India Needs Course Correction on Iran

The agreement between Iran, Turkey and Brazil for a swap deal on the stockpile of Tehran’s nuclear fuel sets the stage for a diplomatic pirouette of high significance for regional security.  The paradigm shift affects Indian interests.

The Barack Obama administration has hastily debunked the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal, which was announced in Tehran on Monday, and announced its intention to press ahead with a United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution, claiming that a “strong draft” has been reached by the so-called “Iran Six” (the five permanent council members plus Germany).  The grandstanding highlights that Washington’s policy is at a crossroads as the cohesiveness of the “Iran Six” comes under renewed stress.

The statements and innuendos — and, more importantly, the unspoken words — from Moscow and Beijing suggest the two capitals are quietly chuckling with pleasure over America’s discomfort over Iran outsmarting the Obama administration’s own best instrument of diplomacy in present-day world politics — “smart power”.

Russian commentators even portray that Moscow had a hand in bringing Iran, Turkey and Brazil together in an act of strategic defiance to the United States — which is a considerable exaggeration of the emerging templates of the Iran nuclear issue.  China, on the other hand, has coyly welcomed the announcement in Tehran without rubbing salt into America’s injured pride.

Evidently Russia and China, both members of the “Iran Six”, have left the door ajar for much horse-trading with the Obama administration that is sure to follow in the coming weeks.

For India all this becomes a morality play of big-power politics.  And it offers salutary lessons as to where things went horribly wrong in India’s Iran policy in the past three to four years and how the recent course corrections now need to go further.

Plainly put, the “Iran Six” is preaching from the high table and arrogating the business of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Yet, Russia and China claim they are votaries of a democratic world order that respects international law and the equality of all states, big and small.

The Realpolitik for Indian Interests

Clearly, relations with the US are of the highest priority for India, as they are for Russia or China.  But the similarity ends there.  For the foreseeable future, despite the heart-warming prognosis by the world community hailing India as a potentially emerging global player, the hard reality is that such a prospect remains distant in the scheme of things.  When it comes to issues such as the situation around Iran, India lacks the wherewithal of Russia or China.

While Russia and China give lip-service to their shared interests with developing countries and they profess ardor for a polycentric world order, ultimately they remain self-centered, comfortable in the knowledge of their assured veto power in the UN and their sequestered place within the discriminatory nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.  Unsurprisingly, they are paramountly focused on perpetuating their privileged position as arbiters of regional problems.

Russia and China are crafting an opportunistic tradeoff in the subsoil of their relationship with the US — but without forgoing the luscious Persian fruit either.  They keep the reserve option to laterally get into the matrix of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey swap deal if it gains traction by virtue of their key role within the “Iran Six”, while at the same time they are constantly factoring in a probable US-Iran rapprochement.

On the other hand, India is almost similarly placed vis-a-vis the US as Brazil or Turkey are.  The fact that these two countries, which are close partners of the US, have not drawn Washington’s ire shouldn’t go unnoticed.  New Delhi’s apprehensions that any independent line on the Iran nuclear issue might upset the rhythm of US-India relations seems, in introspect, to have been entirely unwarranted.  Countries that have taken an independent line on the Iran nuclear issue during crucial IAEA votes — Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Egypt — have not exactly come to grief.  On the contrary, India’s traditional ties with Iran grievously suffered when it began blindly toeing the American line.

Worse still, Tehran harbors a suspicion that New Delhi might have used its ”Iran card” to ingratiate itself with the George W Bush administration.  The signs are that Tehran has made a cool analysis about damage control and has decided to more or less relegate its ties with New Delhi to a place on the backburner, even while going through the occasional motions of friendship and exchange of views that the two neighbors cannot do without.

New Delhi needs to take stock that Obama is an extraordinarily gifted politician endowed with intellectuality and it is conceivable he may come up with new thinking and a new approach to the problem.  Monday’s swap deal underscored indisputably that US policy on Iran is in a cul-de-sac.  A reversal becomes inevitable.  To be sure, Obama has taken note that Turkey and Brazil highlighted the existence of a whole world beyond the secretive, cloistered framework of the “Iran Six”.

New Delhi has of late been attempting to follow in the footsteps of Russian and Chinese policies.  Here too, a rethink is in order.  India needs to factor in gains accruing to Russia and China from a continuing US-Iran standoff.  The Western embargo against Tehran is keeping Iranian energy exports out of the European energy market that might otherwise have competed with Russian supplies.  Energy exports constitute the single-biggest trump card of Russian foreign policy to modulate Western policies toward Moscow.

As for China, it is indeed having quite a field day as an exporter of goods and services to Iran as well as for advancing plans to evacuate Iranian gas and oil through pipelines across Central Asia that are nearing completion.  In sum, Beijing has done splendidly well.

Russia and China, therefore, have complementary interests in shepherding Iranian energy exports to the Asian market.  How is India placed in the energy equations?  On balance, India in no way benefits out of the US-Iran standoff and, in fact, has a great deal to lose as regional tensions prevail in a region which forms its extended neighborhood.  The Iran nuclear issue potentially can complicate the US-India strategic partnership as New Delhi will be firmly opposed to any use of force in the resolution of the problem.

Equally, the bottom line is that Iran is a major source of energy supplies for the expanding Indian economy.  In geopolitical terms, a leap of faith uncluttered by the debris in the India-Pakistan relationship will dictate that the Iran gas pipeline project offers a rare opportunity for New Delhi to make its western neighbor a stakeholder in regional cooperation.  Even at the height of the Cold War with nuclear armies preparing for Armageddon, pipelines criss-crossed the Iron Curtain.  Alas, the Indian strategic community has a closed mind, as things stand, when it comes to developing a matrix of regional cooperation that even remotely includes Pakistan.

India’s diplomatic ingenuity lies in working on the US thinking to persuade it to become a partner in the Iran pipeline project.  The prospect offers a “win-win” situation.  Iran doesn’t hide its panache for Big Oil.  The US has stakes in India-Pakistan normalization.  India and Pakistan’s energy markets offer massive business for American oil companies.  The US involvement acts as a guarantee for the pipeline.  Least of all, Washington too wishes to make Tehran a stakeholder in regional stability.

New Delhi should closely study Turkey’s motivations on the Iran nuclear issue.  Turkey has interests almost similar to India’s and its supple diplomacy enables it to astutely position itself for the day when the US-Iran standoff dissipates.  Turkey estimates that Iran is a neighbor (although they have had a troubled relationship) while the US is a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally and any midwifery in the inevitable US-Iran rapprochement becomes a strategic asset for Ankara’s growing stature as a regional power.

Indian diplomacy has lately made some interesting moves toward Iran, beginning with Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Tehran in February.  The desire to craft a fresh approach is also evident in External Affairs Minister S M Krishna’s consultations this week in Tehran.  The path is strewn with thorns, as the Iranians harbor a deep sense of hurt about India’s stance at the IAEA votes.  Therefore, as the US’s tug-of-war with Iran intensifies, New Delhi faces the challenge of not treading on Tehran’s sensitivities all over again.

On the whole, Indian policy is principled, especially its line that the IAEA ought to be in the driving seat rather than a cabal of states with dubious intentions.  But New Delhi is lurking in the shadows in a blissful state of masterly inactivity.

India should openly join hands with Turkey and Brazil in opposing the need for a continued push for UN sanctions against Iran.  No doubt, the diplomatic initiative by Turkey and Brazil creates an altogether new situation and Indian diplomacy should grasp its importance and seize its potentials.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.  His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and Turkey.  This article was first published in the 22 May 2010 issue of Asia Times; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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