Iran won’t forget

National Security adviser S.S. Menon was in Tehran on March 8, the eve of the Persian New Year. Attempted flattery went awry as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s office let Mr Menon’s view be known that the President’s predictions of global economic and political developments were prescient. A contestable statement, ignoring the blatant power grab by the Revolutionary Guards and the right-wing after the dubious 2009 election.

The Jasmine breeze, additionally, has unnerved the regime, making them abduct the principal Opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi while challenging similar actions by the Bahrain government against their Shia majority. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s sudden urge to engage Iran meaningfully needs scrutiny.
That Iran is a complex country is a given. From Nadir Shah’s sacking of the Mughal treasury and pillage and rape of Delhi on March 22, 1739, to the vacillating India-Iran relations post 1947, buffeted first by the Cold War orientation of Iran and then its Islamic Revolution, followed by the Iraq-Iran war, it has been a saga of missed chances and provocation.
Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government in 1991 reset Indian foreign policy, setting a “Look East” direction for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and a search in the West for partnership with the Islamic neighbourhood. The Babri Masjid demolition in 1993 complicated this quest, though it increased the significance of Iran, which was now approached through national imperatives, ignoring the past. As Pakistan-sponsored forces rose in Afghanistan and Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996, the bilateral relations warmed. Partnership became an alliance. Its high- noon was the 2001 visit of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Tehran and the 2003 return visit by President Mohammad Khatami, resulting in the Tehran and Delhi Declarations, laying down the roadmap of diversified cooperation. Justification for this was: Iranian reserves of oil and gas; a North-South trade/freight corridor through Iran, Caspian and Russia; access to Afghanistan and Central Asia; countering Taliban and forces of radical Islam; and Iran as a counter-weight to Pakistan. Ironically, both Mr Vajpayee and Mr Khatami, charismatic and politically savvy, bridged divides in their respective ruling coalitions. Their vision began fraying once Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme got exposed in 2003, rendering Mr Khatami lame-duck half-way into his second term, the initiative having passed to the hands of radicals. By 2004, even Mr Vajpayee had exited.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assumed office, India-Iran relations were caught in the complex maze of US non-proliferation concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme and a desire to open the doors to India’s rise as a possible counterweight to a rising China. To unshackle India, a civil nuclear deal was the sine qua non for unrestricted access to dual use technologies and clean energy. The nuclear issue was also the stick with which they wished to flog Iran, whose anxiety was heightened by the presence of US troops to their east in Afghanistan and after 2003 to their west in Iraq. The Indian vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, twice repeated, against Iran is thus unlikely to be easily forgotten, as Tehran felt betrayed.
The national security adviser’s Tehran sojourn was perhaps based on the following assumptions: a convergence in concerns about post-US Afghanistan; Iranian worry over Gulf Cooperation Council-Saudi Arabia and the Iran stand-off over Bahrain’s street uprising by the majority Shia population; and the Indian United Nations Security Council membership till 2011-12. Such reasoning subsumed that Iranian national imperatives have remained static over the last decade. In fact, as Iran’s external environments evolved so did its polity and tactics. Mr Ahmadinejad, a hardliner, replaced the urbane Mr Khatami. The Vilayet-e-Faqih model created by Imam Khomeini was conditioned on the Supreme Leader balancing the interests of the clergy, the Revolutionary Guards and their off-spring, the Baseej and the Bazaar, or the business class. The 2009 election has upset this balance. China has replaced India and Japan as investor in oil and gas and technology sources. Iran has worked out a modus vivendi with the Taliban as the US is a common foe. The US is perceived as a retreating power, no longer a military threat. President Hosni Mubarak’s exit was followed by two Iranian naval vessels transiting the Suez Canal, a first in decades. Even the Taliban may want to reduce their dependence on Pakistan. Sa’di, the 13th century poetic voice of Shiraz, has this advice on revenge:
Wait rather till fortune blunts his claws
Then pluck out his brains amidst friends’ applause.

The Arab world is in turmoil, which can lead to a renaissance or chaos. India’s Gulf policy stands outsourced to sectional Malayali interests. Its West Asia policy is in induced sleep. Iran is leafing through its Sa’di poems. The Manmohan Singh government, with its mono-thematic focus on the India-US civil nuclear deal in UPA-I and Pakistan in UPA-II, needs new advisers and a wider spectrum foreign policy. The only Arabist secretary at headquarters in the ministry of external affairs deals with Europe. Otherwise its fate shall be of the partridge in the Persian poet Hafiz’s couplet:

O gracefully walking partridge whither goest thou? Stop Be not deceived because the ‘devious cat’ has said its prayers.

The author is a former secretary in the external
affairs ministry

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