On 18 June 2021, Iran went to polls. Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who headed Iran’s Judiciary and is acknowledged to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader,was elected the new President.With the experience of Judiciary and now the Executive, his ascension to the post of Supreme Leader is a foregone conclusion. It foretells conflicts and disturbances in this beleaguered region encompassing Yemen, Iraq, Syria,Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.It also for esees intensification of its hostility towards US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel and Turkey.
Trump administration, on assuming office, denounced the UN Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aimed to prevent nuclear proliferation by Iran, as a “sell out” and in October 2017 announced its intentions to walk out of the deal. In May 2018, it imposed fresh crippling sanctions on Iran.
Despite US walking out of JCPOA , the other signatories to this UN agreement, namely China, Russia, UK, France, Germany and EU stayed with the deal. Iran too abided by it but stung by the new US sanctions, dwindling oil exports and decrease in business with namely EU,it, in July 2019 embarked on expanding its nuclear development, threatening the aim of JCPOA.
Noteworthy violations to JCPOA commenced in July 2019 when Iran breached JCPOA by announcing that it is increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium from the JCPOA limits of 300 kg and also breaching the limits on purity of its uranium stocks.
Teheran too announced that it was working on development of advanced IR-9 centrifuges for uranium enrichment. These did not figure in JCPOA. In a fourth violation, in Oct 2019, Iran announced that it will limit the scope of IAEA inspections and surveillance. In Nov 2019 Iran started enriching Uranium to 4.5%, upping it from the 3.67% limits set by JCPOA and threatened to increase it to 20%.
In 2020, US, despite having walked out of the deal stated in UN that it remained a participant in JCPOA, with a view to persuade the UN Security Council to re impose pre JCPOA agreement sanctions on Iran, as it had violated JCPOA. This effort of US has not been successful.
Amidst all this and many confrontations with many nations including South Korea for non-payment of oil dues,Iran saw its Revolutionary Guard leader Maj Gen Soleimani and top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh assassinated by US. Frequent sabotage of Iran’s nuclear installations and other vital infrastructure, stealing of its Nuclear secrets, frequent clashes on Gulf of Hormuz, all hardened Iran’s stance, enabling the hardliners to gain ground resulting in election of Ebrahim Raisi.
Recently, in April 2021, at Geneva, the signatories of JCPOA including Iran met, a meeting which the US too attended but kept behind the scenes. Since then, there has been considerable optimism about a new deal being finalised with Iran. However, Iran chose a hardliner as its new leader, whose stated views are that JCPOA is non-negotiable and that Iran will not negotiate its development of Ballistic missiles and its role in regional conflicts, as part of the negotiations for lifting of sanctions.
India has deep historical and economic ties with this region. Till late 2018, Iran was the fourth largest source of crude oil for India. Fresh US sanctions saw India forego this traditional and time-tested source of energy.
As the new hardliner President takes office, India eagerly awaits the new direction Iran adopts in respect to the JCPOA agreement, its dealings with regional powers and its involvements in the conflicts in the region. In this paper an attempt has been made to decipher the options the new President may opt for, in taking his embattled nation forward.
In the first option, the new Iranian Government may choose to renew the JCPOA deal with suitable modifications, taking into account the US and EU concerns and use the lifting of sanctions to put Iran on road to rapid economic recovery. In doing so, it will have to also ensure changes in laws of its administration which today are heavily loaded against its citizens.This may bring it in collision course with its own citizens who yearn for true democracy.
An economic recovery, driven by foreign investments will have to be on the strength of its improved diplomacy. To improve its diplomatic credibility, Iran will have to forego its support to its various armed proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and in Yemen.
Improving relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE and other nations should also be its priority. To some extent the new administration has shown willingness to deal with Saudi Arabia, which may ease tensions in war torn Yemen.
Needless to say, that no reforms in Iran can be complete without curbing its clerics, Revolutionary Guards and in reigning in corruption,which are of pandemic standards.
It will be prudent to mention here that Ebrahim Raisi is the prodigy of the elite clerics and hence to expect him rein them in and reform them, is rather utopian.
In the second option, the new administration may not agree to a modification in JCPOA but agree to stop enrichment of Uranium beyond the stipulated 3.67%, down size its enriched uranium stockpile to stipulated 300kg and give access to IAEA to all its nuclear installations including the one in which IR-9 advanced centrifuges are being developed.
If by doing the above and also by voluntarily capping its ballistic missiles programme which mainly threatens West’s interests in the region, Saudi Arabia and more importantly Israel, it may gain reasonable concessions in sanctions.These gains will see increase in oil exports and foreign investments and Iran may launch itself on the path of overall recovery.
