Iran Nuclear Deal: A Positive for India?

The Iran nuclear deal is a wonderful opportunity for India. The real test, however, will be whether the deal actually follows through (or even has the ability to follow through) on the opportunities presented. Far from being a stabilising factor, the nuclear deal, in my opinion, is in fact giving licence to Iran to destabilise the region significantly. It is this instability, though potentially economically damaging to India, which may be geopolitically beneficial to India. While North Korea and Pakistan had to nuclearize in order to exploit the sub-conventional space and change the status quo, the Iran nuclear deal gives Iran this space without ever having weaponised. Why?

At the root of my argument is the Russian opposition to snapback sanctions. Should such opposition continue, 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 attacks on Israel or increased support to 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.

For India, however, a licence to Iran to be revisionist 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) instead of exporting instability abroad. This expends Saudi weaponry, manpower, and treasure, and prevents its diversion to other trouble spots.

Secondly, the deal severely tests the limits of Pakistan-Saudi security guarantees. 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. 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 Al Qaeda (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 United States’ waning support for the Anglo-French Suez offensive incensed 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% of its population is Shia. In either case, pillars of Pakistani security would be gravely affected. For the Saudis, overt nuclearisation would bring dramatic consequences for the United States security shield and Iran, and open up the same sub-conventional space in the region that Pakistan has exploited vis-à-vis India.

The automatic result of a rupture in Pakistan-Iran relations is that Iran’s past reluctance in allowing India to synergise its efforts at supplying Afghanistan (and enraging Pakistan) is more than likely to dissipate. The question of course is whether India will actually step up to the plate or allow Afghanistan to be gobbled up by Pakistani proxies like it did in the late 1990s. Whether Indian aid to Afghanistan is military or not is irrelevant – even the rumour of increased cooperation sets Pakistan in a destructive cycle, burning bridges with the Ghani administration.

The big question then is what all this instability means for India in economic terms, because geopolitically opportune situations can be economic disasters, and vice versa. Largely this has to do with the region’s reputation for being single-product economies – oil in this case. Saudi Arabia has deliberately kept oil prices low for three reasons: a) to thwart the shale revolution in the United States; b) to make Iranian oil sales unprofitable; and c) to keep Russian oil sales barely profitable. This has been wonderful for India, because not only has it reduced India’s balance of payments problems, but it has also had positive effects on the petrochemicals (fertilizers) sector. The net result of increased Iranian mischief could mean Saudi imperatives to keep oil prices low will only increase, while the situation will bring significant geopolitical positives to India.

Obviously no course of action will follow the exact chain of events described above, and many permutations and combinations exist in which things may not be all that good for India. All in all, however, should the region be stable or unstable, the situation could be a positive one for India. Unfortunately, knowing the Indian bureaucracy and the severe enforcement deficit it represents, most of the opportune moments may just be castles in the air.


Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr

Posted in , India, Iran, Negotiations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Politics, Security

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

After his B.Com from the University of Madras he pursued a career in the corporate world before turning to academia. He holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Political & Social Inquiry at Monash University, and is pursuing his PhD. He served as research assistant on several projects all under the aegis of the Centre For Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies at Monash (2007-2010). He is a Programme Coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent any institutional or national position. His primary research is on limited wars and nuclear thresholds, but his interests include, military transformation, defence planning, procurement and offsets, infrastructure, governance and Historical Patterns of Conflict in Democracies. His spare time is spent traveling, cooking, flying microlight aircraft and scuba diving.

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4 thoughts on “Iran Nuclear Deal: A Positive for India?

  1. Abhijit:
    I could visualize the wheels turning in your mind as I read your provocative post.
    This business of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations with regard to Yemen has prompted reassessment around my zip code.
    Everybody around here was pretty sure that when Riyadh asked Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders to jump, the answer would be, “How high?” A more nuanced assessment is now on order.
    Best wishes,

  2. Dear MK

    Thanks – what i was trying to bring out (and probably failed) is the catch 22.

    On one hand if they didn’t say “how high” their ostensible security guarantees to gulf monarchies would be severely eroded. We are already seeing this play out – see this post in Arabic and this one in dawn

    On the other hand if Pakistan did join up it would’ve wrecked its relations with Iran and exacerbated sectarian slaughter within Pakistan.

  3. Abhijit and Michael,

    Two things come to mind regarding the Pakistan-Saudi business:
    1. If it’s this hard for Pakistan to openly support Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, then how can we be so sure that it will just hand Riyadh a nuke in extremis? We’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence, but this episode should at the very least call into question our assumptions about Pakistani-Saudi nuclear relations.
    2. According to National Assembly documents, there were 1,100 Pakistani military “deputationists” posted in Saudi Arabia as of August 2014 (p.14, If Pakistan isn’t sending troops to the Gulf to fight in Yemen, what are those troops doing there?


  4. @shane

    Pakistan had bought deterrence against India at 1 nuke or at best by 10. Anything over 10 has nothing to do with India. Pakistan is not an Indian problem…. It’s a global problem because what the world needs to realise that anything over 40 (10 against India plus 30 for redundancy maintenance etc etc) are aimed at other goals that have little or nothing to do with India.

    Second I believe many of those deputed are trainers. 1100 third world troops of a pre RMA army cannot be decisive under any circumstances. They may be in Yemen but their impact is minimal. What I suspect GCC wants is 1) a more effective contribution by pak and 2) a more visible contribution by Pak.

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