Cutting the US-Iran Gordian knot at Munich

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar addressing the annual Munich Security Conference on ‘constructive vocal nationalism’, Munich, Germany, February 15, 2020

The External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar chose the annual Munich Security Conference (February 14-16) as the forum to espouse a world order characterised by nationalism that is legally legitimate, constructive and vocal. It was intended probably as an optimal diplomatic outreach to burnish the image of India’s Hindu nationalist government in the western opinion. Yet, the irony of choosing Munich as the venue for doing so could not have been lost on Jaishankar if he has a sense of history.

Be that as it may, the salience of the conference lies in its sidelines where useful consultations take place. The conference began on an upbeat note with the news breaking that the US and Taliban have reached a limited deal that is expected to bring down the level of violence in Afghanistan.

This year’s event in Munich has an engrossing rubric: ‘Westlessness’ — how the unraveling of the West may look like. 

A commentary by the Xinhua news agency listed four key themes at the Munich conference: Nord Stream 2, Iran-US confrontation, Libya and the ubiquitous coronavirus. Indeed, these are ‘burning issues’. 

The criticality about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is almost entirely to be attributed to the US threat of sanctions against European companies associated with the project. But in reality, the project has already entered the home stretch, and it is within Russian capability to complete it. Arguably, the US’ sanctions move is itself a half-hearted measure that principally aims at boosting its own gas exports to Europe. 

Libya is crucial for the European powers to finesse the migration / refugee crisis. Nothing brings this out more vividly than that Germany’s political centre is in a state of meltdown and the defining moment was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision not to shut the country’s borders to refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East.

Libya of course is also a hugely important oil producing country. The major European powers — France, Italy and Germany — are not on the same page over Libya. The US is watching from the sidelines and keeping its power dry until one side of the Libyan fratricidal strife — established government in Tripoli and the usurper from Benghazi Khalifa Haftar — gains ascendance. Suffice to say, the spectre of a protracted Syria-like geopolitical struggle is erupting over Libya. Germany, the host country of the Munich conference, would hope to knock heads together on Libya. 

Frankly, coronavirus isn’t a hot button issue for international security. The Chinese Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s focus at the Munich conference is expected to be on “the Chinese government and people’s concerted efforts and progress in fighting the epidemic and about advancing international cooperation against it.” 

However, the single most explosive issue for international security today is the situation around Iran. The presence of the foreign ministers of Iran, the US, E-3, Russia and China in Munich becomes a rare occasion. Of course, no one is talking here about US-Iran talks. But beneath that threshold, neither side is also risking an escalation leading to an uncontrollable conflict. There is a window of opportunity to rescue the JCPOA. 

This scenario draws attention to a piece penned by the Chairman and Director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Volker Perthes, who is also an influential think tanker and strategist in Berlin entitled Toward a New Iran Nuclear Deal. 

The operative part of Perthes’ thesis is that a “post-JCPOA arrangement needs to be considered”; simply put, discussions are needed for a long-term framework for Iran’s nuclear programme beyond the milestone 2015 deal. 

Perthes is cautiously optimistic that the regional dynamics in the Gulf is conducive for holding constructive talks — belated realisation by the UAE and Saudi Arabia that a military conflict in Iran will be apocalyptic in its scale of destruction as well as the incipient signs of rapprochement (between Saudi Arabia and Qatar; UAE and Iran; Saudi Arabia and the Houthis; even Saudi-Iranian back channels.) 

Importantly, Perthes is in the loop of western policymaking and he estimates that some form of diplomatic engagement is still conceivable between the US and Iran and European governments can be facilitators. 

He recalls that President Trump had once endorsed French President Macron’s initiative on a European credit line to help ease Iran’s economic distress (which hardliners in Washington and Tehran torpedoed.) 

Perthes writes that any “far-reaching talks could focus on timelines and provisions for future voluntary limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities once the JCPOA’s “sunset clauses” expire… This would require addressing major concerns of US legislators, such as the longevity of Iran’s commitments, which Iranian officials have indicated they are open to discussing if certain other conditions, notably an “economic ceasefire,” were met.”

Interestingly, Perthes suggests that in a regional context, other contentious matters can also be addressed, namely, “issues regarding sovereignty, security, and safety, such as the use and arming of militant proxies, missile proliferation, or the safety of waterways.”

He calls the parallel track a regional Conference on Confidence-Building, Security and Cooperation, which brings the idea breathtakingly close to the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal of last July “to establish an organisation for security and cooperation in the region basically from scratch, which would include the Gulf States and which could involve Russia, China, the US, the EU, India and other interested states as observers.” 

Of course, much happened on the negative side since last July, but the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has also turned out to be a moment of truth. Iran has demonstrated both its capacity to inflict colossal damage to US assets as well as its preference for strategic restraint, while the US stares at the prospect that its much-vaunted maximum pressure strategy has exhausted itself.  

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