Bridging the gulf on Iran - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 14 May 2012

Bridging the gulf on Iran

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th May 12

Barely masked by the warm sunshine here in Washington on Mothers’ Day is a stormy political mood over Iran’s defiant refusal to halt uranium enrichment despite the most far-reaching economic sanctions in recent times. That failure is being blamed partly on India, especially in the US media, for New Delhi’s refusal to terminate oil imports from Iran and, instead, to deepen trade ties with Teheran. “Delhi is turning out to be the mullahs' last best friend,” trumpeted The Wall Street Journal. With Team Obama’s political gaze focused on re-election in November, the White House fears that a pre-emptive military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities might transform the discourse of the election campaign.

That fear was fanned last Tuesday by the dramatic formation of a national unity government in Israel, when the leftist Kadima Party hopped over from the opposition to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud government. To American observers, the Israeli polity seems to be closing ranks for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel had formed a national unity government, in similar fashion, before launching the fateful Six Day War against an Arab coalition in 1967.

Washington has tried to restrain Israel by arguing that tightening sanctions would bring Iran around. But several countries, including India, make this a difficult argument to sell. India buys some 350,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil from Teheran everyday, since our energy requirements do not allow the tap to be turned off suddenly. Although Iran’s share of our oil imports is just 10.4% today, down from 16.5% in 2008, that translates into a billion dollars a month for Teheran.

India, everyone admits, is not alone in importing oil from Iran. Teheran obtains greater support from Beijing and Moscow, especially in the UN Security Council. But given the media perception that New Delhi must constantly repay the debt of the US-India nuclear agreement, India’s oil purchases are portrayed as the most unkindest cut of all.

Interestingly, the top leadership in Washington does not share this media and think tank obsession. Washington is displaying sensitivity to Iran’s role in the Indian strategic calculus: as an oil supplier; as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia; and as an emotional locus for Indian Shia Muslims. Washington knows that New Delhi does not want a nuclear Iran; India voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) twice, in 2005 and 2009. The US is also aware of Iran’s unrelenting assault over decades on crucial Indian interests, e.g. the Jammu & Kashmir issue, in bodies like the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

New Delhi has also pointed out that some 4 million Indians live and work in West Asia. A major regional conflict stemming from an attack on Iran could force India into a major evacuation, far larger than those that were necessary during the two US wars against Iraq (1990-91 and 2003) and during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (2006).

And so Washington, for now, is not reacting to the media drumbeat that an ungrateful New Delhi is siding against Washington on a crucial foreign policy issue, just as it had on Libya and Syria. This reflects intensified conversations between New Delhi and Washington, and a growing maturity in the relationship. New Delhi has been understanding of America’s engagement and even arms supplies to Pakistan --- surely a key Indian foreign policy concern --- and now the US is accommodating India’s compulsions on Iran. Their strategic objectives converge: neither likes the idea of Teheran brandishing nukes. The divergence is on how that is best achieved.

New Delhi, with its own experience in beating sanctions in the quest for nuclear weapons, believes that coercion alone would only deepen Iranian determination. Alongside the spectre of economic disruption and military force, Iran must be offered a face-saving withdrawal through cast-iron security guarantees. Given America’s physical presence on both its flanks, Israeli sabre-rattling and the contemporary lessons of Iraq, Libya and Syria (in contrast to nuclear North Korea and Pakistan), it would be surprising if Teheran were not to conclude that nuclear weapons are the only guarantee of regime survival.

India can offer more than advice, howsoever sage. Negotiations with Iran are going nowhere, although the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany) will meet Iranian negotiators later this month. The ongoing process is based on mutual deception. Teheran is fighting a rearguard action to gain space for its nuclear weapons programme; meanwhile the P5+I is arm-twisting Iran without addressing its core concerns. The technical issues of verification, inspection and relocation of nuclear fuel that are discussed up-front must be complemented with a back-channel process that addresses the key issue of Iranian insecurity. New Delhi, as the only agent that enjoys trust in all the key capitals --- Teheran, Washington, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Ankara and Moscow --- must offer itself as back-channel interlocutor. For years, New Delhi’s strategic policy of multi-alignment has built trust and equity in these countries. Stepping up to the plate would enhance Indian stature; cement relations with important regional and global powers; and defuse the threat of a confrontation that can only end in turmoil.


  1. Interesting read.

    First of, sounds like you are here. You should plan to spend some time with ur fans.

    Your article is very fascinating for two reasons.
    One, you admit "Iran’s unrelenting assault over decades on crucial Indian interests" and at the same time you also highlighted New Delhi, as the only agent that enjoys trust in all the key capitals --- Teheran ...Perhaps u could have said, "unidirectional trust". Teheran et al trusts nation of Sadhus will never harm others,despite profuse bleeding from injuries they caused. Clearly traces of disastrous, self-inflicting, Nehruvian diplomacy that can easily make concerned Indian a Trichotillomaniac.

    Second, if true, I like the fact that Team Obama is sincerely working towards deepening ties. Going by his statement on "K subject", (link below) even before officially taking an oath as president had the relationship started on the wrong note.

  2. as much as... daily destruction of The Republic of India... attacks by wahaibism... The Republic is facing... equal derstructive support from... persian communism... guised as... never these two facets... left of our nations boundary... stopped exploiting India... when will we learn... the eight centuries of... deceit...

  3. Well-argued, Col.
    I would just note that Delhi's attempt to curry favour with Riyadh, Teheran, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Washington and Ankara may leave them equally *distrusted* in all rather than viewed as an honest broker.

  4. I think you have a point, when you say that US appreciates\understands India's dependance\linkage with Iran. But as a country, India is far away from being attributed key negotiation roles on principal international concerns.

  5. They should not try to involve India in to any economical sanctions, rather they should immediately take direct actions against Iran if they want and if they can.

    Lengthening of this matter will raise unnecessary politics that may create effects counterproductive to the cause.

    If they are unable to do anything worthwhile then they should keep silent on this matter and allow Iran to develop the nukes.

  6. Actually, a nuclear iran might just work out in indias favour.

  7. Ajai: you said: "New Delhi has been understanding of America’s engagement and even arms supplies to Pakistan --- surely a key Indian foreign policy concern --- and now the US is accommodating India’s compulsions on Iran."

    This is a deeply flawed analogy. The analogy would be valid if India supplied arms to Iran and helped its Uranium enrichment program. And if Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism.

    The U.S supplies arms to Pakistan and looked the other way when China proliferated nukes to the Pakis and even tested a nuke for them at Lop Nur. And the U.S pressurized India to not act against Pakistan even after Mumbai attacks.

    So, please refrain from equating the two.

  8. Col. Shukla,

    Has the West given even a shred of credible evidence about Iran developing Nuclear Weapons? It is all insinuations and speculations in an election year. It seems more likely to be a classic case of historians like Bernard Lewis doing backseat driving to help State Dept. raise the bogey of an irresponsible and possibly rogue regime, as articulated by Ms. Clinton last week. It is probably just a classic case of how a deadly cocktail of historical baggage of US Embassy Hostage Crisis, a paranoid Israel thriving on a sense of victimhood even after almost seven decades of Holcaust and the prevelant Islamophobia, can be whipped up to generate a favourable public opinion. Of course, smart media mangament always helps.

  9. It is better for Iran to go nuclear , the Saudis already have a proxy in Pakistan . A nuclear nation to check mate both Pakistan and Saudis could work in India s favour

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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