An intersection with Iran

India has held fast, saying big-ticket visits must come with big-ticket dividends, such as Pakistan turning off the terror tap

Trust the United States to try and put a spoke in India’s carefully calibrated response to the challenges posed by two conflicting alliances that are tearing apart West Asia.

New Delhi’s track record of voting on UN resolutions — on the imposition of sanctions, pushing for regime change in Libya, Syria and Iran — makes a case for a quiet and newfound pragmatism that puts Indian interests first, while, at the same time, demonstrating an unwillingness to back the questionable lynch mobs that laid waste to post-Gaddafi Libya and are likely to effect a similar bloodbath in Syria. Much like the aborted Tehran Spring that tested Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s mullahcracy and reduced a once thriving Iraq, US bulwark against Iran-led Shia revanchism, to rubble in the ill-conceived Gulf War. All, in the hunt for a mythical WMD programme that Saddam Hussain, evil as he was and whose cardinal mistake was to adopt the Palestinian cause, did not possess.
India has held firm, despite concerted efforts by the US and the UK and other powers — barring Russia and China — to drive home the pitfalls of retaining ties with Iran.
The nonalignment that infuriated the West through an earlier multipolar era had seen India making pragmatic alliances with Soviet Russia in the face of the US’ blatant arming of Pakistan as it went nuclear. That may not be completely dead as a foreign policy tool on Raisina Hill. In this newly unipolar world, it just has a new name — strategic autonomy, which is nothing more than putting India’s interests first, refusing to play the role that the US would like to assign New Delhi, as its B-Team in the Gulf and as Washington’s cat’s paw in Asia.
Not surprisingly, India’s external affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s first call, within hours of arriving in Tehran, was on Ali Akbar Salehi, his Iranian counterpart. The unspoken reassurance is that India will not rock the Iranian boat.
Indeed, Mr Salehi kicked off the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit on Sunday — being attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — with a defiant call for a show of solidarity against Western sanctions to punish Iran for its nuclear activities. Whether India decides to back such a provocative
final resolution will
test the mettle of Indian diplomacy.
One US envoy after another has tried to convey to New Delhi that the last thing it wants is for a defiant Tehran to use the 16th NAM Summit to gather support for its emergence as a nuclear-armed state. It’s not an ideal situation for India, which has repeatedly emphasised that it does not want another nuclearised nation in its backyard when it already has to deal with the consequences of having a nuclear neighbour, Pakistan, and the fear of its nukes falling into unauthorised hands — the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s own jihadi proxies as illustrated by the recent attack on Pakistan’s Kamra defence facility and the dangers thereof. The blowback into India and Afghanistan would be nothing less than catastrophic.
India, with strong linkages to both the Sunni and Shia leadership, cannot afford to get caught in the crossfire as the new “Great Game” heats up. And, it cannot risk alienating either. Not the Saudi Arabia-led Gulf states, alongside Turkey and Israel, readying for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even though the Saudis did not lift a finger at the recently concluded meet of the Organisation of Islamic Conference to stop an anti-Indian resolution on Kashmir being passed at the behest of Pakistan, they are being looked at as an alternative energy lifeline. This is in the event that there is a disruption of supplies from Iran, achieved through India’s circumvention of paying for oil through an age-old barter system over cash, which attracts sanctions.
New Delhi, therefore, cannot rile Iran. Apart from being a long-standing supplier of energy, its civilisational linkages and common Shia heritage has held fast in the face of Wahhabi sponsored and funded terror from non-state players in Saudi Arabia that has radicalised hitherto peaceful Muslim communities in Kerala and Uttar Pradesh.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, India is not ready to back the US-Israeli-Gulf Cooperation Council stand on Iran. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who arrived in Tehran on Tuesday, becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Iran in 10 years, has asked for a meeting with Iran’s gravely ill spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. No small gesture, as it signals to the world that India does not want a regime change in the holy city of Qom, and that the Supreme Leader, whose word is law in Iran, is seen in India as someone with whom bridges must be built.
Navigating the shallows in the treacherous Gulf requires every ounce of skill — the Indian rope trick rather than the sledgehammer tactics that Israel would like Washington to employ — to end what the US and Israel see as Iranian leadership’s support for terror. Israel’s equally “rogue”-like characteristics and behaviour, however, barely get a mention.
Dr Singh’s other pull-aside will be a meeting with beleagured Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who would like the Prime Minister to visit Pakistan this November, on the occasion of Guru Nanak’s birthday celebrations, to shore up his credentials. Pressure from the pro-US lobby or no, India has held fast, saying big-ticket visits must come with big-ticket dividends, such as Pakistan turning off the terror tap.
On Thursday, when summitry starts in earnest, Dr Singh will be further tested as the Egyptian President becomes one of the few heads of states to visit Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israeli and US intelligence reports indicate that in the last four months alone Iran, with 11,000 active centrifuges producing 170 kgs of uranium, has made significant headway in the uranium-enrichment process even as talks have dragged on.
While Dr Singh will not be traipsing through Natanz anytime soon, for the US to ask its “allies” to raise issues during any “intersection with Iran” is inopportune. India must not be forced to choose sides or be seen to be building bridges on behalf of the US and the West. More so in light of the blatant
attempt to arm-twist India, to say “with friends like these....”

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