Following two weeks of Chinese huffing and puffing in the Taiwan straits, this week has brought optimism around Tehran, with prospects of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) revival looking imminent and achievable. Amid the 2015 nuclear deal on the cusp of restoration, regional players have taken cognizance with UAE and Kuwait, looking to advance bilateral relations and re-establish diplomatic contact with Iran and India, handing over six cranes to boost the operation of the Shahid Beheshti Port. Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to have different ideas on deterring Iran. The restoration of JCPOA would mitigate the European woes but may not be enough in the short term. India must not keep all the eggs in the Iranian basket and continue its presence in Afghanistan.
Biden’s reasonable response
The window to close the nuclear deal is approaching fast. The closer we move to the November elections, the harder it will get for Biden to control internal and external fissures trying to sabotage the deal. Israelis, Saudis, and Hawks in Tehran and Washington have stepped up the ante against the ‘nuclear deal’ as Biden reassures by striking Iran-affiliated groups in Syria. Iran, for its part, has made some constructive statements recently and given up a few of its demands- Removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off a US ‘terror’ list from FTO.
Both Tehran and Washington seem to like the benefits outweighing the worries. If the deal goes through, it would be a significant pathway to reducing tensions in the region; the Gulf Cooperation Council states see this move with optimism, except for Saudis- less than six weeks after Biden’s disastrous trip to the kingdom, Saudi Arabia talks, about “cutting production.”
Salvaging the 2015 agreement is a remarkable victory for Biden, already facing a Sino-Russian challenge and resources spread thin in Europe and Asia. P5 and the number of European diplomats confident that the draft decision is acceptable to each party involved; the Biden administration is taking its time to build a narrative that the US has not acquiesced in the deal and dilute opposition from Israel. Both sides are underlining positives and acknowledging the retracted demands like Iran’s ‘breakout time’ and assurances against the unilateral exit from the deal. It is clear that in the grand strategic calculus, Biden’s move will ensure Iran’s pathway to nuclear proliferation is blocked, and Russia’s energy blackmail would be restricted.
The deal sought by both sides would manifest in multiple deals over time, from prisoner exchange to manifold investment by the Europeans in the Iranian energy sector, enhanced trade and tourism, and economic dividends. Anticipating the deal revived, India cautious renewed its commitment to developing the infrastructure at Shahdi Beheshti terminal, but there is a catch- unless we see substantive growth in India-Central Asia trade or profitable return on our investments, our engagements in Iran will be half-hearted.
Prospects of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) are promising; India and Iran must note- only through Taoist philosophy (add bit by bit, patiently to arrive at a jigsaw) can Inner Eurasia be interconnected. It will take time, skills, and investment to realize the true potential of Chabahar port. The War of transportation corridors that looked likely with the convergence of multiple projects like BRI (Belt and Road Initiative)/EAEU (Eurasia Union)/SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) has diminished, given China’s internal woes and Russia’s inability to take such massive projects. India and Iran now must expand a friendly vector of connectivity nodes via Afghanistan and Central Asia with central Asia’s inherent capacity for Eurasia integration and not rely on the Chinese.
It takes two to tango both India and the Taliban are on a learning curve. India had to distance itself from the Taliban, given India’s position of Friends from North and Foes from South. But a year later, India’s pragmatic stand, distribution of humanitarian aid, and stunning call for respecting the sovereignty and independence of Afghanistan at the SCO meet have confuted few anti-India fractions within the Taliban.
India has always prioritized security concerns over democratic values and age-old ties in Afghanistan- today, our engagement is no different. We must realize that India managed to defy the temptation to engage with the Taliban until last year and supported the legitimate government in the past generating goodwill among the Afghan polity cutting across ethnicity. Taliban’s return to Afghanistan leaves an open field for foreign terror groups like AQ (Al-Qaeda) and ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) in the late 1990s, and their modern-day incarnation like IS (Islamic State) and ISKP (The Islamic State Khorasan Province).
It is clear that Afghanistan is becoming the sanctum of terror groups, and the inability of the Taliban to double on foreign fighters is a recap of an old tale. Last week, the Russian FSB (Intelligence Agency) captured Central Asian ISIS fighter Yusuf Tajiki in Russia, who planned to carry out terror attacks in India. While it is true that ISKP or ISIS, for eight years on, has failed to garner any support amongst Indians to carry out attacks in the subcontinent, we must be vigilant and preemptive.
Unlike the public perception, Talibs today are much more decoupled from Pakistan. Talibs are cutting fences along the Durand Line every day, more TTP cadres are waiting to enter Pakistan, and with increasing instability in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), China is nowhere near Kabul. Protestation notwithstanding, the world is ready to live with the Taliban at the helm. There are enough factions and groups to work with to secure our interests in Afghanistan and establish our foothold.
The real issue is that India needs to address the strategic game plan for Iran and Afghanistan in the long term. With the situation slightly benign in Iran-US relations and the Taliban’s as defacto rise, we must look beyond much trumpeted civilizational and people-to-people ties and develop a game plan for the long term to harness connectivity with Eurasia and Gulf. With the entire region in flux, India must act to bridge the gap with like-minded countries and not get bogged down by threats.