The Iran Deal: The View From Asia
Washington’s long-awaited nuclear deal with Iran prompted relief in Tehran over an end to international isolation, anxiety among Middle Eastern allies over the United States’ “Persian pivot,” and skepticism in the U.S. Congress, given Iran’s long-standing sponsorship of terrorism. The framework agreement will also have wider repercussions — for Asia. If the United States is ...
Washington’s long-awaited nuclear deal with Iran prompted relief in Tehran over an end to international isolation, anxiety among Middle Eastern allies over the United States’ “Persian pivot,” and skepticism in the U.S. Congress, given Iran’s long-standing sponsorship of terrorism. The framework agreement will also have wider repercussions — for Asia.
If the United States is seen to be pivoting away from its friends and towards its competitors, the U.S. alliance system in East Asia will come under pressure. Whether China views the deal as an indicator of American power or weakness will affect its ambitions to become Asia’s predominant power. Whether North Korea is emboldened to demand similar terms from the United States will affect the future of the Korean peninsula and its status as a cockpit of great-power conflict. India may benefit from a U.S.-Iran détente, as it has been uncomfortably pulled between the two nations, but it also stands to lose from a nuclear cascade in its western neighborhood. Pakistan could be subject to external destabilization by the effects of a Saudi nuclear breakout in which Islamabad is complicit, and to internal destabilization by stepped-up Iranian support for Shia extremism across the region.
First: in the deal between Washington and Tehran, will Japanese and South Korean officials see shades of previous bilateral agreements that were struck by the United States with China and North Korea behind the backs of its regional allies? There is an oscillating tendency in American foreign policy between isolating regional competitors and making privileged deals with them. This “G-2” dynamic is not new — we saw it in President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 and in President Barack Obama’s flirtation with a U.S.-Chinese superpower condominium in 2009. In Lausanne, U.S. officials made a deal with Iran that core U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia oppose.
In Asia, will the United States stick with its friends to forge a balancing coalition to manage China’s rise and contain the North Korean threat? Or will it strike a privileged deal with Beijing that cuts them out?
Second is the question of whether China’s leadership will view the U.S.-Iran deal as a reflection of American fortitude or American decline. On the one hand, only the United States possesses the convening power and legitimacy necessary to have delivered this historic agreement while also securing multilateral backing for it. China could not replicate this feat, demonstrating how genuine global leadership is a function of both hard and soft power. On the other hand, some Chinese strategists see the deal as further proof of Washington’s retreat from the Middle East — and its commitments to its allies there — by accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even while Iran-backed militants across the region are on the offensive against American interests and allies.
If China believes that placing pressure on our friends in Asia will lead to an American climb-down, as with Iran, we should expect an emboldened Beijing to continue its campaign to edge U.S. forces out of East Asia.
Third, if Iran can secure international recognition of its nuclear program thanks to the world’s reigning superpower, why can’t North Korea do the same? Pyongyang’s regime poses a genuine military threat to South Korea and Japan, and to U.S. forces stationed there. But North Korea is not sponsoring proxy wars in five neighboring countries, as Iran has done in recent years in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel. North Korea’s allies did not recently kill hundreds of American soldiers, as Iranian assets did in Iraq in the last decade. The Iranian deal should be judged on its merits; it may well offer more hope of constraining Iran’s nuclear breakout than any other option short of war.
But the shadow of Pyongyang’s broken promises on nuclear inspections and disarmament, dating to 1994, does not bode well for the compliance of an Iranian regime that wields far more leverage on account of its growing influence across its region.
Fourth, if the Lausanne agreement holds, an Iran brought in from the cold could have significant positive benefits for India’s economic trajectory — and, by extension, for the hopes of the United States and other countries that India will rapidly grow into a strategic leader in Asia. Iran and India have ancient civilizational ties; their geographic proximity and cultural connections make India a natural destination for Iranian oil and gas exports. Secure Iranian supplies could help moderate India’s energy bottlenecks, which otherwise could constrain its economic modernization. However, India has been clear that it does not want to see the emergence of another nuclear power in the wider Middle East. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal poses enough problems.
And fifth: the Iran agreement could have dangerously destabilizing consequences for Pakistan. Should recognition of Iran’s nuclear program produce a proliferation cascade that sees Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey acquire nuclear weapons, the greater Middle East will be highly insecure. Unlike during the Cold War, when U.S.-Soviet nuclear bipolarity was manageable, nuclear multipolarity in a region brimming with violent extremism and nationalistic strongmen is a recipe for conflict. As former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz asked in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: how will nuclear deterrence operate in “a region where sponsorship of non-state proxies is common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?”
Expect Pakistan to face pressure to provide nuclear weapons to its Saudi Arabian ally, further making Islamabad a party to the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran; it is already supporting Riyadh’s fight against Iran-backed militants in Yemen. Moreover, its internal cleavages mean Pakistan will only suffer by spiking Sunni-Shia rivalry. As a lawmaker from Baluchistan told the Financial Times, “I can see the coming turmoil with bloodshed, as we take sides in this new war between the Shia and the Sunnis in the Middle East. The bloodbath will play itself out in my very own city, my neighborhood.”
The U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement will have lasting implications for the future of international security. For all the controversy it engendered, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was authorized by a bipartisan super-majority of 77 U.S. senators. By contrast, Obama refuses to submit his Iran deal to congress, where a potential blocking majority of senators is coalescing. American allies and adversaries may say that this makes the president look weak rather than strong. Obama is taking a high-stakes gamble on the accord with Tehran that could define history’s judgment of his leadership – and not just in the Middle East.
A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.