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Iran has more important things to do than attack Israel: Shashi Tharoor

Devika Bakshi | Updated on: 16 July 2015, 13:25 IST

The deal

  • Iran and six world powers have arrived at a nuclear deal that would contain the former\'s nuclear programme
  • In return US, EU and UN will lift the sanctions against Iran
  • Former UN Under Secretary-General and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor gives his take

The take

  • The deal enables US and Iran to reset their relationship and do business with each other
  • It will become easier for countries like India to trade with Iran
  • Israel is being unnecessarily paranoid by calling the deal a historic mistake
  • Iran is unlikely to pose a threat to Israel\'s security

More in the story

  • Specific ways India stands to benefit
  • How it may now be possible for America and Iran to collaborate on global politics

Shashi Tharoor had a three decade-long career as a UN diplomat and rose to become Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information in 2001. In 2009, he quit his UN career to join politics in India and became a Minister of State for External Affairs.

In a conversation with Devika Bakshi, he gives his take on Iran's nuclear deal with six countries, including the US, and what it means for the world and for India.

What is the importance of this deal, if you could spell it out for a layperson. Why is this deal so significant?

Well it's significant because, first of all, it makes it extremely unlikely that, as some people had feared and as Israel had alleged, Iran would develop a nuclear weapon.

The purpose of this agreement is to ensure that Iran could not do so, and that even if it clandestinely attempted to do so, it would take at least a year for it to acquire enough capacity to make a bomb.

That year would be enough time for the rest of the world to gear up and take actions or sanctions against Iran.

So that's the first significant achievement of the exercise.

The second is that Iran would then get sanctions relief. For the longest time, severe sanctions have made things very difficult not only for Iran, but also for countries who are traditional trading partners for Iran.

If you were unable to trade in goods with Iran and unable to do financial transactions in an internationally recognised currency like the dollar, things can get very rough.

If sanctions are lifted, once the deal is operational, Iran will once again become a member of the international community; Iranian oil, for instance, will come back onto the market without any restrictions.

In the past, neighbouring nations like India had to cut back on the quantity of our Iranian oil purchases, and on the amount of trade we could do, because we could only pay for Iranian goods in rupees.

In turn, the Iranians had built up quite a stockpile of rupees in India, which they didn't know what to do with, so they were quite reluctant to get into more deals with us on those terms.

Now, once Iran gets back into the normal international trading regimen, it'll be entirely possible to have normal commercial relationships with it.

After this deal, it'll be much easier for India to have normal commercial relationships with Iran

The third impact of the deal is, of course, for the resetting of the Iranian-US relationship, which has been a largely negative one since the Shah was deposed and the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power way back in 1979.

It's fair to say, I think, that relations between the countries have been pretty bad for the last 36 years, and the US has positioned itself as a strategic adversary of Iran.

Now, for the first time, it looks like America and Iran have found in each other partners to talk to and do business with. That could have a significant impact on the way in which Iran plays a role in the region and beyond.

For example, on some issues, Iran is seen as hostile to American and Western interests, particularly in its hostility to Israel, and in its support for certain Shi'ia groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and kindred groups in the Shi'ia-Sunni divide.

On the other hand, Iran has been implacably opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the US and the western countries have not been able to work with Iran on this issue, because of their own hostility to Iran.

The deal will definitely lead to some changes in global geopolitics, once Iran and the US in particular, and the West in general, are able to deal with each other, without any of the burden of ostracism and sanctions.

So those would be the three major developments from this deal.

And the deal itself will see, of course, Iran reducing dramatically the number of centrifuges it has, and will also see a dramatic 98% reduction in the amount of enriched uranium it has, so Iran would no longer be close to making a bomb.

US and Israel's anxieties about Iran having nuclear weapons are widely known. Why should India be concerned?

India's general policy has been fewer nuclear powers because of the inherent risk of instability and possible conflict, and there being more of so-called 'loose nukes' that non-state actors could get hold of.

The more countries have nuclear capacities, the more nuclear capacity is stored here and there, the greater the danger that some of it might fall into the wrong hands.

So, though we've never supported the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, seeing it as a sort of act of apartheid in international law - because it gives some countries privileges that others don't have -nonetheless we have never been particularly enamoured with the idea of multiple countries possessing nuclear weapons.

But, more practically, the objection that India has always articulated is that, unlike India, Iran did sign the NPT. Therefore, for it not to uphold its own obligations, or to cheat on its obligations to the international community was a betrayal of its own solemn word under international law.