Today, Iran is in strategic alliance with China. China has included Iran in its Belt Road Initiative and heavily invested in development of Gas and in Automotive sector. Iran and China have scant historic ties and this strategic alliance today is more a necessity of Iran to overcome the ill effects of the sanctions as China is one its major oil importer, even through sanctions and today, a rare source of foreign investment.
Revival of its economy on lifting / relaxation of sanctions may weaken this rather uneasy strategic alliance and manage to curb the increasing influence of China in Middle East, which will portend well for India and for West.
Iran may curb its armed militias. With its revived economic fortunes, it may help to rebuild its allies in the region, namely Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.This will earn it goodwill and a make it acceptable to the world as a responsible nation.
As US down scales its commitment in Middle East and Afghanistan, to focus on China, a responsible developed and peaceful Iran can fill the vacuum left by US withdrawal and provide the much-needed peace and stability to the region.
Revived economic fortunes may also see it being actively involved in rebuilding of Afghanistan post withdrawal of foreign troops. This will not only benefit Afghans but also curb the growing influence of Pakistan and China in Afghanistan. Along with Russia and Turkey, Iran has the ability to fulfil this role and ensure power balance in the region. In its efforts, it should hasten the linking the rail link it has extended to Herat province with Chahbahar port, further reducing dependence of Afghanistan on Pakistan. This will also provide India an alternate overland route to Afghanistan, where it has major stakes as a regional power in South Asia.
On Israel, in either option, Iran is unlikely to reverse or soften its stance. However, if it caps its nuclear program and uses it only for peaceful purpose in true spirit of JCPOA, caps its ballistic missiles programme and prevent its proliferation and as also reins in Hamas and Hezbollah, it will reduce the present levels of acrimony between the two states and usher in peace and stability in the region.
Renewed stature in world forum will then give it adequate opportunities to espouse the cause of the Palestinians, in a manner that Israel will be forced to reduce its oppression on the Palestinians or face international backlash.
In the third course of action, the new hardliner elect may agree to scale back Iran’s nuclear programme to the limits set by JCPOA, increase limits of IAEA inspections and“may” also agree to capping its ballistic missiles programme.
With its renewed economic gains, it may moderately improve the state of its citizens, albeit raising standards of living with added caveats and controls, to ensure that the influence of clerics and Revolutionary Guards does not wane.
In this, it can further empower the clergy, the Revolutionary Guards and its armed militias to widen its sphere influence, not only in Shia majority countries but also in Sunni nations with sizeable Shia population, like the area of Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen.
Downsizing of US in the region may in this scenario see an emboldened Iran at loggerheads with nations which have joined hands with Israel,in strategic partnership.
The fractured Arab unity may in this scenario, see a hawkish Iran trying to increase its influence in the region by development aid and threat of its proxy armies. Destabilisation that ensues will benefit the now economically and thereby militarily powerful Iran.
With nuclear program and ballistic missiles capped, the proxy armies reined in, at least against Western interests in the region, a booming trade with Iran, security of Gulf of Hormuz assured and security of Israel ensured, the West is likely to overlook the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. Needless to say, that a disturbed, cash rich Middle East will result in increased Arms import to the region, a market which West will definitely capitalise.
In this scenario, Iran may like to deepen its ties with China, as in China it is assured of atleast one strategic partner who is a permanent member of UN Security Council and one captive customer for its oil, lest the sanctions again kick in due to its misconduct and destabilising influence in Middle East.
In this option, Iran may hand over control of Chahbahar port,which is coveted by China due to its close proximity to Gwadar, Then China will have two access points to Arabian Sea and this will not augur well for India and the world.
Ebrahim Raisi, though a hardliner, maybe expected to adopt the third option but having been a Judge and being aware of the desperate need for relief which Iran needs from crippling sanctions it has suffered, since 1979, he may adopt the more rational and pragmatic second course of action and put the nation on a path of economic recovery.
However, it will be prudent for him to understand that for Iran to pursue a collision course,in any course of action, with Israel is fraught with danger and will never succeed as any attack on Israel will draw the ire of the Western powers and possibly invite destruction of Iran. If Iran creates grave instability in the region, then too it will invite similar response.
India, which shared a common border till 1947 with Iran and is tied with it by deep historical and cultural bond,is eager to see sanctions being eased / lifted and Iran emerging as a strong regional power.With US and international troops pulling out of Afghanistan by October 2021, India wants enhanced role of Iran in Afghanistan. Iran is now an influential player in Afghanistan. It has broken the landlocked status of Afghanistan by linking its western province of Herat with rail, which it intends to connect with Chabahar port, a port where India has strong interests.
A strong, stable and peaceful Iran will safeguard Indian interests in the region by acting as a counterbalance to the China – Pakistan nexus in the region and also safeguard India against global oil shocks, a role which in the past Iran has admirably played and ensured India’s energy security.