A diplomatic enclave

In continuing to defy the US, India has gained space to influence Iran. This defiance has to be subtly calibrated so as not to lose US’ confidence.

On February 21, seven months after US ambassador to India Timothy Roemer left, his successor Nancy J. Powell omitted India-Iran relations in her opening statement at her Senate confirmation hearing, but a barrage of questions still followed. Earlier, Nicholas Burns (US undersecretary of state, 2005-2008) lamented in the New York Times that India was “bitterly disappointing” its US friends in ignoring US calls to isolate Iran by reducing its oil purchases, or showing leadership to facilitate the smooth functioning of the international system.

Mr Burns characterised India as “largely passive”, despite considerable US concessions during President Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2010 — like support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council and membership of elite technology transfer groupings like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime etc. The chatter in the US was getting louder on India-Iran relations as the bombings in New Delhi and Bangkok added a new dimension to it.
The complexity of the issue is underscored by recent headlines: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors returned disappointed from Iran, barred from visiting a military facility; Two Iranian naval vessels, utilising the post-Mubarak freedom to navigate the Suez Canal, were at a Syrian port, in solidarity with the Assad regime; Thailand continued to actively pursue the bombing case, looking for a sixth suspect, while New Delhi maintained silence, deliberately or due to inconclusive investigations; Iran conducted new defensive military exercises, although away from the Strait of Hormuz, before parliamentary elections on March 2; The Bahraini security forces used water cannons to disperse yet another Shia demonstration; Indian defence minster A.K. Antony returned from a “successful” visit to Saudi Arabia; Indian commerce minister Anand Sharma’s Pakistan outing, which coincided with Pakistani Supreme Court’s indictment of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, belied the promise; The leaders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan gathered at Islamabad to discuss Afghanistan’s future, despite their disparate agendas; The US, having managed for three months without the supply corridor through Pakistan, now hurting Pakistan more than itself, was in talks with the Taliban in Qatar.
These contradictions highlight Indian policy challenges. The Indian strategic calculus vis-a-vis Iran is based on three concerns: energy, access to Afghanistan and Central Asia and the post-US withdrawal Afghanistan. Let’s consider oil first. If, indeed, India is increasing purchases from Iran, following preemptive Iranian ban on oil exports to the UK and France, paying through increased exports and gold, and when the Chinese have, in fact, reduced their imports despite their rhetoric, India is in dangerous territory. Wisdom lies in not being opportunistic, as economic necessity will be poor cover for strategic perfidy considering that Indian interests have incrementally been converging with those of the US and the West on a slew of issues since the end of Cold War in 1991. This has been particularly so since the nuclear tests of 1998 — Pokhran II — as indeed the US fight against terror since 2001. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, in his new book Strategic Vision, posits the question whether the US’ decline is imminent and if so what would be the consequences. Factors likely to precipitate the US eclipse could be: renewed financial crisis, particularly if it combines with another US war. In the Islamic world the three challenges, according to him, are: renewed Israel-Palestinian hostilities, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and radical Islam, and war with Iran. The issue arises as to what is Indian policy approach in ensuring that none of these bad things happen, because they would impact India equally badly.
The first thing is to insulate domestic Indian politics from real or imagined affect of India approaches in the Islamic world. The Indian Muslim can make the distinction between national interests and issues involving the ummah (community) at large. Do the politicians have the courage to explain in simple terms what those national interests are, instead of pandering to clerical leaders, who in case of every religion would be more regressive than the average adherent to the faith?
Next, India must operate from first principles that are common to Indian culture and contemporary liberal thought. Take, for instance, the Maldives where India should have insisted that an elected leader, whatever his governance flaws, must not be ejected by uniformed agents of the state. India first blessed the transition, then tried first-aid and finally veered to the need for an election to clear the air. Same applies to India-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations. Saudis, for instance, are keen to balance India’s tilt towards Iran, without compromising their unstated strategic alliance with Pakistan or curb their export of Wahabi Islam. They will use positive incentives in oil and gas and negative ones relating to Indian expatriates. India has to break out of this vicious dependence on GCC oil and the remittances, particularly vital to Kerala’s economy, from its six million expatriates in the GCC countries. The UAE is struggling to understand why their companies — Etisalat in the 2G scam and Emaar in the CWG imbroglio — have taken financial hits. Bahrain is continuing to suppress forcibly its Shia majority. Qatar is dabbling in a dangerous game of both funding Salafist forces, in Syria now and in Libya earlier, and yet itself espousing an authoritarian system.
Iran, the leader of a Shia crescent, challenging the US-created order in West Asia and the Gulf is a case apart. Its nuclear programme feeds into its deep-rooted nationalism and hegemonic vision across the Islamic ummah — Shia and Sunni. In continuing to defy the US, India has gained space to influence Iran, which it had lost in 2005 by its IAEA vote. This defiance has to be subtly calibrated so that India does not lose the confidence of the US. Even Brzezinski concedes, “In the long run, Iran has to be assimilated into a process of regional accommodation.” To really have the strategic weight to guide events in the Gulf away from the doomsday scenario, India must reduce its dependence on GCC and Iran for oil and remittances, ask the US to be frank about its endgame for the region and start articulating an Indian vision of moderation, democracy and goodwill. As regards access to Afghanistan, no one knows Iran’s future game in Afghanistan. Iran and the Taliban may decide to co-exist, reducing Pakistani role in Afghanistan; or India could use the same northern route that the US is now using. In other words, India needs fresh thinking, courage of convictions and clarity of speech.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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