Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: Cooperation Expands Between Iran and Asian Powers as Nuclear Talks Continue
Iran and the P5 + 1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are currently engaging in historic negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The Joint Plan of Action (JPA), signed in November 2013 and entered into force in January 2014, gives the parties six months to solve the international dispute with a final deal. This fragile détente followed the election of Hassan Rouhani – considered by some to be a voice for moderation in Iran – as president last June. These developments triggered enthusiastic reactions within Asian powers soon after the interim agreement was signed. Several countries in the region have vested interests in Iranian oil for their energy needs as well as important concerns regarding nuclear nonproliferation and regional security issues.
On June 9-10, U.S. officials held bilateral meetings with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva on the status of Iran’s nuclear program. Analysts have predicted the talks will be extended an additional six months to resolve outstanding issues, but the JPA formally expires a year after it entered into force. As the July 20, 2014 extension deadline approaches, this Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest highlights the evolution of diplomatic relations over the past months between Iran and countries in the Nuclear Debates in Asia project.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson remarked last month that the negotiations have moved into the “deep-water zone.” During Rouhani’s first state visit to China in May 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping hoped world powers will reach an agreement with Iran, and he supported Iran’s right to enrichment for peaceful purposes. The Foreign Affairs Ministry noted “China is willing to continue the strengthening of communication and coordination with Iran and its constructive role in promoting the negotiation process.”
Xi also insisted on the benefits of greater economic cooperation between the two countries with Iran’s participation in the construction of the Silk Road economic belt, as well as the necessity of expanded security cooperation to fight terrorism, drug trade, and transnational crime. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed these exchanges and praised China’s role in the on-going nuclear talks.
During a bilateral meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New Delhi in March 2014, then Indian Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid said India would continue to support the interim nuclear deal and praised Iran as an influential country with potential to foster peace and stability in its region. The recent election of Narendra Modi as Indian Prime Minister and his appointment of Sushma Swaraj as the new Minister of External Affairs raises several question on the future of India-Iran relations. Rouhani congratulated Modi on his election, declaring that the vote “indicates the full confidence of the Indian nation in your developmental and prudent policies.”
While Modi comes in to office with a reputation for focusing on economic policy, his critics have accused him of hostility toward Muslims due to his management of violent riots in Gujarat during his term as its Chief Minister. In that leadership position, he maintained close economic ties with Israel, which firmly opposes negotiations with Iran.
As the negotiation deadline nears, the United States has pressured India to bring its imports of Iranian oil down from the early-2014 buying spree. However, since India depends heavily on oil imports from Iran and Saudi Arabia, it has always sought to strike a balance regarding its foreign policy in the Middle East. Some analysts contend, therefore, that Modi’s foreign policy agenda may emphasize continuity rather than change. For example, M.R. Raghu, senior vice president for research at the Kuwait Financial Centre, predicted that while Modi’s “closeness to Israel as an important investment partner in Gujarat may make [Gulf Cooperation Council nations] very cautious to deal with him to start with,” countries in the region “may eventually warm up to India’s burgeoning opportunities. Saudi Arabia may emerge as a key partner to Modi as well as Iran.”
Other commentators held a less optimistic view of the on-going nuclear talks. While the JPA delayed progress in Iranian nuclear program, Dr. Arun Vishwanathan, assistant professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, argued “one of the most important facts that much of the critique of the agreement reached at Geneva seems to overlook is its interim nature.” He concluded “with or without this agreement, there is nothing that the international community can do to prevent Iran (if it makes a political determination) from developing a break-out capability and go nuclear.”
Meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif in Tokyo in March, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that “Japan welcomes the steady implementation of the Joint Plan of Action.” He “believe[d] that there is a huge potential in bilateral relations” should a final agreement be reached.
According to Nobumasa Akiyama, professor at Hitotsubashi University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Japan has a great interest in a final agreement between Iran and world powers. As the country relies heavily on the Middle East for its oil and gas imports, regional stability would help the island nation to diversify its energy supply.
Akiyama also contended the Iran-P5 + 1 talks could set an example for a potential settlement with North Korea as well as encourage further South Korean nuclear fuel cycle development. Therefore, he advised Japan to play a more active role in the Middle East: “There is no free lunch. For engaging Iran, Japan would be required to make a greater commitment to coping with potential geo-political challenges in addition to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif met with President Rouhani during a state visit to Tehran in May 2014 and declared he was there “to open a new chapter in the Pakistan-Iran relationship.” Both leaders agreed to continue the gas pipeline project, a topic of contention between the two countries as Pakistan has not yet build the pipeline. They also committed to increase bilateral trade to $5 billion and boost cooperation on regional security and border issues.
This visit followed the seventh round of the annual bilateral political consultations between Iran and Pakistan in April 2014. According to a press release from the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “both sides agreed to focus on enhancing bilateral economic cooperation for the common good of both nations.”
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia and Pacific Affairs Ibrahim Rahimpour met with South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Lee Kyung-soo in Seoul in May 2013 to discuss cooperation on political, cultural, and economic issues. These talks followed earlier South Korean expressions of expanded trade with Iran.
Rahimpour also met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, who declared: “South Korean companies are pursuing the developments [regarding the international negotiations] and are willing to boost cooperation with Iran on economy and trade.” Yun also expressed optimism regarding the talks over Iran’s nuclear program: “Although there are some disputes on the nuclear case, but the process is positive altogether and we hope that a final agreement between Iran and P5+1 will be signed as soon as possible. The turning point of the talks is that the Western side recognized Iran`s enrichment right.”
Ambassador Nguyen Trung Thank, head of the Vietnamese Delegation to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, expressed hope that the nuclear negotiations lead to expanded cooperation between Iran and the international community. Speaking at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in March, he emphasized the benefits that this cooperation would bring for security and human rights issues in the region.
During a conference held in Hanoi on June 6, Vietnamese and Iranian officials called for increased bilateral economic cooperation in the future. Le Thai Hoa — Vietnam’s deputy head of Africa, West Asia, and South Asia Market Department under the Ministry of Industry and Trade — pushed further direct trade and investments between the two countries. The Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) plans to send a delegation of Vietnamese companies to Tehran to discuss business opportunities later this year.
Since the interim agreement was signed in November, diplomatic relations between Iran and Asia have expanded and some governments have shown an interest in improving ties with Tehran. However, the stability of these recent developments depends on the outcome of the current nuclear negotiations. As the negotiation deadline approaches, the Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project will continue to study these developments. Follow the project on Twitter at @Westmyer or visit the project website at http://www.risingpowersinitiative.org/projects/nuclear-debates/.
By Samia Basille, Research Intern at the Rising Powers Initiative
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