The Iran nuclear deal is a wonderful opportunity for India. However, the real test will be whether the deal follows through (or even has the ability to follow through) on the opportunities that are presented. Far from being a stabilising factor, the deal gives Iran the licence to destabilise the region significantly. It is this instability, though potentially economically damaging to India, which can be geopolitically beneficial for India. While North Korea and Pakistan had to nuclearise themselves in order to exploit the sub-conventional space and to change the status quo, the Iran nuclear deal gives Tehran this space without ever having weaponised. Why is it so?
At the top of this argument is the Russian opposition to snapback sanctions. There are two layers to these sanctions – one imposed by the UN that have less bite and one set imposed by the US and the EU that are crippling. The US and the EU can snapback sanctions at will, but should the UN sanctions be lifted? Re-imposing them becomes an onerous task, one that Russia will leverage heavily to its advantage in situations like Ukraine – which is what it wants.
Consequently, not bringing Russia on board would mean abandoning the nuclear deal, but bringing Russia on board would mean abandoning snapback sanctions that would give Iran enough time to break out, should it renege on commitments. As of now, it seems that Iran’s compliance would have to be rewarded with lifted sanctions without snapback guarantees. Now, any Iranian action in the region, be it an increase in Hezbollah attack on Israel or an increased support to the Houthis in Yemen, cannot be punished by the sanctions that were lifted in lieu of nuclear concessions. Doing so would automatically invalidate the nuclear deal; in effect Iran now has licence to pursue sub-conventional warfare across the region failing which, it will assume the right to weaponise. In effect, Iran may be the first country to have won an implicit ‘right to terrorism’ argument.
For India, a licence to Iran to be re-visionist does two things. First, it bogs the jihadi problem down in its own backyard for the first time in many years instead of stirring the pot in Afghanistan or Chechnya (some of which had a fallout on India, specifically in Kashmir). This is important because it leaves countries like Saudi Arabia, fighting a desperate situation on its own borders (in Yemen and possibly internal disturbances in the Shia majority eastern provinces) constrained in exporting instability abroad. This expends Saudi weaponry, manpower, and treasure, and prevents its diversion to other trouble spots.
Second, the deal severely tests the limits of Pakistani-Saudi security guarantees. Thus far, Pakistan seems to have stayed out of Yemen, earning a severe rebuke from the UAE, which has warning of ‘grave consequences’. Should Pakistan’s non-cooperation continue, its promise of an ‘Islamic bomb’ would seem hollow. After all if, it is not willing to send a few thousand troops, will it risk a nuclear detonation for its Gulf allies? While renewing a paper pact on nuclear weapons is one thing, will Pakistan actually commit to any ground operation in Yemen – essentially committing to a pre-decided failure?
Given Saudi incompetence in the campaign, it seems as though Yemen is very much heading into a quagmire. One joke goes that the Saudis bombed the same target five times because of King Salman’s dementia (or Alzheimer’s). Most of the assets targeted by the Arab air campaign seem to be those not owned by Houthis but by more “ideologically flexible” allies that were or are part of the state. This has reduced the state’s ability to deal with not just the Houthis at a later date but also with the Al Qaeda (now making a resurgence).
The fear of a quagmire would limit Pakistani support and erode its credibility as a provider of security in the region, much as the US’s waning support for the Anglo-French Suez offensive incensed Charles de Gaulle to go nuclear. On the other hand, should Pakistan live up to its security guarantees, it would both alienate Iran even more than it already has and unleash fissiparous tendencies within Pakistan itself, given that at least 20 per cent of its population is Shia. In either case, pillars of the Pakistani security would be gravely affected. For the Saudis, overt nuclearisation would bring dramatic consequences for the US security shield and Iran, and open up the same sub-conventional space in the region that Pakistan has exploited vis-à-vis India.