India's course correction on Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar
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
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
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.