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Opinion

April 13, 2015

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The Iran deal and us

Almost a year and a half after the initial interim deal of November 2013, under which Iran agreed to roll back or freeze parts of its nuclear programme and to enter into negotiations on a long-term accord with the P5+1 group of countries, the two sides announced an agreement on April 2 on the outlines of a comprehensive agreement to be signed by the end of June under which Iran will curtail its nuclear programme significantly for 10 to 15 years and accept stringent international inspections. In exchange, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted.
There are several important details that will have to be filled out in the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’, as the final agreement yet to be signed has been named. But several analysts have noted that the framework accord is more restrictive and specific than had been expected. CIA Director John Brennan was no doubt reflecting the views of the US government when he said publicly last Tuesday, “I certainly am pleasantly surprised that the Iranians have agreed to so much here.”
Iran will not have to close any of its three current nuclear facilities but will only be allowed to enrich uranium at one of them, namely Natanz, to a level to produce fuel for power plants, far below weapons-grade material. Of the nearly 20,000 centrifuges Iran now has at Natanz, the country will be allowed to operate just over 5,000. The heavy water research reactor at Arak will be rebuilt so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. The underground plant at Fordow is to be converted from a uranium-enrichment site into a nuclear physics and technology centre. Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be capped at 300 kilograms for 15 years.
The monitoring and inspection of Iran’s nuclear programme by IAEA will be substantially enhanced. Iran has also agreed to implement the additional protocol of the IAEA, which provides for much greater access and information regarding the country’s

nuclear programme, including undeclared facilities.
These restrictions would increase the time it would take Iran to produce enough material to build one nuclear warhead – the ‘breakout’ period – to one year from the current two to three months.
It is evident that Iran has made very major concessions in order to get the economic sanctions lifted and has now agreed to restrictions that it had refused to accept in the past. The hardliners in Iran may not be happy at this policy but for the present President Rouhani and the moderates who support him have at least the tacit blessing of Supreme Leader Khamenei and the establishment. The Iranian public in general is also tired of economic hardship resulting from the sanctions and has welcomed the flexibility shown by the government.
Iran has of course maintained consistently that it never wanted to produce nuclear weapons in the first place. In an interview with an American news channel last July, the Iranian foreign minister asserted that because of its geography, size, population, technology and superior human resources, Iran did not need nuclear weapons in order to exercise influence in the region. He specifically named Pakistan in this connection, saying that “nobody considers … Pakistan as a stronger force in the region than Iran, simply because they have nuclear weapons”. “In fact”, Zarif said, “I believe [the possession of] nuclear weapons reduces countries’ influence in our region”.
Zarif may or may not be right about Iran’s regional influence but his comparison with Pakistan was certainly misplaced. For one thing, Pakistan does not compete with Iran for influence in the Gulf, a region to which Pakistan is close but to which it does not belong. More important, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme was never designed as a tool for exercising regional influence. It was, and is, solely meant as a deterrent against the threat from India’s nuclear arsenal and that country’s conventional superiority. This is a purpose that Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent has served very effectively.
In Afghanistan as well, which is the only third country with which both Pakistan and Iran share borders, Pakistan has never sought to counter Iranian influence as long as Teheran does not align itself with the Indian designs to encircle and isolate Pakistan. This is what happened during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
The Indians are now hoping that an end to the standoff on Iran’s nuclear programme and the impending lifting of economic sanctions will not only remove some inconvenient constraints on the development of India’s economic ties with Iran but will also open up fresh diplomatic space for India in that country to encircle Pakistan. This has been the clear aim of the Indian plan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar and connect it with the Afghan road network through the Zaranj-Delaram highway built by India. The project not only seeks to provide land-locked Afghanistan with an alternative route to the sea which bypasses Pakistan but also to outflank the port of Gwadar.
While welcoming the prospect of an end to the economic sanctions on Iran, India is worried that it could also revive the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Despite the fact that India had at one time expressed an interest in joining it, the truth is that Delhi never really wanted the project to go ahead. India has been giving different reasons at different times for its inability to participate, such as high price, lack of security in the Pakistani section of the pipeline and the possibility that Pakistan might stop supplies at a time of high tensions with India. But the most important, though unstated, reason is that the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project runs counter to the Indian aim of making Iran a partner in a strategy to isolate Pakistan.
One negative consequence of the framework agreement is that it has the potential of further sharpening the rivalry between Iran and the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been getting increasingly concerned at the growing Iranian influence in three Arab states with large Shia populations: Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Yemen is the latest addition to that list. The Saudis are now worried that the lifting of sanctions on Iran would enhance the ability of Iran to provide arms and money to its proxies in the Arab world. An even greater concern is that the residual nuclear infrastructure that Iran will be allowed to keep might one day enable the country to become a nuclear power. These concerns are shared to some extent by Turkey and Egypt.
Some Saudi officials have hinted that Riyadh would demand the same right to build nuclear facilities that Iran is permitted under its final agreement with P5+1. Several commentators, especially from India, have suggested mischievously that since the Saudis do not have a nuclear infrastructure of their own, they might like to buy this technology, or even weapons, from Pakistan. But as Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert who is not known as a great friend of Pakistan, wrote in a recent article in an Indian daily, “If a Pakistani politician like Nawaz, who spent years in exile in the kingdom, won’t provide conventional military help [to Saudi Arabia] for a struggle with Iran, a secret bomb deal is highly doubtful”.
An editorial in the New York Times suggested last week that after finalising the nuclear deal with Iran, the six major powers that worked on it should “turn their attention to South Asia, a troubled region with growing nuclear risks of its own”. Pakistan, the newspaper said, was unquestionably the biggest concern; the editorial pointed to Pakistan’s plan to buy new submarines which it said could be equipped with nuclear missiles, the testing of the medium-range Shaheen-III missile and the development of short-range tactical nuclear weapons.
In singling out Pakistan, the newspaper not only betrayed a lack of balance, it also forgot its own recommendation in April last year calling for “a regional equilibrium on [nuclear] weapons”. This is also the essence of Pakistan’s proposal for a strategic restraint regime in South Asia, which India is not willing to consider.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]

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