The Iran question

This past week, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Kashmir a “nation”, the Muslim people of which were locked in a “struggle” against oppressors. He put Kashmir in the same category as Afghanistan and Iraq, which he said were suffering due to American occupation. India reacted by protesting to the Iranian mission in New Delhi and also abstaining from the vote on a Canadian resolution in the United Nations that criticised Iran for its human rights record.

The UN human rights resolution against Iran is a regular feature. In the past it has been sponsored by countries of the European Union and India has consistently voted against it (and in favour of Iran). This year too it was expected to vote against the resolution. At the proverbial last minute, just as Khamenei’s diatribe sunk in, officials at the ministry of external affairs (MEA) were told to not stand by Tehran this time.
Khamenei’s attack on India and bringing up of Kashmir came soon after US President Barack Obama visited New Delhi and, while addressing Parliament, urged his hosts to help the international system in checking Iranian nuclear proliferation. While it may be easy to see Khamenei’s remarks as a response to Mr Obama’s speech, the issue is more complicated.
For one, this is only the latest in a series of comments about India and Kashmir that have emerged from the Khamenei camp in recent months. Caught in a domestic battle with fellow clerics, Khamenei has been playing the pan-Islamist card and has made anti-Americanism and the advocacy of Muslim causes — from Palestine to Kashmir — his weapon of choice. The Iranian foreign ministry isn’t too happy with this and would prefer a more nuanced formulation, but counts for little within the power system.
For India, the Iran question is only going to intensify in the coming months. In January 2011, India begins a two-year term in the UN Security Council. Iran is currently engaged in talks with the “P5 +1” — the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany — on the future of its nuclear weapons programme. If these talks lead nowhere — and officials in the MEA seem convinced they will fail — the issue will go right back to the full Security Council. At this stage, the UN’s most powerful body will probably need to use strong language against Iran and authorise some sort of punitive action. India will find it difficult to duck the issue or use the soft option of abstention.
Iran has been emerging as the perennial pinprick in the India-US equation. There are three reasons for this. First, New Delhi and Washington, D.C., perceive Iranian society as well as the regime in Tehran in their own ways. Second, the two have different threat perceptions vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear programme. Third, in Afghanistan, Iran is a past and potential ally for India, but not quite for the US.
For American foreign policy practitioners, Iran has been an ogre ever since the Khomeini revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah. In one dramatic move, the US’ closest ally in West Asia became an arch-foe. Since then, Iran has been an irreconcilably antagonistic entity for the Americans (and vice versa); it is a theocracy beyond redemption. For India, Iran is a moderate Islamic society, governed by extremists no doubt but with elements in the establishment who are rational and prone to reason. It wants to engage Tehran to strengthen its friends there.
In a sense, this is the mirror image of how India and the US have historically looked at Pakistan. For India, Pakistan has long been an irreconcilably antagonistic entity, its military-mullah complex considered beyond redemption. For the US, Pakistan is a broadly moderate Islamic society, with growing extremist influence in its establishment but with elements in the government/military who are rational and prone to reason. It wants to engage Islamabad to strengthen its friends there.
On the prospect of an Iranian bomb, the India-US variation is tactical rather than strategic. India does not want another nuclear power in its near neighbourhood, certainly not one equipped with technology sourced from Pakistani proliferation merchants. This would introduce many imponderables into India’s security environment. For one, it could encourage Saudi Arabia — the Sunni Arab state that is Shia Iran’s rival — to bolster the Pakistani nuclear programme as a lever against Iran. It could also lead to preemptive strikes by Israel and push a series of other Arab powers such as Egypt to rethink their nuclear doctrines. If nothing else, it could drive up oil prices incalculably.
For the US, an Iranian bomb would indicate the collapse of the non-proliferation system it has fathered over the past 40 years. Further, it would have to hold back Israel and Saudi Arabia from extreme action. Perhaps it would need to stretch itself — at a time when ambitious overseas interventions are not popular with voters at home — and provide a nuclear shield to the Arab states.
Overall, India can live with the Iranian bomb (though it would much rather not). America’s commitments in West Asia don’t allow it that luxury. Perforce it has to play a zero sum game.
In Afghanistan, India is supportive of the American presence. Even so Mr Obama’s worrying time-table and announcement this week that the US would cease playing a combat role in Afghanistan in 2014 — a pledge his country is unlikely to be in a position to honour — makes it impossible for India to sideline the Iranians. Whether it is in terms of providing road access to western Afghanistan — crucial, since the Pakistanis have denied Indian cargo a land route to southern Afghanistan — or in some day jointly supporting an anti-Taliban militia, New Delhi needs Tehran.
However, there is a problem. Iranian foreign policy is increasingly short-sighted and governed by ayatollahs who believe they are rewriting the destiny of the world. In western Afghanistan (around Herat), they are arming sections of the Taliban not out of any broader congruence but only to hurt American troops. As for India, it is a possible friend (or at least non-foe) in the Security Council and can help Iran — but not if Iran is not willing to help itself.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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