Course correction

Irans troubles & Indias options

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 Obama administration hastily debunked the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal and announced its intention to press ahead with another UN Security Council sanctions resolution, claiming that a ‘strong draft’ has been reached by the ‘Iran six’ (the P-5 plus Germany). The grandstanding highlights that Washington’s policy is at a crossroads as the cohesiveness of the ‘Iran six’ comes under renewed stress.

For India this becomes a morality play of big-power politics. Plainly put, ‘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.
What is the realpolitik for Indian interests? Clearly, the relations with the US are of the highest priority for India as they are for Russia or China. But the similarity ends there. Russia and China give lip-service to their shared interests with developing countries and they profess ardour for a polycentric world order, but ultimately they remain self-centred, comfortable in the knowledge of their assured veto power in the UN and their sequestered place within the discriminatory NPT regime. Unsurprisingly, they are paramountly focused on perpetuating their privileged position as arbiters of regional problems.

India lacks the wherewithal of Russia or China. Ironically, the BRIC is breaking up. 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 ‘Iran six,’ while constantly factoring in a probable US-Iran rapprochement.

India is almost similarly placed vis-à-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. Two, Obama is an extraordinarily gifted politician endowed with intellectuality and it is conceivable he may come up with new thinking and approach to the problem. To be sure, Obama has taken note that Turkey and Brazil highlighted the existence of a whole world beyond the ‘Iran six’ framework.

Russia and China gain out of continuing US-Iran standoff. The western embargo against Tehran is keeping Iranian energy exports out of the European energy market that might compete with Russian supplies. China is having a field day as exporter of goods and services to Iran as well as for advancing plans to evacuate the Iranian gas and oil through pipelines across Central Asia that are nearing completion.

Complementary interests

Russia and China, therefore, have complementary interests in shepherding Iranian energy exports to the Asian market. How is India placed in the energy equations? India in no way benefits out of the US-Iran standoff. 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 show that the Iran gas pipeline project offers a rare opportunity for New Delhi to make its western neighbour a stakeholder in regional cooperation. Even at the height of the Cold War with nuclear armies preparing for the Armageddon, pipelines criss-crossed the ‘Iron Curtain.’

India’s diplomatic ingenuity lies in working on the US thinking to persuade it to become a partner in the Iran pipeline. Iran doesn’t hide its panache for Big Oil. The US has stakes in India-Pakistan normalisation. 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.

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 neighbour (although they have had a troubled relationship) while the US is a key NATO ally and any midwifery in the inevitable US-Iran rapprochement becomes strategic asset for Ankara’s growing stature as regional power.

The Indian diplomacy has lately made some interesting moves toward Iran starting from the visit by foreign secretary Nirupama Rao 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 harbour a deep sense of hurt. As the US’ tug of war with Iran intensifies, New Delhi faces the challenge of not treading on Tehran’s sensitivities.

The Indian policy is a principled one, especially its line that the IAEA ought to be in the driving seat rather than a cabal of states with dubious intentions. India should openly join hands with Turkey and Brazil in opposing the need of continued push for sanctions. No doubt, the diplomatic initiative by Turkey and Brazil creates an altogether new situation and Indian diplomacy should grasp its import and seize its potentials.
(The writer is a former diplomat)

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