The Biden administration seems determined to ink a nuclear deal with Iran. While John Kerry, now Biden’s climate czar, is now not directly involved in the deal-making with Iran, as Barack Obama’s secretary of state he was the architect of the Iran deal and would be keen to influence the American President to resuscitate his legacy.
The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 restricted Iran’s time period to build a nuclear bomb, called the breakout period, to 10 years. This Donald Trump felt was too little and therefore walked out of the deal. Analysts now believe that since Trump walked out, Iran has already produced fissile material sufficient for two bombs. Any new deal will have to suss out these bombs and neutralize them.
One way or another, deal or no deal, Iran will eventually get the bomb. No sectarian or religious conflict since Islam came into being about 1,400 years ago has been as pitiless as the Shia-Sunni divide. Even the Christian-Islam war that is going on these days pales in comparison. The Sunni Gulf states have access to the bomb from two sources – Pakistan and Israel. Iran feels that the Sunni bomb is a veritable existential threat to it and absolutely feels the need to counter it, just as the Pakistanis said they would eat grass but build a nuke to counter India.
Shias constitute only about 10 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population of 1.8 billion. Yet a Shia crescent, as King Abdullah of Jordan puts it, has enveloped the Muslim world. In Syria, the Shia ruler, Bashar al-Assad, ruthlessly slaughters his majority Sunni population all with the connivance of Iran. In Yemen, Shia Houthi rebels have almost taken over the country, once again with the support of Iran.
In Lebanon, Iran buoys the Shia militia group Hezbollah that has taken on Israel and even checkmated it once, in 2006. Palestine is an interesting exception. There Iran props up the Sunni Hamas that fights the Israelis. No Sunni country buttresses the Sunni Hamas as much as Shia Iran does. In Bahrain, which is a Shiamajority country, the Sunni king teeters on the edge because of Iran. Saudi Shias make up between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. They are persecuted by the dominant Sunnis and look to Iran for succor.
The Shia crescent extends to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as well. It’s almost beyond imagination how a country, Iran, of just over 80 million people is able to stump a worldwide Sunni population of about 1.6 billion. The Iranians are a very ingenious people. Before they converted to Islam, they were Zoroastrians, who in India are known as Parsis. We in India well know what Parsis are capable of achieving.
Iran supported India’s case on Kashmir in 1994. Now Ayatollah Khamenei is bashing India on Kashmir. Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabian support for Pakistan’s case on Kashmir seems to have dried up. That is because during the Trump years, India blindly followed the American line on Iran and romanced Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – all Sunni-led states – conferred their highest accolades on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India remained fast friends with Israel, a staunch Iran-baiter.
In December 2020, Indian army chief, M M Naravane, visited Saudi Arabia to enhance defence cooperation between the two countries. But what kind of defence cooperation? Sitting in Riyadh is the former Pakistani army chief, Raheel Sharif, who heads Saudi Arabia’s fruitless war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Will India now send troops to Saudi Arabia to be under Sharif ’s command?
India has gone all-in with the Israeli-Sunni alliance just as Trump had done. Now Biden is miffing the Israelis and the Sunni Arabs by seeming to restore relations with Iran. If a new Iran deal goes through, as well it might, then the current-crippling sanctions on Iran will be lifted. India will once again be able to buy Iranian oil and gas and think about installing the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. That won’t make the Saudis and the Emiratis a wee bit happy because they have already promised tens of billions of investment in India’s energy infrastructure.
India has been sailing in two boats – the Shia and the Sunni – for a long time. But now it seems to have put all its eggs in the Sunni basket. The US is powerful enough to sign a deal with Iran while still being able to irritate the Israelis and the Sunnis and get away with it. India isn’t that powerful. Once Iran emerges from isolation, India would like to deal with it as before. But it has gone so far in with the Sunni-Israeli coalition, will it be able to backtrack now? Even Mr. Modi’s hugplomacy may not be able to solve this conundrum.
The writer is an expert on energy and contributes regularly to publications in India and overseas.