Why ditching the Iran nuclear deal would be bad for China, India and the rest of Asia

Neil Bhatiya says US partners that made sacrifices to force Iran to negotiate before the 2015 deal are convinced the deal is working, and fear that the US breaking the pact would ruin prospects for negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear programme

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 2:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 2:44pm

Now that US President Donald Trump has declared that Iran is not in compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action depends on the US Congress’ reaction. How Congress and the administration handle the process of putting additional conditions on Iran could potentially anger many US allies and partners who value the deal and believe it, in its current form, is working.

There’s good reason for that anger. A process that could lead to the reimposition of US sanctions may constitute a breach, and probably lead to a collapse, of the nuclear deal. The Europeans have already spoken out publicly about their frustration and the damage Trump could cause to transatlantic relations by violating the deal. But Europeans aren’t the only ones who should see the new Iran policy as highly problematic. China, a party to the deal, and other Asian nations, have a lot to lose from a broken deal and an impaired security partnership with the United States.

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India and China, for instance, both see Middle East stability as important for their diplomatic and economic priorities. Iran is an important regional lynchpin, a fact which they have recognised in their interactions with Tehran before and after the 2015 nuclear deal. An unstable relationship between Iran and other global powers imperils that vision across a range of issues.

Or take cooperation on Afghanistan. The US has encouraged Asian countries to support the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan, principally through economic aid and investment, training (in the case of India) of Afghan security forces, and focusing international attention on regional counterterrorism priorities. Regional players recognise the importance of Iran’s participation in negotiations on the future of Afghanistan, like the Heart of Asia ministerial meetings. Support for a stable political order in Kabul will be difficult if the United States and Iran enter a crisis. For example, geography has limited India’s ability to direct resources to Afghanistan – hence, investments in the Iranian port of Chabahar to allow for the transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan, which would be undermined if the US tries to reassert crippling economic pressure on Iran.

A breakdown in Iran’s relationship with the international community also imperils India and China’s energy interests. While US energy exports to Asia provide valuable supply diversification to Asian buyers, many states want to engage with Middle Eastern suppliers, who are geographically closer, low-cost producers. Asian customers significantly reduced oil imports from Iran to comply with US sanctions under the Obama administration. They took part in a multilateral economic pressure campaign on Iran to help facilitate the diplomacy that produced the deal. The potential reimposition of sanctions would force these countries to weigh their economic needs against avoiding the anger, and sanctions penalties, of the US.

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Walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will erode the credibility and utility of the non-proliferation regime. China is a party to the deal because of its concern that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East be checked. China’s investments in Central and South Asia would be undermined by the addition of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. This would have potential spillover effects for the nuclear tensions between Pakistan and India. India has relied on the US acting as an honest broker in engagements in support of non-proliferation issues and stabilising tensions with its neighbour. India’s partial reintegration into the legal nuclear club was directly facilitated by the US, and the process was highly controversial. Without the plan of action, India will feel isolated by a US government that so directly bucked a powerful arms control agreement.

Killing the deal will dramatically undermine the prospects for nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Both South Korea and Japan have spoken about the eventual need for negotiations over the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons capability. That process, which appears remote amid current tensions, will be made even more distant if Washington ends the 2015 Iran deal. The US has a security role to play in East Asia and will lack credibility to reassure treaty allies and Pyongyang about Washington’s willingness to stick to an arms control agreement.

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Given the downsides of breaking the deal, it’s no surprise that, Japan, South Korea, India and China have offered clear public support for the deal. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinforced Japan’s support for the deal to Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. The September 2017 BRICS Summit joint statement included a specific endorsement of the agreement, calling on all parties to enforce the Iran nuclear deal. The recent EU-India summit in early October similarly endorsed the deal’s contributions to international peace and security.

US reimposition of sanctions, which could arise if Iran rejects the additional conditions imposed by Congress, would produce massive diplomatic fallout with Asian partners and damage their pursuit of regional and international interests. The US administration needs a plan to mitigate these effects, and must credibly address the region’s concerns about how to maintain a potential post-nuclear-deal balance of power in a strategic region.

Neil Bhatiya is the research associate for the energy, economics and security programme at the Centre for a New American Security