The degree of relief that has greeted what is, on reflection, an interim agreement between the United States and Iran on the latter’s illicit nuclear programme reminds us of the stakes that are involved. Israel has signalled as loud and clear as it can be that it is prepared to carry out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if the programme continues down its present path. No one doubts that Israel has the ability to do so. But the consequence of such an action would be devastating: a full-fledged West Asian war into which the US and the Arab states would be drawn and the world economy would be wrecked one more time.
The US-Iran deal has provided a reprieve. It is under-girded by an acceptance by Iran that the price of sanctions and the threat of military action require some give on its nuclear programme. However, the gap between what Tehran is prepared to give and what Israel and Saudi Arabia want is considerable. The challenge of US diplomacy is to bridge this gap. This agreement, by effectively freezing Iran’s nuclear programme, gives diplomacy that extra time to work but not the guarantee of a settlement. The Obama administration’s neglect of foreign policy means that the US’ own credibility with its own West Asian allies is fragile. Any settlement will be marked by less trust and more verification all around.
Few countries have as great a stake in a successful Iranian nuclear settlement as India. Minor uncertainty in the Persian Gulf sends oil prices upwards. Full-scale conflict would superspike oil and gas prices or simply mean no fuel at all, levelling India’s economy. But New Delhi cannot be blind to the unsettling character of Iran’s nuclear programme. A Saudi Arabia fearful of a nuclear Iran will strike a strategic alliance with Pakistan — something that would be equally dangerous to India. This is the sort of dilemma that India faces. Unfortunately, it has limited influence in the geopolitics of West Asia and Indian interests are, in effect, hostage to the success and failure of others. New Delhi can only pray for a nuclear understanding that pleases all, but must leave the heavy-lifting to others.