Is there an element of hypocrisy in choosing to develop nuclear weapons and not supporting others' decisions to do so?

There are double standards involved, in the sense that the very fact that nuclear technology, instead of being placed under international supervision, has been used by individual countries to develop nuclear weapons, is a fundamental problem.

India has been committed to the principle of nuclear disarmament for all nations, without exception.

Our problem is that, because of the unwillingness of certain big powers to disarm, it was no longer possible for the rest of the world to unilaterally disarm.

But, as long as some have weapons, we felt that we could not protect our own people from the potential dangers posed by other nuclear powers, particularly China and Pakistan, without demonstrating that we have a nuclear capacity ourselves.

That was our logic. It's very much an Indian logic, if you like.

Iran, as I said, has not followed the same logic, and signed the NPT, so that's why the standards are a bit different.

How do you feel about the US and European powers, and China and Russia, adjudicating who is allowed to develop nuclear weapons and who is not?

Well, they are the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.

The five permanent members of the Security Council do have an obligation under international law for the maintenance of international peace and security. And one other power which has had major economic dealings with Iran, and considerable weight and influence.

So it became, therefore, a collective enterprise.

Some of us might say, Why couldn't India have been part of that negotiation? No one asked us. But we certainly didn't take any initiative either; we left it to those who have taken this task upon themselves to fulfill it.

But, as UN members, we had to adopt the sanctions the UN Security Council mandated. We have respected international law at some cost to our own bilateral trade with Iran.

There is a provision in the bill that allows the US to reimpose sanctions at any time. Does that effectively make the US the primary auditor of Iran's nuclear program?

Not exactly. The UN Security Council will receive the report on this deal.

If the UNSC accepts the deal and lifts the UN sanctions, then those countries following UN sanctions will be free to conduct themselves accordingly. The US and the European countries are free to impose their own national sanctions themselves.

The US actually still has a political ratification process to be gone through. The US Senate has to approve the deal. And there is some political opposition from members of the Republican Party.

We're not out of the woods. Theoretically, there are Iranian hard-liners also who could reject the deal. So the next three months are crucial.

There is a maximum of 84-90 days to dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's, and then have an operationalised deal.

Theoretically, this could still go wrong. But, as of now, we have an agreement on the table that will be conveyed to the Security Council, and to the ratifying bodies of both Iran and the US.

So the deal is not technically operational until ratified by both countries?

Well, no; one peculiarity of the deal, as I read it, is that Iran has to start dismantling its capacities immediately.

The progress it makes on dismantling will be seen as part of the good faith that the Security Council would want to see demonstrated.

If Iran does nothing and just waits for the Americans to ratify it, they're not going to. So they will have to start reducing their centrifuges, start shipping off some of their uranium to Russia and so on.

But the US still doesn't have approval from its Congress to hold up their end of the deal. Is that correct?

Yes; in the American system, the president does have the right to negotiate a deal or treaty, but the Senate has the right to ratify or not ratify it. However, the president can veto a bill that refuses to ratify it.

So once that happens, the Congress will need a two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto, and it's unlikely at this point that as many as two-thirds of American [representatives] will vote against an agreement that is being widely hailed as accomplishing everything that the critics of Iran wanted to be accomplished through this deal.

I'm fairly optimistic that ratification will follow, both in the UN Security Council, and in the US Congress.

What will the impact of the deal on India, in terms of diplomacy, trade and security?

I think we missed an opportunity during Iran's period of orstracisation to make ourselves more indispensable to Iran, and to develop ore programmes and partnerships with them. This would have included, for example, better deals on Iranian gas, which, frankly, we need and which we have lost.

Now that Iran is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and is free to trade with anybody in the world, they will no longer feel any compunction or any pressure to conclude a deal just with India, or to conclude a special deal with India that gives us better terms that we might otherwise have had.

So to some degree there is a missed opportunity here.

But, on the other hand, we can now openly conduct economic trade and other investment relations with Iran. This is good because, Iran being a close neighbour, there's a lot we can do together.

Oil and gas is only one end of it. There are other investment opportunities for Indian companies in Iran and vice versa.

And then, of course, there is the Chabahar port, which we had begun to develop. It's going rather slowly, but we can give it more relevance without any of the different strings that sanctions were imposing.

What about security in the region?

Iran has always had a very sympathetic view to India's security interests, particularly when it comes to Afghanistan. So I don't think that would change. Iran may become freer to work with the international community on issues like Afghanistan. Iran and India making common cause with some of the Western countries on a Taliban-free Afghanistan is one possible development.

