will have major geopolitical implications and consequences. The corporate sector in the West is knocking at Iran’s doors for investment in oil and other sectors and also to sell to the starved market of 80 million people. Iran has 30 million barrels of stored oil ready to be put into the market and that will push down the price of oil. Iran will get $100 billion from frozen funds.
If Iran and the US start working together politically in the region, the Saudis will have to accept it and eventually seek a reconciliation with Iran. In the 1970s under the Shah, there was no rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is no risk of Iran starting a war on Saudi Arabia though persistent propaganda has succeeded in spreading scare. Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion on defence in 2014 alone, around four to five times of what Iran spent. The Saudis might have to reconsider their aggressive policy towards Yemen and seriously seek a political solution. As regards Syria, it is too soon to say whether and how the US and Iran can work together and how the fate of Bashar al Assad will be affected.
In short, despite referring to the US as Satan in public, Iranians love and admire the US. Their reconciliation is a good development for themselves and the rest of the world. Israel lacks the military capability to carry out strikes against Iran though empty threats might not stop.
What it means for India
For India, this is indeed a positive development. The UPA government had unwisely assessed that the US might not agree to the 123 nuclear agreement then under negotiation, and voted against Iran. Now is the time to rectify the mistake. The Modi government is going ahead with the stalled Chabahar Port project. A visit by Prime Minister Modi to Iran is indicated. There might be high-level visits from the West very soon. The reconstruction of the economy ruined by sanctions will provide tremendous opportunities for India though once the sanctions go, the competition among suppliers and investors will sharply increase. FICCI and CII should send out delegations without delay. Indian diplomacy is capable of availing of the opportunities in Iran without compromising good relations with the GCC.
(Ambassador K. P. Fabian was First Secretary in the Indian Embassy in Tehran, 1976-79, and saw the Iranian Revolution first hand. As Joint Secretary (Gulf), Mr Fabian coordinated the evacuation of over 176,000 Indian nationals from Iraq and Kuwait in 1990–91. His distinguished diplomatic career included postings in Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy).
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