The Third Nuclear Horn: Pakistan (Daniel 8:8)

After Iran Nuclear Deal, Will Global Attention Turn To Pakistan? — Analysis

April 23, 2015

By Monish Gulati

There have been some concerns regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme arrived at in Lausanne between the P5 plus1 and Iran. A significant part of these concerns have been on issues which are “non-nuclear” in nature. A part of these concerns, such as the manner in which the economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted, relate to the implementation of the deal itself, while some of the non-nuclear concerns relate to impact of the deal after it has been operationalised. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, saw one such concern originating not from the JCPOA but from “everything else about Iran’s foreign and defence policies”. He felt that the agreement says nothing about Iran’s missile programme, support for terrorists and proxies, or Syria or Iraq or Yemen.

That is correct to an extent but then the deal is also silent on Iran’s security concerns; valid or otherwise. The JCPOA looks at Iran’s nuclear programme without relating it to the security environment prevailing in the Middle East and seems to accept a narrative that assumes Iran to be the perpetrator and never the victim; not only during the negotiation phase but also in the future. The P5 plus1 appear to offer no security guarantees to Iran from a possible nuclear threat. The deal goes to the extent of separating out its major driver, the lifting of the economic sanctions, into those that are related to Iran’s nuclear programme and those relating to human rights and support for terrorism. This article examines some of the aspects of the Iran nuclear deal from a security perspective.

The Middle East

According to Volker Perthes, CEO of the German think tank SWF, the current megatrend in the Middle East seems to be the dissolution of a regional order. International actors while defending their vital interests in the region are looking to contain risks and threats within the region itself while enabling local partners to tackle these challenges. Saudi Arabia and Iran have emerged as the main regional antagonists, as the US steps back to a security strategy that minimises its direct involvement. A grave common threat, such as the Islamic State (IS), has only served to deepen traditional rivalries rather than unifying legitimate governments in response. Civil wars are no longer contained but are proliferating across borders and making international boundaries irrelevant, particularly between Iraq and Syria and Syria and Lebanon. Lastly, the majority of the regional states in confronting challenges such as the IS or the Assad regime in Syria have cobbled together brittle coalitions of inconvenience, rather than alliances. Every aspect of security seems to drive and define different area of cooperation for a different set of actors. For instance Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two nations with a long history of rivalry, are in high-level talks with the goal of forming a military alliance to oust the Assad regime in Syria.


While the Saudi intervention in Yemen and the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal seem to be unrelated events, they appear to influence each other. Iran has gained strategic space, even dominance, in its western periphery, consequent to the US intervention in Iraq. Post the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions, Iran’s economy will be unfettered and its potential unlocked, making it potentially more assertive in defence of its national interests and that of its proxies. Saudi intervention in Yemen could have been timed to counter such an outcome in some measure.

If the Saudis had not been taken on board by the US with regards to the construct of the nuclear deal being negotiated by P5 plus 1 with Iran then, one, the Saudi-backed intervention in Yemen is possibly aimed to make the US’ job to conclude the final deal much harder; Two, to put to test Iran’s resolve and commitment to the nuclear deal. Lastly, proclaim Saudi Arabia’s readiness for a proxy power struggle, and to defend its redefined national interests aggressively in accordance with a new strategic security doctrine.

On the other hand, if the US had the Saudis onboard, then, one, the US is allowing the Saudis to clear their back yard of Iranian influence; two, in the process, Saudi Arabia gets to battle test its leadership of the recently reoriented regional alliance (GCC), its military component and other extra-regional allies. Pakistan’s reluctance to participate in Yemen would have provided the Saudis such a reality check.

Islamic State

The rise of the IS, it’s hard-line ideology and a policy to target all religious groups including Sunnis that do not support it, has further impacted the existing Shia-Sunni estrangement in the Middle East. The conflict zones in the region are a strange amalgamation of multiple transnational non-state terror groups. The failure of two states, of Syria and Iraq, has led to the emergence, in ungoverned spaces, of new territorially based quasi-sovereign entities.

A nation’s response to these threats by interventions outside its international boundary has become a norm. In this environment, what if Iran begins an air campaign in Yemen to secure the interests of its proxies but couches it as support for Yemeni Shias against ISIS/Al Qaeda; its own version of GWOT (Global war on terrorism). The IS threat also seems to drive a counter-dynamic. The need to contain the IS threat (which the Arab states have failed to curb individually or collectively) is causing the US and other Western powers to collaborate and support Iran and its proxies.

Security Guarantees

Some analysts feel that the nuclear deal provides an inherent guarantee of security. As long as Iran adheres to the provisions of the deal it is shielded from a nuclear threat despite the Israeli or the Saudi “third party” nuclear capabilities. The deal is based on Iran’s commitment to abjure nuclear weapons (yet recognising its right to nuclear power and research) within the existing security environment. There is no explicit (South Korea-type) security guarantee from the P5 plus1 even for the first 10 years when the major part of the deal is expected to be in force.

Another aspect of this narrative is that Iranian foreign policy has been adequately successful and effective without a nuclear bomb; hence lifting of the economic sanctions should be compelling enough to make the nuclear deal acceptable to Tehran. It is a tenuous supposition of the likely Arab or Israeli reaction to a possible aggressive Iranian power projection. It is probably why the P5 plus1 rescinded their initial demand for destruction/dismantling of Iranian nuclear infrastructure to one of disablement with a “breakout” period.


A positive spinoff from India’s point of view could be the focus on Pakistan and its nuclear capability. Recently the New York Times recommended that attention be turned to constraining Pakistan’s nuclear and strategic capabilities. The narrative coming out of Pakistan in response has been that with Iran neutralised, Pakistan remains the only nuclear-capable Islamic nation and it is US’ aim to de-nuclearise all Islamic countries. The second part of the narrative calls for the world to be made to understand why Pakistan remains “obsessed” with India and its need to possess a credible nuclear deterrent.

This Pakistani discomfort with the focus on its nukes could have contributed to its dithering over the support to Saudi Arabia in its intervention in Yemen. Pakistan’s affirmation of its faith in the UN Security Council and the desire to remain “neutral” could be more to project itself as a responsible nuclear state and to strengthen its case for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in case India is offered one.

But more worrisome for India would be the Pakistani tendency to play its toxic and deceitful brand of politics which was on display in the last few years on Afghanistan. It is quite a possibility that it would play on Iranian insecurities and offer it the same assurances on a nuclear deterrent that it is suspected to have offered Saudi Arabia. This would come more at Israel’s cost than Saudi Arabia and win Pakistan the Iranian cooperation and support in its neighbourhood, particularly in Afghanistan. Pakistan would be the “keeper of the twin betrothed nukes.”

*Monish Gulati is Associate Director (Strategic Affairs) with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at

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