In terms of the larger sectarian conflict playing out against the Middle East, what role do you think a strengthened Iran, with an improved relationship with the US, will have?

Arab countries have always looked at Iran with a great deal of suspicion and even hostility. And there has been more and more division of opinion between Shia and Sunni in the Arab world in recent years. Of late there has also been a tendency of some Arab governments to be critical of the US as having withdrawn from developments in the Arab world, and not having engaged sufficiently.

So certainly the Arab countries are going to be looking at the deal and its aftermath with a great deal of concern and even suspicion. It's still too early to say how that will play itself out, because there have been times in recent history when the US got along very well with the Shah of Iran and the leaders of the Arab world at the same time, so it's not impossible. But right now, once should anticipate a certain amount of tension between some of the Arab countries and the West, particularly following this deal.

Does this strengthen the Shia side of the Shia-Sunni conflict?

Well, not directly. The US is not going to weigh in on the Shia side or anything like that. In fact, most foreign countries are conscious that a majority of the Islamic world is Sunni, and far more governments are Sunni-led and Sunni-dominated than Shia-led. The Shia have always had a bit of a disadvantage in that regard, in that most of the Islamic countries in the world are Sunni countries and are being seen sympathetically by the US and western countries.

How do you think the deal will go down with Israel?

Israel has already responded negatively. Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a historic mistake. And Israel will definitely lobby in Washington, DC against the ratification of the deal. They will argue that it actually allows Iran to be free of sanctions and be free to develop a nuclear capacity. But it's difficult for objective-minded observers to see anything in the agreement that allows Iran to do that. And technical experts have explained in some detail why it's very very difficult for Iran to have a clandestine program.

Israel will find it difficult selling this deal as a betrayal. The West will hail this as a positive development

It's not just the fact they're being monitored by the IEA, but the level of intrusive monitoring that is foreseen in the agreement will make it impossible for Iran to build up the capacity to make a bomb on the sly. So I think Israel will have a difficult job in selling this agreement as a betrayal or as a dangerous agreement in any way, and I'm reasonably confident that the Americans and the rest of the West will hail this as a positive development.

Israel is already a nuclear power; no one doubts that even though it's not officially declared. And Israel is perfectly capable, if it really felt threatened by a nuclear Iran or a nuclear anybody else, of taking preemptive action. Israel has shown that capacity in the past. So I wouldn't worry too much about Israel's security at this point.

How justified do you think Israel is in feeling threatened by Iran now?

I genuinely think the current Iranian regime is not going to waste five minutes of its time in formulating plans to attack Israel. They've got more important things to attend to. And there was always a feeling that the rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, which is what the Israelis would cite as evidence of a threat to them, was always probably more rhetorical than real. But assuming that we should take the president of a country at face value, he is no longer president, and the regime of Hassan Rouhani is widely considered much more moderate and much more reasonable to deal with.

Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, who at one point I considered a friend at the United Nations, is an extremely suave and accomplished and cosmopolitan diplomat, who represents Iran very effectively to the outside world. I don't really think there will be very much traction around the world for the idea that this is some sort of mad-dog regime that's going to attack Israel.

So is Israel now losing the PR war against Iran?

The bigger issue Israelis have is in their own backyard. The settlement issue, the Palestinian problem, the complete failure to move any way toward a settlement, fundamental - almost existential - questions, about whether Israel is de facto going to become a bi-national state or refuse to relinquish the occupied territories and not allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state. All of these are the more fundamental questions that threaten the future of Israel as a democracy.

What do you say to their argument that Iran is actively supporting the Palestinian cause?

Iran has been a source of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, there's no doubt about that. But to suggest that Iran is somehow the principle villain - I think there's room for healthy scepticism and debate about that.

Iran will continue to give moral, and perhaps, financial and other types of support to the Palestinian cause, but the fundamental problems relating to the Palestinian cause have much less to do with Iranian-backed violence and insurgency, and much more to do with fundamental issues of policy, demography and territory. And those have to be addressed by Israel.

I honestly don't think that right now, an Iranian threat is going to be single-most determining influence in working out Israel's security priorities.

First published: 16 July 2015, 8:45 IST
Devika Bakshi @devikabakshi

Senior correspondent at Catch, Devika specialises in furnishing the office with quality coffee. Previously: staff writer at Open magazine, waitress and student of Comparative Literature. Generally preoccupied with climate change, usually reassured by mid-20th century American music. Loves podcasts and tomatoes. Moonlights as a student of Spanish and is frequently mistaken for an owl.