It is now four decades since the Iranian revolution had overthrown the autocratic rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and hoisted Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs to power, transforming Iran into a theocratic state. The stranglehold of the mullahs has not weakened, and for the past 40 years Iran remains hostage to its bleary past.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 did not end the country’s misery; it merely replaced one tyranny with another which was far more brutal and oppressive. Iran has been the seat of some of the mightiest and most refined civilisations for centuries, and the Iranian people are not easily fooled. Thousands of them had left Iran since the Ayatollahs had taken over, and the young and vibrant society refuses to be guided by the diktat of the conservative mullahs who want to enforce an Islamic state through the dreaded Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the millionstrong State instrument of oppression.
Protests orchestrated by the rebellious youth occur regularly, and these are suppressed with brutality. Elections are largely stage-managed, though the margin of victory indicates the popularity of the elected leader. There is practically no opposition, and it is unlikely that another revolution would overthrow the present regime anytime soon. Iran’s hostile relations with the West, especially the USA, continued till the late 1990s, when the moderate Mohammad Khatami became the President in 1997 after a landslide victory.
He wanted to initiate a “dialogue among civilisations” with the US, but hardliners on both sides wouldn’t allow that; in January 2002, George Bush called Iran a part of the ‘Axis of Evil’. An isolated Iran, feeling insecure, was driven to accelerate its ambitious nuclearisation programme through uranium enrichment, news about which became public in late 2002.
It was now the turn of a scared Europe to call for ‘constructive engagement’ with Iran. By 2004, Iran had agreed to halt enrichment when, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 as President, hardliners gained control and enrichment was promptly resumed, inviting western sanctions. This continued till 2013, when the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected as President. By that time, the country’s economy was on its knees, crippled by sanctions and falling oil prices.
It was not only staring at an impending collapse of the economy, but the mullahs were also scared by the prospect of popular upheavals that were sweeping the Arab world following the Arab Spring. It was then that the “Historic Deal”, called the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”, was signed in 2015 between Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the European Union, Britain and the USA. It placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions-relief, but made it almost impossible for Iran to build an A-bomb.
While setting back Iran’s nuclear programme by at least a decade, it promised to break the cycle of threats and counter-threats that have marked USIran relations since 1979. The deal, greeted with euphoria by Iran and its allies and denounced by Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, did not, however, survive long. On 8 May 2018, President Trump withdrew after calling it, in his characteristic style, as “The worst deal ever negotiated” and reimposed US sanctions on Iran. As irresponsible war rhetoric has vitiated the Middle East environment ever since, on the anniversary of America’s exit this year, Mr. Rouhani also threatened to stop complying with the deal.
Just three days earlier, the US had sent an aircraft-carrier with B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf in response to unspecified “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of Iranian aggression, without any substance. Iran has so far fulfilled its obligations under the deal. Iran has threatened to stop exporting and begin stockpiling enriched uranium and heavy water, breaching the caps set by the deal.
This implies that it can use the enriched uranium to make a bomb by enriching it further through centrifuges and can also use the heavy water to produce plutonium which is also a fuel for the bomb. The deal allowed purification of uranium up to 3.67 per cent in place of 90 per cent required for a bomb, but the technology is essentially the same.
Further, Mr. Rouhani gave the deal’s other signatories only 60 days ‘to work out how to relieve the pressure brought on by American sanctions’, hinting at the possibility of moving closer to the bomb. He is perhaps trying to placate the hardliners who have hailed this as the “first decisive step”, but the EU is not amused, though they are trying to salvage the deal by other means in order to isolate Europe-Iran trade from American sanctions, as yet without much success.
Iran may not force the EU’s hand by taking any drastic action. It may instead slowly build its nuclear stockpile, and rely on the support of allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen against any possible American aggression short of war. The Iranian economy is stuttering as the sanctions keep biting hard. The Iranian rial has fallen from 40000 to a dollar before the sanctions to 150,000 now in the black market; the inflation rate has quadrupled to more than 50 per cent; oil production has fallen by half to only a million barrels a day and new sanctions have been imposed on Iranian iron, steel, aluminum and copper.
The USA is threatening to punish any country that trades with Iran or buys Iranian oil. Iran is already blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force, and it is unlikely to make an effort to remove itself from that list. The nuclear programme still remains Iran’s best bargaining chip with the West. Despite all the bellicose talks, it is not clear if a military strike by the US is really an option, because Iran is bound to retaliate by blocking the Strait of Hormuz.
That would take the escalation to a dangerous flashpoint. Sanctions have so far proved inadequate to topple the regime despite the hurt caused, and even one or two preemptive strikes can hardly diminish Iran’s nuclear capability, especially in terms of the technical know-how already acquired; at best it may push the nuclearisation programme underground.
If Iran succeeds in producing a bomb despite the sanctions, it would change the geopolitical dynamics of the entire Middle East, and any miscalculation or provocation by either side is fraught with grave danger. A nuclear Iran may spread proliferation through the Middle East, especially in countries that breed and nurture jihadi terrorists and Islamic suicide bombers. Threats and belligerent incitements cannot alter the underlying geopolitical realities.
Isolating Iran certainly will not foster peace and development in the region, as Iran remains a key player in such countries as Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Further irresponsible posturing by the USA may push Iran into an already developing Russia-China axis. The situation is tricky for India as well since Iran remains this country’s gateway to Eurasia and its energy reserves, through the Chabahar port developed by India in Iran for greater connectivity to Afghanistan and beyond.
India has historical trade and cultural ties with Iran dating back to centuries, which were further strengthened after Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran in 2016 and Hassan Rouhani’s reciprocal visit last year. India, the world’s third-biggest oil consumer, meets more than 80 per cent of its oil-needs through imports, and Iran is its thirdlargest supplier after Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Iranian oil is lucrative for Indian refiners due to the softer credit, insurance and freight terms compared to other suppliers because of geographical proximity. During 2017-18 the volume of Indo-Iranian trade reached almost $ 14 billion, with India’s trade imbalance of $ 8.5 billion. For Iran, India is their second largest buyer of oil after China.
After sanctions were imposed in 2018, India was allowed a special waiver along with China and six other countries, but the Trump administration has not renewed the waiver this year. After the waivers expired this May, India has now stopped importing Iranian oil, but given our increasing energy demands, it will be a challenge to find an economical substitute. It will be in India’s interest to continue to have good relations with Iran, not only for Eurasia but also for exerting pressure on Pakistan, which is not in the best of relations with Iran at the moment.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is a commentator. Opinions are personal)