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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Swagato Ganguly

After drinking at various disciplinary streams, which included an engineering degree from IIT Kanpur and a doctorate in literature from the University of Pennsylvania, Swagato ... MORE


Delhi’s eyes are anxiously peeled west at the moment as it wonders whether Taliban, hitherto seen as a terror group, is poised to topple the Afghan government India has so heavily supported and invested in. However, the shape of things to come a little further west are of greater moment as far as its strategic interests are concerned.


With President Donald Trump on his way out, a great deal hinges on whether the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), can be revived. The deal was signed when Joe Biden was vice-president, and he has signalled his intent to return to it. However, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh soon after it became clear that Biden had beaten Trump in the US presidential election, appears intended to forestall such a revival that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dead set against.



Fakhrizadeh’s assassination came after the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, considered the second most powerful man in Iran who oversaw its Syrian and other external operations, in a drone strike in Baghdad ordered by the Trump administration. Thus the Fakhrizadeh assassination, coming at the delicate moment of the troubled transition from Trump to Biden administrations, could elicit an Iranian reaction which would draw in the US, effectively scotching a revival of JCPOA.


Tehran, however, seems to be avoiding such a kneejerk reaction as of now – it has said it will rejoin the nuclear deal within an hour of the US doing so, provided no further changes to it are countenanced. Notwithstanding this, it did mark the first anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination by seizing a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf, the MT Hankuk Chemi. It has also breached the nuclear deal by enriching uranium to 20%, while signalling it will go back on this if all signatories, chiefly the US, come back into compliance.


Clearly, its tactics are designed to pressure an incoming Biden administration to quickly rejoin the treaty on terms previously agreed to. The region, however, is on a hair trigger alert. Tel Aviv would be itching to set something off to scuttle JCPOA. Riyadh, which sees Tehran as a sworn enemy and whose oilfields have been bombed and set ablaze by Tehran’s proxies, wouldn’t mind either. Tehran, likewise, is itching for revenge for Soleimani’s assassination. And a frustrated President Trump, who has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign that has impoverished Iran and would love a distraction when he stands to be impeached in the last days of his presidency, may not mind starting a war and leaving President-elect Biden to pick up the pieces.


Even if we go through the next week unscathed and Biden takes over as president, things won’t be easy as Iran hawks in Washington will press him to extract more concessions from Tehran, which the latter has indicated it isn’t willing to concede.


There are thus plenty of things that can go wrong even in case of a smooth Biden transition. If the nuclear deal falls through, Iran will be lost to the West and Beijing will rush to fill the vacuum, securing cheap energy supplies, expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as acquiring a useful ally. China and Iran have already reached a $400 billion strategic partnership, which includes constructing a railway line from the port of Chabahar to Zahedan on the Afghan border.


What will be the fallout for Delhi, the party originally supposed to construct a railway line from Chabahar to the Afghan border? If a China-Iran-Pakistan alliance firms up, Delhi is likely to lose its equities in both Iran and Afghanistan, and it can forget about access to central Asia.


Does Delhi, therefore, become an outright loser if JCPOA falls through? To some extent, yes. But there will still be some chess pieces left for it to play. One outcome of a China-Iran-Pakistan alliance will be that US forces, currently barely hanging on in Afghanistan, will almost surely be squeezed out, which will also disable Islamabad from using their security as a bargaining chip with Washington.


Second, if geopolitical rivalry steps up in the Middle East, then a reaction to a powerful Iran, potentially armed with nuclear weapons and backed by China, is inevitable from the Gulf Arab states. Realignments among the latter are already visible with the UAE and Bahrain normalising ties with Israel, while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his quest to modernise the Saudi economy and diversify it away from oil, tries to be Saudi Arabia’s Deng Xiaoping.


Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been cool to Islamabad’s efforts to kick up dust over India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir, leading to a significant rift between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Delhi, which already has significant equities with the Gulf Arab states – nine million Indians live there, and most of its foreign exchange remittances emanate from the region – therefore has an opportunity to step them up and fill the gap. Indeed it already shows signs of doing so, as in General MM Naravane’s visit to Saudi Arabia and UAE to discuss deeper defence and security ties last month, the first ever such trip by an Indian army chief. Thus, if Beijing’s shadow falls between India and Iran, Delhi still has the option of looking further west, beyond Iran to the rapidly transforming Gulf Arab states.


Nonetheless it would be best, from Delhi’s point of view, if JCPOA could be revived and Iran’s isolation ended. That would not only stabilise the Middle East and protect Indian investments in Chabahar, it would also obviate the necessity for Delhi to make stark choices.

Coursty - TOI.

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Help Sampadkiya Team in maintaining this website

इस वेबसाइट को जारी रखने में यथायोग्य मदद करें -

-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief, Sampadkiya.com)

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