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Strangling relations

Let the Persian gulf widen

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India-Israel-Iran relations were thrust into the limelight when an Israeli embassy vehicle exploded in the capital earlier this week. Indian intelligence agencies should have anticipated this as Iran-Israel relations, teetering since the clandestine Iranian nuclear programme was uncovered in 2002-3, have been confrontational since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) submitted its November, 2011 report revealing work on nuclear weaponisation.

US President Barack Obama on Dec 31, 2011 approved stricter sanctions, further endorsed by European minsters on January 23. Iran was already seething over the killing in January of another Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran by a magnetic explosive device. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) launched naval exercises in the Hormuz Strait, through which transit 17 million barrels of oil a day, warned the US navy not to re-enter the Gulf and cautioned OPEC members to not offset diminished Iranian exports. India rejected unilateral sanctions pleading that Iranian oil was critical for its energy security.

The stated rationale for India-Iran relations has been the Indian need for fossil fuels, Iran providing access to Afghanistan and Central Asia (otherwise denied by Pakistan ), and, finally, the likely convergence of their interests post US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Civilisational links and the role of the Shia community in Indian electoral politics are additional factors. These are two decade-old formulations, untested against contemporary realities.

The closest convergence of India-Iran interests was in 1996-2003, due to the Taliban's rise, the need to support the non-Pushtun Northern Alliance and contain the spread of drugs and radical Islam. Even then, in 1998 when the Taliban captured Mazar-e-Sharif and Shias were massacred, while Iran threatened war against the Taliban, India did not offer open support. Likewise, when the IA flight was hijacked in December 2001 and held at Kandahar, there is no evidence of Iranian willingness to let India conduct operations through its territory. Unknown to India, Iran had a clandestine nuclear programme underway, sponsored by the A Q Khan network, possibly with the knowledge of the Pakistani military. Thus, even at the point of closest sharing of strategic concerns both countries were only partially aligned.

Today, the divergences are wider. Despite the New Delhi Declaration of 2003, mandating annual exchange of Heads of State/Government level visits, the only visit has been a 2008 transit halt by President Ahmadinejad in Delhi. Iran appears to have a modus vivendi with the Taliban, the US being for both a common foe. In a post-2014 Afghanistan, Iran and the Taliban may coexist, with Iran providing them alternative access to the Gulf and the Taliban abjuring its anti-Shia crusade.

The oil argument is equally fallacious, as in the global market supply and demand will get matched. Iran exports about 2. 1 million barrels of oil per day. India buys about 17 per cent of this and has opportunistically increased it, perhaps due to price discounting. China, despite greater bilateral trade, has begun diversifying its supplies and diminishing its exposure to Iranian oil. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to increase their production to cushion the shortfall in any case.

It is over the nuclear issue that Iran-India relations have been tested. The Indian vote against Iran at the IAEA in 2005 rankled as Indian actions appeared to help get the India-US civil nuclear deal through the US Congress. That cleavage still persists, much as South Block may ignore it. India's stated policy is that it supports Iranian access to civil nuclear technology, subject to Iran abiding by its commitments. India, however, opposes nuclear weaponisation. That is like the Roman Catholic Church and birth control, ignoring reality to hide behind principle. Pakistan, abetted by China and tolerated by US, is on an accelerated plutonium/weapon-producing spree, stymieing the finalisation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty at Geneva. How does a Shia bomb add to Indian existential concerns? The truth is that in 2005, by allowing the US to bully it into voting against Iran, India dealt itself out of the diplomatic game.

Iran has coped with its strategic dilemmas since 2003 with Persian deftness. In 2003, with the US entrenched to its east and west, having dislodged the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, Iran suspended uranium enrichment, offered co-operation and subscribed to the IAEA's Additional Protocol. It waited till 2005, talking, dissimulating and rejecting solutions. When the US was enmeshed in Iraqi insurgency and the Taliban had resurfaced in Afghanistan, it broke IAEA seals and restarted its programme, later diversifying and accelerating it. This week it displayed indigenous fuel rods and fourth generation centrifuges.

However, 2005 also saw the rise of a non-clerical radical leadership, messianic and moulded by the Iran-Iraq war. Like President Ahmadinejad, they are followers of Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, anti-Semitic, liberal hating and intolerant to the point of espousing violence. Israel itself is led by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose vision of Islam may be a mirror image of that of Ahmadinejad and his companions. The Iranian nuclear programme feeds into Iranian nationalism where meet all strands of opinion, young and old, liberal and radical.

Iranian abetment of terror goes back to 1992-6, when there were attacks on Jewish Centres, opposition activists abroad and finally the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed US soldiers. It happened after the US lodged itself in the Gulf following the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait. Iranian paranoia then stemmed from a threat to the regime. Now, the concern is wider and rests on three factors : domestic order and regime security;the nuclear programme;the survival of its Shia allies and affiliates in an arc running through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The West wants to undermine the first, stop the second and degrade the third, beginning with Syria. Terror may be Iran's last resort tactic.

The battle has arrived in India. In the process, Iran may have played into the hands of its antagonists if the terror trail from Bangkok is traced to its door-step. Then the US may finally extract from the UN Security Council comprehensive sanctions that even China and Russia may find difficult to veto. What India began in Vienna in 2005, it will have to finesse in New York, not by fencesitting but through imaginative diplomacy and cold pragmatism. Meanwhile it must declare that those who conduct terror reprisals here are no friends of India.

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