Iran: A Narrow Window of Opportunity for India
A much publicized visit by President Ahmedinijad of Iran to a nuclear facility and the announcement that Iran was proposing to unveil a new variety of centrifuge, which is capable of enriching uranium four times faster, created war hysteria even though there was nothing new in the Iranian position. Iran stopped short of giving any evidence of weaponisation and offered to continue talks. A team of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had just completed a visit to Iran. But pressure mounted on India from the US as well as the strategic thinkers at home that India should intervene to defuse the crisis. Several US Congressmen have begun a campaign in the US against Indian policy towards Iran. The bombing of an Israeli car in New Delhi has added momentum to the demand for action by India.
The United States has been making two contradictory demands on India with regard to Iran ever since reports of the Iranian nuclear adventure surfaced suddenly in Vienna in 2002. First, India was asked to join in the effort to condemn Iran and to threaten action through the procedures of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran was clearly guilty of having concealed for twenty years its efforts to develop enrichment technology. The development of such technology was not against the letter and spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it was incumbent upon the signatories to report such activities to the IAEA and seek safeguards inspection.
The second demand, which has been growing over the years, is that India should use its “tremendous influence” over Iran to dissuade the latter to give up its pursuit of nuclear technology. The theory that India has great influence over the Islamic Republic of Iran itself is exaggerated, given the nature of the regime and India’s own dissatisfaction over the role of Iran in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) on Kashmir. Moreover, if India were to join the western countries in moving the IAEA mechanism to punish Iran, it would lose whatever leverage it had as a traditional and civilizational friend of Iran.
Even with this apparent contradiction in the expectation of the US of India’s role, India has been pursuing both possibilities. In Vienna, we made a significant shift in our traditional policy with regard to issues relating to the implementation of the NPT. We had abstained on such issues, notably in the case of allegations against North Korea’s violations of the NPT. Our explanation was that since we were not signatories to the NPT, we would not be party to any judgment on the acts of omission or commission of the signatories. The US had suspected that we would do the same with the Iranian file and escape any responsibility to censure Iran for its misdemeanors. It, therefore, came as an infinite relief to the US and the western powers that we did not hesitate to state that NPT signatories should abide by their solemn commitment to the treaty that they had voluntarily signed. The message went out loud and clear that India did not want another nuclear weapon state in its neighbourhood.
Consistent with the new and forthright position on NPT, India did not join the nonaligned bandwagon, created by Malaysia and driven by the more radical supporters of Iran, which tried to counter western propaganda against Iran. We participated in the nonaligned discussions on possible Iranian amendments to western draft resolutions, but did not subscribe to any amendment on the plea that we had not joined the consensus on any of the pronouncements of the nonaligned on the NPT. On one or two occasions, Iran complained to their lobbies in India that the Indian position in Vienna was not helpful.
It was against this background that the US increased the pressure on India to vote openly against Iran in the IAEA after the advent of the nuclear deal. Iran became the fulcrum of the negotiations on the nuclear deal as the US Congress insisted on India’s policy on Iran being consistent with US policy as a quid pro quo for the nuclear deal. The Hyde Act was explicit on this issue and India acquiesced in it when India voted to take the Iranian violation of the NPT to the Security Council. Together with the American demand for India to abandon the proposed pipeline from Iran, the US pressed India to move to the flanks of the anti-Iran front. The US did not seem to mind killing the potential golden goose, an India with good relations with both Iran and the US.
India, however, wriggled out of the US grip soon enough for reasons of its own larger strategic, economic and political interests in Iran and applied some correctives and moved some distance away from its antagonistic position towards Iran. Given the complexities that had crept in the position of the US itself on the Afghanistan imbroglio and President Barack Obama’s cautious approach to the war option, the US found the Indian moves more of an opportunity than a challenge. US diplomacy with India on Iran became subtler. The US began to believe that India’s friendly attitude towards Iran could be beneficial in its new strategy of measured sanctions rather than threat of war against Iran. The sanctions, we were told recently by the White House Press Secretary, were being implemented "in a way that had the desired effect just to pressure and isolate Iran further, and did not have unintended consequences for any of its allies."
India has never defied UN mandatory sanctions against any country, but not without pointing out that the suffering imposed on the people would be far in excess of the political benefits derived from the targeted regimes. For that very reason, India does not join any voluntary sanctions regime. In the case of Iran, India has no option, except to continue to buy Iranian oil, despite the political pressure from the US and the European Union. Buying Iranian oil, which amounts to twelve percent of its total imports, is vital for India to fuel its sagging economy. The US itself should understand that India may be able to work with Iran to provide stability in Afghanistan and its neigbourhood after the withdrawal of the American forces. India has worked around the banking restrictions as a matter of necessity by making payments to Iran through Turkey. A barter arrangement is also being contemplated to meet contingencies.
Iranian threats to disrupt shipping in the Gulf in retaliation to European sanctions have sent shivers down the spine of the Indian leaders because of the massive presence of Indians and Indian investments in the Gulf. Indian investors are awaiting some relaxation in the US-Iran standoff to expand their activities.
The liability issue in the case of nuclear supplies, charges of trade protectionism and the Indian decision not to buy American fighter aircraft have slowed down India-US relations and both the countries are looking for avenues to find a new area for cooperation.
The best that India can do to boost its ties with the United States is to prove helpful in reducing tensions between the US and Iran. With shared concerns and hopes about Iran, India, more than others like Russia or China, is in a position to be an honest broker to reduce the gap between the US and Iran and to remove the threat of war. India’s warmth towards Israel is also an asset for India. “Based on its relatively good relationships with both countries, India could attempt to broker a deal, which will, in effect, bring Iran out of its isolation - partly self imposed and partly forced by the US because of Israeli paranoia – that it has faced for many years”, says Rajeev Srinivasan, in a passionately argued case for Indian intervention.
While the benefits of such a proactive role by India, in both strategic and tactical terms, are beyond question, much depends on how willing the United States will be to see India in a mediatory role. The bitter experience of Turkey and Brazil, which tried to resolve the issue of Iranian uranium cannot be forgotten. Both the countries claimed that they were authorized to negotiate a settlement, but the US rejected the outcome outright, forcing those countries to abandon the results of their labour. The United States may welcome efforts by others to bring Iran in line, but it is not likely to trust any other country with making any compromise on its behalf.
The assurances given by Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai in Washington recently and the Indian vote on Syria in the Security Council may have enhanced the level of confidence the US has in India, but India will have to await the right moment to work with the United States and Iran to achieve the twin objectives of averting war and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To encourage India to use a narrow window of opportunity it has in this regard, the US should refrain from demonizing Indian policy towards its Iran.